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Game design failures - Sonic Unleashed

I don't pretend I'm a very good gamer. Well, I ain't bad either, but I'm not a hardcode gamer. Doing the review of a game on a gameplay point of view is probably risky, and there's people out there who probably know way better than me.

But sometime game design failures are so flagrant that even a newbie like me in game design can spot them and would probably not have committed these mistakes. Or at least, I hope I wouldn't have. One recent case to me is Prototype, a nice game which is still plagued with some horrible game design decisions, especially control-wise. Another recent game, and that's the one I'm going to talk about today, is Sonic Unleashed.

First of all, this is about the PS3 version of the game. I know the XBox360 and Wii versions are slightly different, but I didn't have a chance to test them out.

This game starts with an awful UI design problem: savegames. The game starts with a splash screen which says "Press Start". As a matter of fact, you have to press the X button, the start button won't do anything. Then, it asks you if you want to create a save. If you ever say no, it loops back to the main screen, and will ask you again kindly if you want to create a save. I mean, what's the point in ever asking ? This dialog doesn't serve any single purpose, at all. Why should I be asked if I want to create a save or not if I can't play the game without this save ? Allright, anyway, let's create this save. The game will then say that it autosaves stuff there, great. Later, I'm starting the game again, and since my little cousin wants to play the game from scratch, I want to create him a new save. But this time, the game asks me if I'm okay in loading the save, and doesn't let me create another save. So wait a minute: now this splash screen asks me if I want to load the save, and if I say no, it loops back to the splash screen and ask me again the same question. What the hell ? And then I can choose whatever save I want to load, using the PS3's XMB. But there's only one friggin' save to load, and it won't let me create any other one! What's the whole idea ?! Why even giving me the option to select the save I want to load, or to even ask me if I want to load a save, if the system has been designed to handle only one save at all ?! That's retarded.

After this screen, there's a menu that says "New Game, Continue, Options". I'm actually afraid of hitting the "New Game" button at all. Will that erase my current save ? What's going to do ?! One day I should attempt to backup the save on a memory stick and do New Game to see if all my progress would be lost. But given the way the game is designed, I'm afraid it would.

Now for game design issues. The game is full of them, so let me talk about the main problems.

Camera

The good old camera-on-a-rail... you're in a world where it seems you can move around freely, but in some certain spots, the camera will suddenly jump onto a rail, and the camera stick won't do anything anymore except rotating slightly the camera angle from its fixed position. This has a lot of horrible consequences:

  • If you're currently running in a certain direction, the sudden camera change caused by a rail-hopping would cause you to change direction unexpectedly. I died jumping in water quite a number of time because of this.
  • Another consequence of that is that when you're trying to do a tricky part, sometime you have to do it the way the game designers wanted you to do it, and it increases difficulty for nothing. A good example is a sequence where you have to walk on a Z-shaped beam between two buildings, that'll fall apart after a while when you've walked on it. The camera tries to follow the beam, but not exactly. So when you're at the corner where you have to switch direction, you actually have to quickly change directions twice: once to actually go on the left of the beam, and a second time on the right this time in order to compensate for the camera movement that comes right after.
  • If there's an item above you, and since the game artists were too proud of their shadows to make them be on the exact vertical, there's absolutely no cue about where the item is exactly. I sometime spent quite some time trying to position Sonic just beneath an item, and missing it miserably again and again because I couldn't move the camera around to properly see where was its projection on the ground. Oh and, yes, it happens with movable platforms as well.
  • This is actually being used as a poor game design to hide items. While running in the world, having the camera suddenly hopping on a rail for no good reason would actually be a cue for me that there was a hidden item somewhere where the fixed camera angle wouldn't let me see it, and I was right a lot of times.

Lives

The game is sometime ridiculously difficult. And the worst part is that the game designers acknowledge that fact by placing lives right after certain checkpoints. It's basically a way of saying "yes, we know that this next part is awfully difficult, so here's a life so that you won't do any game over trying it again and again and again and... again". Couldn't they just make the part a little bit easier by tuning it properly ? This way they wouldn't frustrate the player with awfully difficult parts. After that, every time I'd see a life after a checkpoint, I'd know that I'll have to spend some time dying again and again on a difficult part.

Gameplay exceptions

Throughout the game you sometime encounter sequences where the game asks you to press some buttons on the controller in a timely manner. Otherwise you'll just loose some bonuses, time, or even a life. This is also quite intensively used in the bosses fights. But now, there are two very specific part of gameplay within the game that's very awkward. One is located near the beginning, and one is located near the end. You're flying with Tails's airplane, and are being attacked. So in order to defend yourself, you have to shoot down the incoming enemies. Each approaching enemy has a glyph of a button of the controller, and to shoot him, you've got to press the corresponding button. And you just do that for the next 2 or 3 minutes. And it's painfully boring. And it's not rewarding. At all. You can't pass it, and it doesn't give anything. What's the point ? What's the purpose of that sequence in the game, with a gameplay which is close to but less fun than Stepmania ? I don't get it. I bought the game knowingly that it has two sides: one truly Sonic, where you have to run around like crazy, and one beat'm'up part. I didn't ask for a 3rd gameplay section!

And this gets even worse at the end of the game, where the player is given a series of completely unique gameplay sequences that are quite difficult, and are never seen before in the game. Which means you have to spend some lifes trying to understand the mechanism of these parts, which probably will get you a Game Over the first time you ever stumble on these sequences.

Loading times

Oh gosh, what a pain in the bottom. The game just loads for ever and ever and ever. And when it's done loading, and you thought you can probably finally play, it just continues loading. Did the programmers never heard of the texture streaming technologies developed by Insomniac ? Ratchet & Clank on the PS3 uses that technology, and the loading times are very small for levels so full of textures and details.

Moreover, on the PS3 version, switching from day to night takes another awfully long loading time, where the it seems the XBox360 version has a nice animation where Sonic transforms. And the end sequence is equally balanced between cut scenes and loading screens.

Optional content not so optional

Now that's a very interesting concept. Within the game, you can collect Sun and Moon medals, some of them being well hidden so you need to really dig hard within the levels to collect all of them. At first, that seems completely optional, since that looks assimilated to secrets or so, but these medals are actually being used to unlock new levels. Each level has a sun and moon medals requirements in order to enter them. I managed to get to the point that, in order to continue the storyline, and enter the next level hinted by the story, I had to go back and farm moon and sun medals in some of the optional levels I skipped. And the worst part is that I skipped them because I didn't even noticed them, for the very good reason they were locked at that time! And this content is somehow flagged as optional in my mind, since it doesn't get hinted by the game when it says "do that next". So I'm okay having to do content, if it's really not optional! Don't let me have to hunt down where the optional content is in order to unlock the mainstream content!

Hunting content

Ah and, yeah: you actually have to hunt for the content. You have a game-in-the-game, where you have to search and look around for the gates to the levels. Even when you buy some friggin' DLC! I spent a few euros buying more levels, and I now have to hunt them down within the game. And it won't even confirm me that it's installed. I mean, what ?! I buy something, but it's playing hide'n'seek with me within the game ? That's bullshit.

Anyway, don't get me wrong: the game is fun, the ideas are nice, the music kicks ass, and I had a good experience throughout the game, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered finishing it. I mean, Sonic the Werehog ? Badass, really. I occasionally find myself doing the Dark Gaia Phoenix boss again, just for the fun of that sequence, which is absolutely awesome. But all of these design mistakes are really cluttering the overall experience, and I feel like these mistakes could really have been avoided, if the game designers were slightly more into what they were doing. Too bad, it could have been a great game.