Version tested: Xbox 360
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.
Regardless of which sections you're playing, control is a constant issue. Sonic is slippery, all but impossible to control at top speed and inevitably prone to zooming to his death at a moment's notice, while the werehog stages are sluggish and gluey, plagued by repetitive combat and horrifically frustrating platform sections. You're far more likely to lose your lives to an infuriating camera angle or hard-to-judge leap than to any of the dumb enemies standing in your way.
The fact that SEGA's seen fit to turn Sonic into a melee fighter for half the game should give you a good idea of what's gone wrong. It's the same thing, of course, that's been going wrong with Sonic for years. Rather than focusing on what works, SEGA has once again smothered the character in reams of extraneous clutter and gameplay ideas that do nothing to enhance the series' best features.
Take, for example, the non-player characters. Conversing with these brings up pointless banter, except for the handful of characters you must talk to in order to advance the story. You have no idea which these characters will be, so each time you enter a new area you have to go around triggering mindless speech bubbles in search of the one that you need. Collecting sun and moon medals from around the world opens up more levels, but once again you're given no clue as to which ones have opened. Given that each area can be explored twice - during the day and night - simply working out where you're supposed to go next is a real slog.
It's possible - likely, even - that your stilted progress will come to a standstill when you discover you need to go back and replay the same levels over and over again until you've found enough trinkets to open up the relevant area. Toss in some boss fights that rely on long-winded grinding of enemy health bars or insultingly simple quick-time events and you've got a game where even the basics of the genre are made unappealing.
It keeps piling on the tasks though. You can replay levels as time trials or survival battles, to earn hotdogs which you can feed to Chip, your all-new irritating sidekick. You can buy souvenirs from each country you visit, and swap these for gameplay hints. You can collect books of concept art and music tracks, but must then buy a bookshelf or find a record player before you can use them. You're given a camera and told to find people "acting suspiciously", so you can take their photo and trigger a battle scene to exorcise them of Dark Gaia. There are lots of distractions, but thanks to the game's obtuse design you're never entirely sure what's optional and what's essential.
Structurally speaking, it's just a mess. It's as if SEGA no longer feels confident that Sonic will connect with today's gamers so it's included a bit of everything. Desperation shrouds the whole project in thick, choking waves. It's a platform game, a fighting game and an adventure game, yet none of these elements feels fully developed. There's no logical progression, no direction to the action, just the thankless task of blundering around the same areas trying to guess what the game wants you to do next.
The result is a lumpy splurge of half-developed ideas, flung together with no apparent throughline for the player to follow. There are occasional flickers of the old magic, most notably in the earlier Sonic levels where the balance between speed and exploration is more welcoming, but these moments only serve to make the later frustrations harder to endure.
Admittedly, Sonic Unleashed is marginally better than the execrable 2006 effort, but that's incredibly faint praise and only useful as a benchmark to the most blinkered fan. Compared to Mario Galaxy or Ratchet & Clank - heck, even compared to Crash Bandicoot, another platforming mascot mired in mediocrity - Sonic Unleashed is an obviously poor effort from a series that is still hopelessly lost in the modern gaming landscape.
4 / 10