Sonic Unleashed Preview

Sonic Unleashed is a return to concept for Sonic Team. The plan is to get the hedgehog back to his fast, level-based platforming roots. Less awkward adventure, more speedy action.

To that end, this is a Sonic-focused game. Other unspecified characters will be present, but you will only assume control of them for short periods of time.

Of course, after berating a Sega representative, it was revealed that there will still be a Sonic Adventure-esque town area. Players will be talking to other characters, and getting through some kind of story. Sega stressed repeatedly that this portion of the game will be entirely optional, with a portal transporting players to the stage sections.

There will also be nighttime levels, separate from the daytime excursions. These will be focused on combat over platforming, presumably where Sonic undergoes that werewolf transformation that Sega's hinted at. Like the town area, details on this portion of the game will be released later on.

And the rest? Imagine Sonic Adventure's action stages, but with a little more variety.

We first got a look at the bright beachy level from the trailer, which Sega noted was around 80% complete. Using the Hedgehog engine, which has been in development at Sega Japan since 2005, the game looks sharp running on Xbox 360, with some impressive motion blur effects. A few framerate problems popped up here and there, but considering the early state, it ran at a pretty good clip.

The engine was built to support fast switches between 2D and 3D, and these were employed generously during gameplay. Much of the racing takes place from the classic 2D view, with players jumping on springs, moving platforms, and other Sonic standards.

New to the series is a Ring Energy meter, which increases as Sonic picks up rings. The more rings within a shorter time span, the faster it grows, finally reaching the maximum. This triggers a Sonic Boost, which sees Sonic plowing through enemies at high velocity.

Most of the interesting mechanics came into play with the switch to the classic behind-the-hedgehog view, which is changed automatically depending on the section of the level. Players will be able to execute a Sonic Drift in this view, acting a bit like a Mario Kart slide for cornering. There is also a Quick Step move, which has Sonic juking to the left or right by way of the right or left bumper controls. Registered users can use the HD Stream.

Levels will have multiple points of diversion, the particular one we were being shown having around 15 separate branches. Racing along in the over-the-shoulder view, players will be met with a choice of several pathways. A meter will quickly tick down, with three available choices--corresponding to face buttons on the controller that you must press--winking out the longer you take to decide. In other situations, the game will simply allow you to run left or right.

We were then shown a European level, complete with a giant Big Ben-esque clock face that Sonic spun around. There will be seven or more of these environments, with multiple stages for each.

While I have fond memories of many games in the series, in truth, I've never been a huge fan of Sonic gameplay. I love the speed, but the faster you seem to travel, the less control you have. The developers have added the aforementioned drift and quick-step features in an effort to alleviate this issue. There are also a few more traditional platforming sections, with levitating platforms, wall-jump shafts, and other typical Sonic scenarios.

Still, there were more than enough sequences where Sonic seemed out of control, totally on rails as he spun in a loop-de-loop or zipped around corners. These were my least favorite moments of the Sonic Adventures, the points where I felt I was watching a Sonic cutscene rather than actually playing a game. There were also plenty of literal on-rail sections, Sonic gliding down long steel rails on his feet, which seemed dreadfully boring. And then I noticed a few "Quick Time Event"-like moments, where a fast press of a particular button was necessary to avoid failure.

However, even given these potentially troubling elements, Unleashed is clearly a step in the right direction for the series. Exactly how many steps, though, remains to be seen.

Sonic Unleashed is slated to release on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii later this year. Check back in around E3 time for more details.