Sonic Unleashed - He's Back!

December 9, 2008

Sonic has fallen on hard times. There have been some dutiful 2D ventures on the handhelds, but the 3D forays have gotten away from what makes Sonic so great. Bogged down by awful platforming and other frivolities, the speedy hedgehog interludes have become the exception rather than the rule. Sega’s taking another shot with, and this time it’s invited a werehog for the ride. Yes, a werehog.

Sonic runs fast, hates Eggman, loves chaos emeralds, and has a sidekick named Tails. That hasn’t changed, but this time the world is torn asunder via one of Eggman’s evil plots and dark energy starts spilling forth—making people grouchy, and even transforming Sonic into a werehog at night.

Believe it or not, there are towns where you must interrogate people before getting to the next level. It’s not what you expect, that’s for sure. There are tons of cutscenes, and they’re long. They do manage to break up the action, but they really have very little to do with the actual gameplay.

Just like the last several 3D Sonic outings, the game is distinctly split into two paths. There’s playing as old blue, and not. Speeding through levels collecting rings and ferreting out short cuts is generally a good time, but traipsing around the world finding hidden temples to restore the planet, not so much. Each temple gives way to new levels where you gain doodads to unlock even more. The Sonic levels eventually get remixed, with bosses and specific challenges, but they’re too short. Then there are the werehog sections.

During the night, Sonic gets beastly and everything slows down considerably--harkening back to early Crash Bandicoot games where you’re constantly pushed forward with little pockets to explore. Destroy all the enemies and the door to the next area is unlocked. These levels last three times longer than the good, old Sonic levels, leaving you to wonder when you’re going to be given a chance to stretch those legs again.

Between the levels are the towns, the hub temples, and little side rooms to keep you occupied, with some meager exploration for hidden goodies.

The game’s hub structure is fine, but once again we have a game that’s less about Sonic and more about something else. It simply feels padded.

The daytime romps are fast-paced and feel good. Sonic games have been known to play themselves, but these moments are quick and usually allow for nice camera sweeps and transitions. Sonic has also beefed up his moves with sliding, drifting, and quickstepping tossed into the mix. There are plenty of alternative paths with added risk that add precaution to your play.

The moonlit levels are about punching and platforming. The latter is dutiful but nothing special. There are poles to shimmy and platforms to leap on. Sonic’s new stretchy were-arms will reach out and grab certain ledges if an icon pops up, but it doesn’t instill much confidence in making a daring leap.

The brawling is problematic. In the Wii version, your arms will tire as you swing left hooks and right jabs at wave after wave of enemies. Fortunately, GameCube and Classic Controllers are supported and recommended. It’s all about spamming the attacks.

You earn new moves and there’s a combo meter, but hit detection is a bit off and the repetitive enemies don’t inspire much experimentation. When you’ve got a high combo count and still aren’t having fun, there’s something’s wrong. The brief encounters with Sonic are great, but the Werehog sections seem to be added just so the game has some kind of hook.

Those plentiful cutscenes have plenty of pluck, but in-game, the frame rate can dip south of 30 frames-per-second. The environments are bland and sparse. Environments are varied, with day and night cycles, but the enemy design is an afterthought. Voice acting is appropriately saccharine and the music is actually pretty good, with the butt rock from past games replaced with some passable compositions.

Sonic Unleashed takes two steps forward with some of the best speed levels in recent memory, and one step back by tacking on yet another failed experiment with the Werehog. Perhaps some day Sega will release a game that is 100 percent blue hedgehog, but this is another case of having to suffer through the bad to get to the good.