Sonic's been in a bit of a rut this past decade. While other gaming staples from the past have made a more or less successful jump into 3D, he's lagged behind terribly. From unnecessary "adventure" elements, questionable gameplay additions like fishing (?!) to co-stars taking away the fun of being Sonic, it's not difficult to see why there's little optimism whenever a Sonic title is announced. It also means every new Sonic game is tasked with the unquestionable burden of being "The One", that title that'll finally see the original 'Dude with a 'tude' in gaming make a successful transition to 3D. Dissatisfied with it being an unspoken rule, Sega themselves came out and said this would be the one, the title that would finally be the next-gen welcoming party the Hedgehog finally deserves. Equipped with a new engine and new design philosophy, early screens and videos did little to dissuade the public; Sonic was finally returning. Unfortunately, they were only partially right. While Sonic Unleashed is truly the best console offering the series has seen in nearly a decade, it's still inexplicably held down by developer Sonic Team's past mistakes.
Opening with a stunning CG intro, we are reintroduced to Sonic as he's in the process of laying waste to another dozen of Eggman's creations. During seemingly yet another foil to his plans, we learn that getting caught was his intention. Using Sonic along with his emeralds to fire a laser with the power to crack the planet open, he unleashes a creature called Dark Gaia from within its core. During the firing process, Eggman's machine transforms Sonic into a monster, a fact he is all too pleased with as he jettisons Sonic into space. Outsmarted and seemingly out of luck, it's up to Sonic (and his new sidekick, argh) to, of course, restore the planet and hopefully reverse the effects of his transformation. It's a silly premise, but not out of this world for a Sonic game, and the Saturday morning cartoon-esque presentation fits perfectly, as the game never takes itself too seriously. All the characters are well acted for the most part, and not once did I feel the need to switch on the Japanese audio track.
The game is broken up into hub worlds that give you access to each stage, and while each area is small and cleverly designed around the real-world locations they're based on (being from New York, I got a kick out of Empire City), their inclusion in the game seems like artificial padding, as you'll frequently have to speak to certain characters in order to open up missions or advance the story, with the game giving no clear indication of who or where these characters are. Soon it becomes second nature to just start questioning every character until someone says something relevant, but it's tiresome if you don't care to converse with the locals, and is an aspect of the game that will turn off many. It's a shame, because even though some of the banter is written quite well, making interactions mandatory instead of optional severely diminishes any comedic value they may have.
The levels themselves are broken up into two different gameplay styles, though you spend the entire game (thankfully) in control of Sonic: The daytime "speed" levels, which feature Sonic doing what he does best through rollercoaster styled speed levels, and the nighttime "werehog" stages, that turn the game into a slower paced, platformer/brawler.
The daytime levels are Sonic at his best, 360 loops, long stretches of speed, and the occasional platforming break. Thrown into the mix are high speed perspective changes that quickly shift your perspective from a 3D behind the camera view to the traditional 2-D side scrolling, and QTE button pressing events that determine which path you take. No matter which perspective you're playing from, the game controls well, which is a must when you have a character that moves as fast as Sonic. Occasionally, his controls can feel a bit too loose, as the gameplay is clearly built for speed, not precise platforming, but what's presented works very well more often than not, and the eventual feeling of settling into a rhythm of dashing, attacking, and maneuvering is satisfying. While it's true in most cases that a lot of the experience is watching Sonic speed through corkscrews and the like, giving the impression that most of the game is on autopilot, the game never takes you out of the action for too long, and if you do slip up, the penalties aren't too severe, though it's (understandably) something that can lead to death in later levels. That aisde, it's a gameplay style that tests your reflexes as much as your senses, and even though it takes the classic Sonic design philosophy in reverse (speed with bursts of platforming instead of the other way around), if there's a better way to showcase just what Sonic is capable of with you in control, I haven't seen it yet.
The nighttime levels though, are their own beast (no pun intended).After being sucked in with the blindingly fast speed stages, it's a jarring shift to be thrown into the slower paced, exploration style nature of the werehog. In this form, you'll run (though slower) jump, climb, and solve simple puzzles in-between bouts of large scale fights using a surprisingly robust combat system. For some strange reason, the controls seem stickier than they should be, and it's only the tip of the iceberg of problems for this gameplay style. To put it lightly, it's a terrible mixed bag. The aforementioned brawling takes up the bulk of the levels, and the fact that Sonic gains experience with every new enemy defeated means you can power up your character and gain new techniques. This went a long way towards alleviating the fact that the enemies available were limited and repetitive, but it couldn't help however, was the fact that the second half of the experience, the platforming, was terrible. It's this aspect that makes the Werehog sections of the game go from mildly enjoyable to downright infuriating, which wouldn't be a problem if it periodically segued into being fun, but it never really does.
The worst part is, it's hardly noticeable at first, but becomes more and more apparent as the levels become more ambitious. The awful camera from previous titles rears its ugly head during this mode, and for the most part, it gives you a very clear view of the action. Then it becomes ugly, and does a bangup job of either leaving you out of control with a less-than-optimal angle, or zooming the camera in too close when you are allowed to manipulate it. This is something that makes the simple platforming much more frustrating than it should be, and when the game is asking you to traverse narrow pathways or multiple platforms from an overhead angle with zero to no margin for error, it becomes infuriating. Even more puzzling are the questionable design choice of Sonic's stretchy arms. This could've lent itself to some interesting platforming sections, but instead, it's woefully underused due to the fact that you can only grab onto certain ledges and structures. (A word to the wise, hold B.) More often than not, I found myself falling to my death in front of a ledge I should've been able to grab, due to a miscalculated jump (of which there are several, since Sonic Team couldn't be bothered to put a shadow underneath your character in order to judge where he lands), leaving me wondering how an issue like this made it through playtesting.
In fact, the entire mode reeks of missed opportunity and negligence, and that's what makes it all the more frustrating to play. It's by no means BAD, by any stretch of the imagination, but where the Werehog gameplay could've been simply a "Hog of War", a simplified God of War brawler-platformer (which it clearly aspires to be), it settles squarely in the center of mediocrity. Mediocrity isn't very easy to swallow, especially when the other half of the game, the daytime moments, are so polished. It almost feels tacked on, and the fact that his levels can take up to 20-30 minutes to complete doesn't make the sting any less bearable.
The boss battles however, are excellent and well scripted. Each boss' design is well done, and their patterns aren't difficult to figure out. Sonic's turns are fast paced chases while the Werehog gets outright feral and brutal (for a Sonic game) and each encounter was an experience that had me revisiting levels just to play them over again for a high rank.
Also adding to the replay value are missions given to you from various NPCs scattered throughout the worlds. Here, the extra activities can be anything from time trials, battle challenges, or a simple minigame with Tails and his airplane that plays out like a rhythm action title. Combine that with in-level rankings and a series of collectibles including music, cutscenes, and concept art, and there's much here to keep anyone occupied. My only gripe came in the form of Sun and Moon tokens that gain you access to the stages ahead. It introduces itself as a mildly harmless collectible, as you'll always have enough of either simply running through a stage in one go. Then when you reach later stages, it becomes obtrusive, barring you access to stages by indicating a certain amount of medals are needed to continue. If you didn't like the stages before (with, surprise, the majority of medals being in NIGHT stages!), replaying them to ferret out medals isn't going to change your mind one bit.
I would however, be remiss if I didn't mention the aesthetics. The first thing that stands out, from the stunning intro sequence to the very first stage you run through, are the visuals. Much has been said about Sonic Team's much hyped "Hedgehog Engine", but all the preview videos and screenshots in the world can't describe just how great the game looks in motion. It's bright, fast, colorful, the lighting is excellent, and the art direction simply screams Sonic in every way. Instead of opting for a completely "realistic" style like Sonic 2006, it's instead very Pixar-esque, and the game benefits from it tremendously. Unfortunately, even though the engine attempts to handle everything at 30 frames per second, at some points in the game, particularly during the werehog battles and the later Sonic stages, the amount of enemies on screen, physics from breakable objects, and flashy effects can drag the game down to a crawl, sometimes for several seconds at a time. It's not completely game ruining, but it does pull you out of the game for as long as it happens.
Surprisingly, the music is also a gem, and kudos to Sonic Team for ditching the butt-rock and generic tunes that became a staple of the series. The game sports upbeat, catchy, and exuberant themes during Sonic's daytime romps, and a more subdued jazz score during the nighttime sequences. The orchestrated tunes are a treat as well, particularly during the game's numerous boss battles, and I caught myself humming the theme more than once. In terms of audio and visuals, Sonic succeeds above and beyond what was expected.
As it stands, Sonic Unleashed is not the drastic reboot they claimed it would be. The problem the game faces once again is focus. While the core speed gameplay proves to be the most enjoyable part of the experience, it also has to contend with the unfortunate baggage of hub worlds, bad level design (Eggmanland is one of the most poorly designed final stages I’ve ever seen), terrible camera, and yet another ho-hum gameplay style dragging it down. These unnecessary parts hanging off the side prove to be more time consuming than the sum of enjoyable parts, and make one wonder if Sonic Team really learned anything at all these past years. It's half of a good game, but like a terrible movie with a great soundtrack, it's really up to the player whether or not they'd be willing to slog through the awful in order to get to the moments of brilliance.