Anyone who played a Mega Drive during its glory years will have fond memories of Sonic the Hedgehog. These days mascots seem to play second fiddle to general brand coolness, but in the early 90s the playground was dominated by Sonic and Mario, with sides most definitely being taken. At the time it seemed as though Sonic would be around forever, battling Mario to the bitter end. Then SEGA released a couple of doomed consoles, became a software company, started releasing games for all platforms, churned out a string of sub-par Sonic games, and made a game that starred both Mario and Sonic. The world was going mad.
SEGA needs to recapture Sonic's 16-bit platforming feel before it's too late, and while Sonic Unleashed tries hard, it's once again held back by game design that is at odds with what the speed demon is all about. What you have here is two games: one is an incredibly fast, good looking 3D racing platformer, and the other is a slow, ugly, overly simplistic brawler. You see, in Sonic Unleashed, the evil Eggman has unleashed a glowing pink Gaia onto the world, ripping it apart, but Sonic somehow got in front of Eggman's laser, causing him to change into a werehog at night. It's up to Sonic to save the world by reuniting the torn apart pieces, with the Chaos Emeralds once again being the key. While the opening cinematic that sets this up looks wonderful, the werehog always appeared to be what was going to hold the game back and that's exactly what's happened.
When playing as normal Sonic, Unleashed is a fun, often exhilarating platformer, with the camera dynamically switching from being behind Sonic to a more traditional side on view. These stages look great, reward replaying thanks to parts that can only be accessed once you've levelled up your abilities, and manage to capture at least part of what made the series so good to begin with. Sonic is also able to side step to avoid obstacles, and the spectacular rail grinding sections that worked in previous Sonic games thankfully appear here too. You also get some action packed boss encounters that whiz along at a breakneck pace.
The problem is that Sonic wasn't just about frenzied speed and relentlessly ploughing through each level. On the Mega Drive the series was a damn good platforming game, yet here you don't get that aspect. Yes, there's jumping from platform to platform, but it feels forced and gets in the way of the fast-paced sections. For all its visual splendour and solid 3D gameplay, we still can't help but think that a classic 2D game with massively improved visuals would be far, far better.
While Sonic's traditional levels are flawed but fun, the werehog levels bring the whole game down a notch or two. This mutated version of Sonic can use a variety of melee attacks in order to dispatch the many enemies you'll encounter. By defeating enemies you'll also charge your Unleashed meter, which when activated makes you even stronger. The main problem with these levels is that they jar quite terribly alongside the lightning fast levels. Beating up enemies, collecting items, moving items about and using your stretchy arms to cling on to distant objects is so different to the speed levels that it's as if you're playing two games.