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.
As annoying as the werehog levels are, we could have overlooked them had they not taken up so much of your time with the game. You absolutely need to play them in order to collect enough sun tokens to open up more traditional levels, and those levels are so quick that you seem to spend the greater part of your time as the nocturnal nasty. It's a real shame as Unleashed is still the most accomplished Sonic game we've had in years. After the initial few levels you're presented with a world map, which is how you move from one part of the world to another. You can manually pass time, with the time of day determining if you're going to be playing as Sonic the Hedgehog or Sonic the Werehog.
On top of the two core level types, there's also a small amount of exploration and talking to characters in hub areas. It's here that you get a sense that SEGA is clearly designing Sonic for kids (not a bad thing at all, but perhaps disappointing for gamers who grew up playing the series), with the dialogue being akin to something you'd find in My First RPG. The human characters you'll speak to have a smart visual style similar to that seen in Pixar's Ratatouille, but you'll still want to rush through in order to get to the more proper gameplay. On the Wii these sections are presented via a rather plain map, and not explorable 3D worlds, which isn't a huge loss but a point of difference all the same.
Equally bizarre is Sonic Team's desire to put in quick time events at what feels like every possible opportunity. At times you'll suddenly have to enter a series of button commands while screaming along as Sonic, interrupting the flow quite spectacularly. You can also press a series of buttons to dispatch enemies while playing as the werehog. Your very first boss encounter in the game is entirely QTE based, with you firing missiles at targets based on the button above them. We know Sonic always has been and probably always will be a series targeted at kids, but do kids really like this extremely basic form of gameplay?
It's worth pointing out that the Wii version of Sonic Unleashed, while similar in terms of core gameplay, isn't a direct copy of the 360 game with inferior visuals. The 360 game actually has more stages and seems to have a better balance between werehog and normal sonic, whereas the Wii game includes support for the GameCube controller and Classic Controller, which makes the game far easier to play than when using the Wii Remote and Nunchuck. While not a terrible version by any means, we'd recommend the 360 game if you have the choice.
We've already touched on the impressive visuals in the fast-paced Sonic levels, which feature far and away the best looking environments we've ever seen in a Sonic game, but this is just one part of the experience. The werehog levels once again let the side down. Without the speed the levels look bland and because of a ton of graphical effects whirling all over the place (the energy released by enemies and destroyed objects), the frame rate can get awfully slow. We're also somewhat bemused by the frankly terrible looking fur on the werehog. Again, this is a real shame as the production values elsewhere are extremely good, including the voice acting and impressive cut scenes. On the Wii the game does lose some of what makes the 360 version as fun as it is, with the visuals not popping nearly as much, but you still get some impressive speed and views.
Once again SEGA has released a new Sonic game that we really wanted to like, but numerous flaws bring down what would have been a solid entry in the series. The traditional Sonic levels are the best we've played since Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, yet they feel like the gravy on top of a rather overcooked roast that you're trying desperately to hide. The werehog levels reek of an idea born out of trying to turn Sonic into something that kids like, instead of just giving them the Sonic many of us grew up with. We didn't need gimmicks back then and we don't think kids need them now either. Ultimately we can't help but feel disappointed... yet again.