I recently found myself having one of those conversations that always happen when people discover that I make my living sitting around in my pants, playing games. After the obligatory "you lucky sod" outburst, and the slight recoil at the mental image of me in my pants, sweaty joypad in hand, they asked what I was playing at the moment. "The new Sonic game," I replied. "Wow, is Sonic still going?" they asked, before adding "Oh yeah, he was in that Mario game on the Wii."
You really couldn't ask for a more potent example of how far Sonic's stock has fallen. From matching Mario sale-for-sale throughout the '90s, he's now almost forgotten by the outside world, remembered only through supporting roles in Wii games and the charity of his one-time rival. Let's face it, Mario Olympics probably would have flown off the shelves on its own merits. Sonic Olympics? Not so much.
The tragedy is that this slump in fortunes can't be blamed on changing market forces or fickle public tastes. SEGA has simply forgotten how to make the most of its mascot, and while Mario leapt into the modern era with the confident Mario 64, Sonic has been stumbling clumsily through the 3D era, carried along by the dissipating momentum of his glory years.
Which brings us, rather unfortunately, to Sonic Unleashed. This was, as they always are, supposed to be the game that restored the blue hedgehog to fighting form; the game that finally delivered the next-gen Sonic experience we've been waiting for since the last-gen before last. It's not.
The plot once again revolves around Eggman and Chaos Emeralds. In the rather impressive CG intro, we see the moustachioed villain fire some new-fangled weapon which uses the power of Sonic's gems to split the planet into fragments, releasing something called Dark Gaia. Apropos of nothing, this process also turns Sonic into a "werehog", all fangs and claws and - for some reason - stretchy rubbery limbs. From there on, it's the usual job of travelling through different zones, beating climactic bosses and fixing each of the planet segments in turn.
Except nothing can ever be that simple. Sonic can now travel the globe, flitting between SEGA-ised facsimiles of real-world countries. Not only do these stereotypical towns act as hubs for the different levels, but they also feature lots of NPCs and side-quests. Complicating matters further, the game is split into day and night. During the sunshine hours, you play as normal Sonic. When the moon rises, you become the werehog. The available levels change accordingly, and make use of the character's different abilities. It's not a question of waiting around, since you can change the time of day on the map screen, in the pause menu or by hitting special hourglasses.
While Sonic is still all about speed, his hairy alter-ego is slower and more powerful. Werehog levels are therefore little more than crude beat-'em-ups, in which you pummel your way through waves of enemies and use your elastic arms to climb and swing to the next area. Experience can be traded in for more combo moves, but since mashing the strong attack button seems to get you through every encounter, there's not much point memorising the sequences required. The camera is also absolutely awful, frequently forcing you to make blind leaps or lurching around as it tries to keep up with your movements.
The normal Sonic stages, on the other hand, are much the same as every other modern Sonic game - impressive but inconsistent 3D rollercoasters in which you hurtle through pre-rendered loops, grind down rails and run smack into a wall of spikes because the game seems more interested in distracting you with things that go whoosh and whiz than actually coming up with level design that turns Sonic's speed into an asset rather than a hindrance.