Version tested: Wii
Reviewing the Wii version of a multi-format release can be a thankless task. It's by far the leading format of this console generation, but too often Wii owners are palmed off with botched ports; games developed for the more powerful consoles crudely squashed into a Wii-shaped box, with half-hearted motion controls tacked on the side.
Every now and again, however, a game comes along where the Wii's limitations prove to be beneficial, highlighting just where the rush to bigger, shinier toys can lead developers astray, and Sonic Unleashed fits that bill. A flabby, meandering hybrid of various ill-fitting genres in its big-boy console incarnation, it's plagued by camera issues and an overly complicated structure that leaves the player shuttling between lifeless locations, trying to work out which level they need to tackle next and what they need to do to find it.
In adapting the game for the Wii, Sonic Team has been forced to drop or change most of the problematic elements from the 360 and PS3. The bloated and largely unnecessary adventure game trappings, for example, have gone, so there's no more wandering around rigid hub towns, triggering random conversations in search of clues. Instead you get a map of the town, and click on each area to see what the people within have to say. You can rattle through the exposition and actually start enjoying some gameplay in the same time it would take to initiate a pointless conversation in the other version.
The opaque structure has also been smoothed out and made clear. You still visit areas in much the same order, but the game tells you where to go to access the next chunk of story, while unlocked bonus levels are also flagged and pinpointed as you earn them. The collectible sun and moon medals no longer play such a pivotal role in accessing the story stages, and are handed out after tutorial levels as well as being easier to find in the gameplay stages.
Since the Wii version does away with the concept of advancing time to alternate between day and night sections, preferring to automatically change you between normal Sonic and his lycanthrope werehog form as the levels dictate, progress has been streamlined. You spend much more time playing the game and a lot less time grinding for medals and fruitlessly hunting for the way forwards. You could argue that these omissions render the game simplistic and linear, but since the structural clutter never really added anything beyond padding it's no great loss. Linearity isn't always a bad idea if the alternative is a confusing jumble.
The levels themselves are also greatly improved, in most cases completely different to the ones found in the 360 and PS3 version, and it's the werehog stages that benefit most from the change. Since the Wii control setup has never favoured 3D cameras, the viewpoint is mostly fixed from behind and the levels redesigned accordingly. This all but eliminates the frustrations of the platforming sections, ensuring that you can at least always see where you're jumping. The werehog also gets a combat overhaul, with control of his arms now mapped to shakes of the remote and nunchuk.
It gets a little tiring during the later stages as you flail at waves of bad guys, and it's hardly the most precise combat system, but it's certainly no worse than the button-mashing found on the other consoles. You still earn XP from defeated foes and smashed scenery, but the combos are fewer in number and unlocked automatically as the game counts up your haul at the end of each level. This never needed half-baked RPG pretensions in the first place, so once again it's another mostly useless feature rendered straightforward.
The Sonic stages have changed the least, but they didn't need any radical improvements anyway. It is a shame that the series is still so fixated on these often non-interactive sequences of loop-the-loops and rail slides, but that seems unlikely to change any time soon. The only major grumble is that some of the later stages set you tasks that require unrealistic combinations of speed and finesse. One particularly infuriating ice stage asks that you reach the goal in 90 seconds without hitting any of the fragile icicles jutting from the floor or sliding over the edge. It's an agonisingly fussy requirement, and neither the slippery freeform controls nor the ability to lock Sonic in a forwards direction, shuttling side to side with the stick, are up to the job. It's hair-tearing stuff.
So let's not get carried away. Sonic Unleashed on the Wii is a very different game to its lumpy 360 and PS3 counterparts, and that's a good thing, but it's still not quite a return to form. Stripped of unnecessary narrative nonsense and forced to use new camera views and level designs, it's simply a more satisfying rendition of the same thing, more faithful to the original series and undoubtedly the version that Sonic fans should pick up. The werehog character remains a clumsy fit, and Unleashed is no great shakes when considered against today's top-tier platformers, but if nothing else it's at least less frustrating, and therefore more fun to play, than its rather ugly sisters on the HD consoles.
6 / 10