Sonic Unleashed (Wii) review
"Sonic the Hedgehog screwed up. He let himself get a little too confident about his role as a hero. Sure, he has Chaos Emeralds and can turn into a golden, flying juggernaut anytime he wants. Yes, Dr. Eggman can be incredibly stupid despite his technical genius and ambition. That doesn’t mean that he can be taken lightly. Sonic learned that the hard way; not only did evil mastermind manage to outwit him, but actually used him in his latest scheme for world domination. Thanks to Sonic’s blunder, t..."
Sonic the Hedgehog screwed up. He let himself get a little too confident about his role as a hero. Sure, he has Chaos Emeralds and can turn into a golden, flying juggernaut anytime he wants. Yes, Dr. Eggman can be incredibly stupid despite his technical genius and ambition. That doesn’t mean that he can be taken lightly. Sonic learned that the hard way; not only did evil mastermind manage to outwit him, but actually used him in his latest scheme for world domination. Thanks to Sonic’s blunder, the entire planet has been ripped open; whole continents have been shattered to pieces, oceans have dried up, and countless people have undoubtedly died from the fallout. More importantly, some mythical demigod called Dark Gaia has woken up from a deep slumber in the Earth’s core. Its strength is unrivaled; even the Chaos Emeralds, those great symbols of power in the Sonic franchise, have been drained and tossed aside for the sake of getting this beast up and running. As a side effect, Sonic turns into a werewolf every night. On top of all that, he’s now stuck with what has to be the most annoying sidekick ever conceived.
Smooth move, hedgehog.
The concept of Dr. Robotnik - excuse me, Eggman - partially succeeding in taking over the world is definitely an interesting spin on the usual plot. The problem is that the story is nothing more than a jumbled mess of ideas that barely serve any real purpose. In order to progress through the game, you’ll have to visit various towns and talk to the NPC inhabitants. There’s no exploration involved; you just click on the portion of a given place, briefly chat with characters that usually lack any remotely useful information, and move on to the next area. Performing this tedious process will net you little more than snippets of shallow, predictable conversation. You’ll meet the likes of a village elder with a cold, a cowardly Eskimo, and an absentminded professor, but these people mean almost nothing to the overall plot. Sega could have written out most of them and come out with a more coherent storyline. The fact that you have to indulge in all of the pointless drivel just to get anywhere makes the game all the more aggravating.
Your patience will be rewarded, though. Once you’ve finally gotten to your first daytime stage, you’ll be in for some of the best gameplay the series has seen in a long, long time. It’s always been a given that Sonic moves fast, but this game outpaces anything the other 3D titles could muster. You’ll blaze down the cobblestone roads of the local township, speed out across the docks, into jungles, past Oriental shrines, and several other areas. What’s interesting is how Sonic Unleashed incorporates the traditionally linear gameplay with the three-dimensional surroundings; thanks to Sonic’s newfound drifting abilities, you’ll be able to hug curves and slide under low-hanging barriers without losing any speed. Considering how much of the game takes place within the vicinity of buildings and other obstacles, the drifting system is a godsend. The same could be said for the Quick Step, which lets Sonic narrowly dodge oncoming projectiles, landmines, and other obstacles. Both of these new features are well implemented and make the game flow so much smoother than in previous attempts. Unfortunately, the speed can be a little too much to handle sometimes; it’s all to easy to go zooming off in the wrong direction or barely missing a key platform and careening into oblivion.
Besides, it’s the side-scrolling sections that really steal the show. At certain points in the daytime levels, the camera will suddenly swing around to display the level like a one of the old-school Sonic games. Fans will find themselves awash in nostalgia as they watch Sonic deal with looping arches, tricky jumps, and all that other stuff that made the first trilogy so much fun to play. These areas also specialize in alternative, interwoven paths; collecting a certain line of rings might lead you to some platform, while destroying a bunch of enemy robots might boost your jump high enough to ride a floating rail or leap onto a well-placed spring. Considering all the different ways to approach one of these levels, you’ll likely end up replaying them to see if you can get a higher score or find some secret area. You’ll have to do so a few times, at least; the game will make you play through some levels multiple times, but with time attacks or ring collecting challenges. While the first few of these areas are easy to complete, many of the later areas will give you a serious challenge in terms of jump timing, the ability to remember where hazards are, and other tricky stuff. They’re surprisingly fun to play, and Sonic Unleashed would have been amazing if it were comprised of nothing but these levels…
But no. You get stuck with Sonic the Werehog.
When the sun goes down, Sonic sprouts some fangs, claws, a thicker layer of fur, and stretchy arms. Since he can’t dash around with this Dhalsim-Wolverine hybrid of a body, he’s reduced to plodding around linear 3D levels and smiting whatever evil minions and breakable objects that get in his way. The combat itself is reminiscent of God of War; you can press a series of buttons (or punch with the WiiMote and Nunchuk, if you’re that much of a masochist) to make Sonic dish out simple but devastating combos. There’s nothing complicated or deep about the fighting mechanics; despite being able to gain experience points and level up your moves and health stats, the combat feels like nothing more than frantic button mashing. Accordingly, the enemies aren’t particularly smart or challenging; they just appear in groups (along with a burst of totally out-of-place jazz music) and gang up on you in the hopes of taking you down with sheer numbers. Slaughtering these neon demons, mages, trolls, frogs, etc. is often reduced to a executing a few brief attacks, moving slightly away to avoid enemy fire, and finishing them off. The unreliable hit detection kind of evens things out, though. These “Hog of War” levels aren’t exactly dull, but they amount to a ton of wasted potential.
The platforming sections will make you want to throw your WiiMote into your TV, though. The areas are simple enough - the designs have got nothing on Super Mario 64, let alone Galaxy, but the controls make them nigh unplayable. If you’re using the Nunchuck, be prepared for tons of gimmicky motion-based moves; not only do you have to time your jumps when you’re leaping from pole to pole, but you’ll have to make the appropriate swinging motions with the controller in order to gain enough momentum. The Classic Controller makes things more bearable, as the button layout works better than the motion sensing mechanics. However, the game tends to misread most of your commands; it’s ridiculously easy to randomly break into a dash and go flying off a nearby cliff. The game might prompt you to press a certain button to latch onto a certain ledge, then ignore your input and let you fall to yet another death. The fixed camera makes things even worse; since you’re limited to a set perspective, gauging the distance to the next platform or bottomless pit can prove a daunting task. Not to mention how the camera occasionally shifts to follow the action, thus forcing you to readjust your control inputs lest you die again. What’s even worse are all the little inconsistencies; a poorly timed jump might get you drowned on one attempt, but a button mash might randomly give you an extra jump or the sudden ability to walk on the sides of a platform. All of these flaws make the Werehog levels some of the worst gaming experiences Sega has ever made.
What the game does get right, however, are the visuals. While the fixed camera is horrendously flawed in the werehog levels, it’s far better used in the daytime levels. You’ll get to watch Sonic speed along at a cinematic angle, allowing you to take in all surrounding architecture, the layouts of the roads, and all the other details you’d normally miss if the game stayed directly behind the character. What’s really remarkable is how the animations and framerates stay smooth regardless of how fast you’re going; you’ll still be able to see the little cafes and balconies of Spagonia, the whitewashed villas and cobblestones of Apotos, or the lush island landscapes in Adabat. The nighttime levels are just as much of a treat, though they tend to focus more on lighting effects. Since you’ll be plodding around the areas so slowly, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the inviting glow of the hanging lanterns, the neon tints on all the surfaces, and the colorful contrast between brightly-lit buildings and the dark, starry sky above. What makes these levels even more endearing are their music tracks; you’ll blaze through the daytime areas with some fast-paced rock, while the nights are more low-key with jazzy tunes. Even if you despise some of these levels, you’ll love their impressively rendered backgrounds and overall ambience.
Too bad it’s not enough to save this game. Sonic Unleashed could have been one of the best titles the series has seen in years. But much like its protagonist, it’s split into two very different experiences. The traditional Sonic levels combine 3D elements with old school gameplay, and pulls it off well enough to appease all the longtime fans. The challenging platforming, need for timing, and signature speedy gameplay are all present and accounted for. The werehog levels are practically opposite; the gameplay is slow, infuriatingly flawed in almost every aspect, and one of the lest enjoyable ideas ever seen in a Sonic game. Those without a Classic Controller are going to be in for tons of tacked-on gimmicky motion control mechanics as well. The story is so pointlessly convoluted that the entire werehog concept could have been completely scrapped without affecting the basic plot. So that begs the question: Why, Sega? Why did you do this? Why did you botch what was potentially the most amazing Sonic game of this generation? All that can be done is to hope the next attempt succeeds where this failed so horribly.
Community review by disco (January 21, 2009)
Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.
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