Sonic Unleashed level organisation: My speculations
Wednesday, 3rd September 2008, 8:57pm (BST), 3 Comments
A mere two months or so away from Sonic Unleashed, the whole community is waiting with bated breath to see if this is the one that gets it right, or at least does well enough to retrieve the respect that Sonic deserves. As always, I'm most interested in the levels that we'll be getting, and I'm particularly intruiged by how they'll be organised. We've been told they'll be sorted in a new way, unlike the Zone-Act system, so I've been thinking about how that might be, and I thought I'd share with you my main ideas. In a few months from now, I'll look back on this and either gloat as I get it bang on, or, more likely, shudder at my huge miscalculations.

Note that I'll be using the word "level" to describe a whole, well.. level, and the word "stage" to describe sub-parts of that level, e.g day and night. To avoid confusion.

We know the main elements, every level will have a Sonic stage, a Werehog stage, and there will be small hub "village" areas that allow access to these stages. The most interesting interview that throws a new twist in all this though is this E3 one from Joystiq with Patrick Riley, the game's producer. He claims...

"Certain parts of the action stages are built for both day and night gameplay. When in these areas and when in the villages, in-game time will pass and Sonic will transform. However, we're making sure that the player won't be "stuck" in a form they don't want and it will be easy to automatically advance the clock. Other parts of the action stages are built specifically for day or night gameplay. While Sonic is in these areas, in-game time will not pass."

Although this is about the only thing I can find that talks about this aspect, it does correspond with these incriminating images of the African jungle stage at both daytime and sunset, and also in this gallery from the Japanese official site, you'll find what looks to me like a more hilly region of the Mykonos level, at sunset. So, unless they pull another Sonic '06 and ditch the changing day (don't you dare guys, I've waited too long for this feature!), we'll be able to see the effects of time gradually shifting across the day in certain Sonic levels. If we're to take the above quote literally, it'll take place in certain parts of individual action stages, meaning those parts will be built to accomodate both Hedgehog and Werehog, but other parts are stuck in a set time period. These could, I supposed, be strictly divided as separated parts much like Sonic 06 levels, but that would make all the levels pretty long, and a pain to restart if you lose all of your lives. In Gamespot's E3 showcase video, Ken Balough seems to make it clear that the stages we know best will be separate to each form of Sonic, tailor made for the appropriate playing style, and each stage in Mykonos was accessed separately from the demo's menu.

I believe that Patrick was referring to this spectrum occuring over several sub-stages within a whole level, rather than in single action stages as we would know them. So we know about day-only and night-only stages, but I would suggest that there is a third stage to each level, possibly set around a similar, but slightly different location (like S3&K variations between acts) where this transition will take place throughout its duration, and you'll be able to play as either form in layouts that are hopefully largely platform-based; not too fast to exclude the werehog, and not too open to ruin the streamlining of Sonic's style, although there would ideally be several routes and areas only accessible to a particular form. Potential examples linked above would be the more serene hillsides of Mykonos, where there are fewer houses, and the African jungle - as opposed to the African city which would be the main area of that level (I'm yet to see a single screenshot that features both environments together, so there's nothing to say for sure that they're part of the same, long-ish stage). Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but this would allow the developers to be more careful and considerate with their level design, so as to make sure it runs smoothly no matter which form you're in, and they could make them more complex, with hidden areas - an idea I thought might be good would be to hide the Chaos Emeralds in these stages, much like in 8-bit Sonic 1. It's already been stated in the Gamespot video that Sonic is on the hunt for the emeralds, to bring them back to inidvidual temples, restoring power to each. We haven't heard anything about Special Stages, so perhaps this is a way to include them as an extra challenge, as opposed to something that happens automatically.

Presumably, this is the first major 3D Sonic game that will be one long story, as opposed to multiple character stories that you chop and change between at will. There are seven emeralds, which suggests seven different levels, three stages each, which makes 21, plus villages and bosses. Roughly the right amount of gameplay that you would expect from such a game these days, although as many as nine whole levels have been suggested by different sources such as previews, but not directly from Sega as far as I'm aware, so I don't see that as being confirmed. Seven different locations seems more likely to me, if you consider how detailed the currently known stages actually are. That takes time and effort. I reckon there will be a small village per level (and that screenshots that depict this area are subtle reveals of the African one - Sonic is always shown to be walking through). So typical progress through a level could be as follows:

Wander around the village in the day, find entrance to day stage.
Play day stage as Sonic.
Return to village at night, transform, find entrance to night stage.
Play night stage as Werehog.
Return to village, which now operates on a free time scale.
EITHER
Find entrance to Boss, beat boss and go to next level
OR
Find entrance to the "freestyle stage" and hunt down a Chaos Emerald maybe? You can come back later and do this, so freestyle stages could essentially be optional.

When entering the freestyle stage, the time of day at which you enter will carry on into the stage. I'm not sure what this method of fast forwarding time will be, perhaps just an option to automatically wait for 12 hours or something. Bosses, we've only seen as regular Sonic, but I'm sure there'll be one per level and possibly some will be Sonic only, some Werehog. I doubt they'll make a different version of each boss. In the villages, I'm sure some side quests will be there, as indicated in interviews, but I don't know what completing them will offer, just emblems to collect or something. Perhaps some are necessary to open up the entrances to the stages, thus increasing the story mode's lifespan.

Now, levels. These different level environments we know from screenshots and videos:

- Mykonos (now believed to be called Windmill Isle)
- Europe (possibly the rumoured Spanish Villa stage)
- Africa (city and jungle areas)
- China
POSSIBLE: Egypt (included in the first Wii screens)

The following are suggested from interviews:

- New York (It's been in more than one report, I recall, but here's one anyway)
- London ("Sonic will be running on the hands of Big Ben in London", although the full translated text doesn't seem to be available.)

Rumoured:

- Arctic level (As far as I'm aware, this only exists as part of this initial leak, way back when the first details and media were revealed on the EspioKaos forum).
- Brazil (I don't really put much stock in this one. It's from this Brazillian article and if the translation is reliable, I would suggest that it is in fact merely the director admitting that Brazil would make a good Sonic Unleashed level).

Egypt bothers me a bit. There we were, happy enough with, seemingly, two African stages when a third suddenly pops up out of nowhere. However, in that same, first batch of Wii screens and more recent ones, we can see what looks like a slightly alternate version of Europe. It surely can't be a whole new stage to both, so I believe it's just the Wii's version of Europe. So, is Egypt the Wii's reinterpretation of the African city? Look closely at the screens, and you do start to see city aspects, like walls and gates and possibly houses, slightly similar to what you might also find in the 360's African "sand castle" city. Either that or the African jungle and city are in fact one and the same level, and Egypt is the freestyle variation.

With that in mind, this is me officially making my bet regarding what levels will make the cut and in what order and we'll see how close I get..

#1 Mykonos aka Windmill Isle
"Freestyle" stage will be the area shown in the hilly sunset screens.

#2 Europe aka "High Europe" aka Spanish Villa
The rumoured Spanish stage is, I reckon, the Europe one we're all familiar with. Granted, I've never been to Spain, so I may be completely wrong about their architecture, but google image searches suggest something that isn't a million miles away. Also note that Europe is supposedly the fourth stage, supporting my theory of three Mykonos stages.

#3 Africa
Sandcastle city (360/PS3) / Egypt ruins (Wii/PS2) for main area, jungle for freestyle. OR Sancastle city and jungle for main area / Egypt for freestyle.

#4 China
Mountain levels are always in the middle of a game, although perhaps more conventionally swapped around with the next level type, this order seems to flow better to me.

#5 Arctic
Although it's a mere rumour, I think it's a likely stage type to fit in, if only because it's different from all the others. I think going down the abstract route, like the African city, wouldn't be a bad idea here as it'll be a bit plain otherwise. Just go all out and make a big elaborate ice palace guys, no one would mind.

#6 New York

#7 London
Add thunder and lightning for climactic drama. Sonic racing down the Thames would be an awesome sight to me, not least of all because I now live and work in the city.

Nine levels is always a possibility, and it would indeed be great, especially if they go with my freestyle stage idea too. But then, although we would probably find a home for the Egypt level (and that supposed Brazil one, for that matter), if there's going to be nine, one day and one night stage each might well be enough anyway, thus ruining my whole big theory. Oh well, 7 x 3 is my official prediction and I'm sticking to it until proven wrong. In any case, that shifting daytime stuff has to fit in somewhere.
Comments   3 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by mercury on Friday, 5th September 2008, 9:46am
It's a little strange that there isn't a level set in Japan, but I guess since the game is developed there, it's not exotic enough for them, maybe. I think a Tokyo zone would be pretty cool, though - they don't have enough big city levels with a bunch of splash and dash like they used to. It would be especially cool at night.

I'm definitely still chugging along on Sonic Extractor 3&K Mix. It'd be great to see you meet your goal of having Sonic CD, 3 & K up within a year's time. I just saw some scans of a really old Sonic 1 player's guide from Japan, and the level maps were hand drawn. No matter how complicated all the coding and screen capturing becomes, I still don't envy those poor folks making game guides in the days before emulators and the internet!
#2. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Friday, 5th September 2008, 11:03pm
Yeah, Tokyo would be a good choice - never know, could still happen. Although I'd like them to get away a bit from the cities, I'm slightly concerned they'll all be a bit samey, as impressive a sight they are.

I've heard of that hand drawn strategy guide. As I recall, the secret route along the top of Labyrinth Zone Act 1 was apparently labelled, what can be translated as, "we don't know how to get here". Any chance those scans are available online anywhere?
#3. Comment posted by mercury on Friday, 5th September 2008, 11:35pm
Yes, I saw them at sonicscene.net
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