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Mini-Review: Sonic Unleashed

Sonic UnleashedThis review of the Wii version of the game was originally published at on December 2, 2008. 

Sonic Unleashed begins where most Sonic games end. Dr. Robotnik has put his latest plan at conquering the world in order to build his own Eggmanland into motion, but Sonic had found the seven Chaos Emeralds and is rapidly racing through the doctor's latest badniks. Sonic turns Super and smashes his way through a robotic blockade, but the doctor's fallback plan captures Sonic, drains the Chaos Emeralds of their power, and transforms Sonic into a monstrous feral beast. Oh, and the planet below splits open and releases an evil force destined to doom mankind. Sonic is ejected into space where he falls back to the planet and apparently lands on a mysterious little critter that has no memories of himself or his place in the world. Sonic and his new friend (named Chip after the little guy's craving for all things chocolate) have to travel the globe to revive the Chaos Emeralds and put the planet back together before Robotnik can completely take over.

Unleashed is basically divided into three types of gameplay. The game's primary levels are locked at the start of the adventure. Players will have to talk to villagers around the world to learn the location of the actual gameplay. Sometimes Sonic will encounter a daylight stage which is what we've come to expect from Sonic the Hedgehog game: blue skies, branching paths through which to run, enemies to smash, rings to collect, and everything else that makes the really good parts of the Sonic experience so joyful. The idea is to race to the goal ring as quickly as possible. Each daylight level alternates between 3D camera-behind-Sonic segments and, in a nice twist that reminds me of Sonic games of the 16-bit era, 2D sidescrolling levels with the camera turned perpendicular to our hero. However, at night Sonic transforms into the beast and must punch and slam his way through contained environments full of creatures made of dark energy. The objective is still to reach the goal ring, but now Sonic moves very slowly and is built more for savage beatdowns than raw speed.

Sonic UnleashedThe absolute best aspect of Sonic Unleashed are the speedy daylight levels. Sega and Sonic Team has struggled to make the original Sonic formula work in 3D for nearly a decade now, but Unleashed comes very close to capturing the essence of what the character needs to be. Daylight levels are built for running, jumping, and the occasional dodge. Sonic can even bank around corners now and (aided with extra rings) can blast ahead with a brief turbo boost. There are no tiny platforms to maneuver or bottomless pits at every turn. Run far and run fast is the order of the day, and frankly, it's spectacular.

The controls feature what has become the usual Wii remote shakery for moves that could just as well have performed by pressing the buttons, but the game also supports both the Classic controller and the GameCube controller. In fact, I found it much easier to control Sonic with the Classic controller over the default remote and nunchuk combination. Players who really sink deep into the Unleashed experience can go the extra mile to unlock concept art, music, movie clips, and secret documents that provide a few obvious gameplay tips.

Wii visuals don't often get a spotlight mention compared to what one can see on the PS3 or X360, but Unleashed is quite an impressive sight. The opening widescreen progressive cinematic that kickstarts the plot has to be one of the best video clips in a Wii game that I've ever seen. The gameplay graphics shine as well (particularly in the day levels), but there is some noticeable detail pop-up during the night brawling stages at times. The soundtrack deserves a special mention as it has finally brought Sonic away from the endless metal rock that has scored pretty much every Sonic game from Sonic Adventure through Sonic and the Secret Rings. There is a rich orchestral sound at play here that meshes with the action perfectly. Crank up the speakers for this one. It's worth it.

Sonic UnleashedThe Wii version of Sonic Unleashed lacks a traditional 3D hub world (e.g. Station Square from Sonic Adventure) and instead relies on a map marked with locations to guide Sonic from place to place. That's not such a problem (Sonic Adventure 2 featured something similar), but my issue is that these map screens aren't used to move between stages, but to move between asking villagers where to go next. The villagers have nothing of interest to say and only seem to exist to pad out the adventure. Why not just add new levels to the select screen as they become available? There's seemingly no reason why one must shift between still character images matched with useless dialog balloons in order to locate new stages.

Early trailers and screenshots for Sonic Unleashed promised large bright shiny blue sky levels packed full of speedy exploration along with a few brawling segments featuring Sonic's beastly alter ego (dubbed a "Werehog"). Unfortunately, for what must be the first time ever, advertisements don't tell the whole story. The daylight speedster levels are the closest we've come to classic Sonic goodness since the Sega Genesis era and early Dreamcast days, but there just aren't that many of them. Slow bulky brawly werehog levels make up the bulk of the experience and they take longer to complete than the daylight stages, making the superior day stages feel like a tease. A day stage can be completed in about three minutes or so, but the night stages can take around an average of eight minutes to complete (and that's for an S ranking; stumble or get lost a few times and that time can expand upwards of twelve to fifteen minutes), and making matters worse is that the night stages tend to come in groups of three, meaning that for about every half hour or more of night brawling, players are rewarded with a quick romp through the daylight before being sent back to the dark.

Sonic Unleashed has some stellar moments that remind me of better Sonic games from days gone by, but players will have to slog through the repetitive night stages to reach them. Ideally this formula should have been flipped. One would think that the speedy day stages would have been the focus of the game while the werehog gimmick would be used for a quick change of pace. Please, Sonic Team: Sonic is all about speed. Turn him loose and let him run! As it stands, the lack of more day stages to provide some balance to the experience leaves this game feeling more like Sonic Unfinished.