When the sun is shining, Sonic Unleashed is a blazing fast roller coaster ride filled with loop-de-loops, jump pads, speed boosts, zigzagging pathways, alternate routes and more. As the blue hedgehog spins through chaotic, unpredictable environments at sound-barrier-breaking speeds, you will be hooked. These stages, which regularly shift from 2D to 3D perspectives, are executed so well, in fact, that I feel they not only successfully capture the frantic pace and addictive play mechanics of the long-gone classics, but surpass them. Unfortunately, Fantastic, yes, but unfortunately Sonic Unleashed has a darker side, literally, and I'm referring specifically to the well-publicized night-set levels in which the speedy hero transforms into a slow, stretchy werehog. Yeah -- a werehog. If the concept sounds a little forced, it is, but not nearly as forced and altogether boring as the repetitive selection of nighttime stages. The question is, how much are you willing to put up with to play the undeniably great daytime levels?
Sonic Unleashed is the brainchild of Yoshihisa Hashimoto, who has worked on some of the previous hedgehog titles, but has never helmed one. He brings both a fresh perspective and new ambitions to the series, which has floundered in recent years, as far as I'm concerned. In no way could this title be described as lazy, even if you agree with me that the werehog component is completely unnecessary and unsatisfactory. The production values powering Unleashed are remarkably high, from the crisp, gorgeous cinematics, all rendered, to the epic overworld. There's also a chunky adventure to be found -- one spilling with challenges, side quests and collectibles, all of them amazing fan service for the die-hards out there.
Hashimoto hasn't done much for the Sonic storyline, though. Again, Dr. Eggman is back with a new evil plan, this time a deranged plot to release the planet's hidden force, Dark Gaia. In an opening cut-scene, Eggman uses a new laser beam to break apart the earth and in so doing accidentally corrupts and scatters the famed chaos emeralds about the continents. Go figure! Meanwhile, the same beam changes Sonic, altering him into the werehog whenever the sun goes down. It's pretty flimsy stuff, as expected, but fans will at least be happy to learn that all the cut-scene choreography is well done, all the characters are voice acted, and the awful 80s' guitar rock poisoning the Adventure games has been altogether terminated in Unleashed. Instead, you will be treated to a superb soundtrack comprised of genuinely catchy world music that perfectly suits each of the different continents that the hedgehog will inevitably travel to and from.
I love the game's world map. It's just a giant 3D globe that shows all of the broken continents. You're able to spin it around and jump to locations you've opened up. As you advance through the game, you restore the continents and this is reflected on the map, which dynamically reverts to normal, an excellent means to simply display your overall progress. I don't like the seemingly pointless character interactions with village people, though. Click on a region and you'll eventually be made to click on a 2D sub-map, each housing several hot spots that yield NPC chats via hand-drawn 2D overlays. There are small loads when accessing these areas, a disappointment. A much bigger issue, though, is that the character interactions are meaningless, only there to extend gameplay length.
If I could just clarify with a quick history lesson, the Wii and PlayStation 2 versions of Unleashed are identical, but very different from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 builds, the latter of which were entirely developed by Sonic Team. Software house Dimps helped design the daytime levels in the Wii and PlayStation 2 iterations of the game. Dimps, you might remember, is responsible for the acclaimed Sonic Rush games on DS and therefore has proven experience producing zippy Sonic outings. Obviously, the Wii and PS2 titles don't look nearly as good as the PS3 and Xbox 360 titles, which make use of Sonic Team's three-years-under-construction Hedgehog Engine, but that's not to suggest that these are ugly games. The art style is pleasing, the sheer variety in locations amazing (you will speed through several continents with varying themes, including jungles, icy mountains, European cities, skyscrapers and more), and the technology pretty good. Unleashed features fairly crisp texture work, a host of visual effects like shimmering translucent water, a robust particle engine, and more, and it runs at 30 frames per second with some fluidity dips here and there. Of course, it runs in progressive-scan and widescreen on Wii, too.
The daytime levels are great fun, even if they do occasionally feel like they are playing themselves -- a running complaint of all Sonic games and let's face it, you either love this or you hate it. The game moves at an incredibly fast pace and most of the speed-killing obstacles present in other Sonic games, Secret Rings included, have been removed. The result are stages that feel like roller coaster rides complete with sharp turns, branching routes, and the trademark loop-de-loops and rail-slides of the series. When, on occasion, you actually do slow down, it's because you chose to do so and not because some poorly implemented barrier appeared out of nowhere, like a set of spikes you couldn't outmaneuver in time. And purists will be pleased to see that levels seamlessly change perspectives as you go so that at one moment you're blazing forward, side-stepping enemies and Z-sliding underneath walls and in the next, you've got a 2D view as the hedgehog rolls through a loop and takes a bumper straight up.
The daytime levels scream by, but Sonic Team and Dimps have devised methods to keep you coming back for more. You earn ratings and medals based on how well you play -- how many rings you collect and how much time elapses before you reach the goal -- and if you perform poorly the first time through, as you might, you can come back again and try for a better score. Meanwhile, there are secondary missions -- time challenges, and ring challenges that successfully re-use levels but add freshly enjoyable hurdles that feel well balanced and not simply tacked on to add a few extra minutes of gameplay time.
Given that the sunlit levels are so good, I had optimistically hoped that the nighttime element would be downplayed in Sonic Unleashed, but unfortunately the opposite is true. Early on, you will play roughly three times as many nighttime levels as you will daytime ones, a truth that might just convince you to put the controller down. Stick it out a while and more and more daytime areas will mercifully become unlocked -- you'll be able to travel across the world map directly to these missions. But all said and done, you will absolutely spend more time under the moon than you will the sun, and the clock count is multiplied because the daytime levels are over shortly after they begin; Sonic flies through these areas. In stark contrast, the werehog is a slow, dumb beast and thus the nighttime stages take three times as long to complete.
It's not even that the werehog missions are offensively bad -- they aren't. It's just that the werehog sucks the speed right out of the game, effectively transforming a Sonic the Hedgehog experience into something much slower and far less desirable. He's a tank. Imagine if Nintendo created a Mario platformer in which the plumber couldn't jump. In werehog form, Sonic stumbles around environments and fights enemies with simple combos. To the title's credit, it does include a detailed upgrade system that unlocks new moves as you progress through the adventure. On Wii, there's a lot of really stupidly mapped controls. For instance, you will actually have to shake the controller from side-to-side in order to gain momentum when the werehog swings off poles. Thankfully, you can opt to play the entire game with the classic or GameCube controllers, which eliminates this issue. Very quickly on, you will recognize a pattern -- a template that repeats itself over and over again. Enter area, break open some crates and barrels, come into a clearing and fight some enemies, jump across a couple of platforms and repeat. It goes on and on, the only differences the change in backgrounds; even the enemies remain mostly the same.
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