Top critical review
A fun game hamstrung by poor choices.
on 29 August 2014
Sonic the Hedgehog's reputation took a bit of a nosedive after the series' transition to 3D, and especially after the Dreamcast's life cycle ended. But to be fair, while there have been some pretty mediocre titles (the ultra-repetitive Sonic Heroes and the cynical attempt at C&C in Shadow the Hedgehog being two prime examples), the only genuinely terrible game was the 2006 reboot, simply called Sonic the Hedgehog. Not only was the story absolutely horrendous, but the game was clearly unfinished with one of the worst cameras in any 3D platformer, perhaps second only to the notorious Bubsy on the original Playstation.
Sonic Unleashed therefore took the somewhat understandable step of trying to add a significantly different new gameplay style to its repertoire, and the result is certainly playable and enjoyable at times. However, a few questionable decisions prevent it from being the return to form it could have been, and instead leaves it as an interesting but still somewhat lacklustre sidestep in Sonic's history before the series finally got back to previous glories with Sonic 4, Sonic Generations, and Sonic Colors.
There are two major problems I have with the game, one of which is based on gameplay and the other is based on the concept. In terms of the gameplay, the reliance on QTEs and strategy-devoid beat-`em-up stages is what holds it back. The majority of Sonic's levels are great fun (and thankfully not affected by this lazy trope, unlike Sonic and the Secret Rings which had the excuse of being the first Wii-exclusive Sonic title and thus needed to account for the console's unique control structure) and, despite focusing on speed, manage to have enough variety and platforming that it never becomes an exercise in just rushing to the end, which unfortunately is what a lot of Sonic `fans' seem to think the series should be about despite the classic instalments having plenty of slower moments to mix things up and keep players concentrating.
But the werehog levels take the gameplay too far to the other extreme, and end up becoming a monotonous button-mashing experience. They do at least give the werehog some extra platforming abilities like being able to swing across with his arms ala Ristar, but the fighting is very boring in how redundant it is. Instead of creating any complexity in the controls or varying the dynamic of the battles, the game just throws more and more enemies at you each time. This becomes tedious very quickly, and since the levels are basically divided between "Fast-ish Zones" and "Slow-ish Zone," it ultimately feels like two completely different games instead of one game with diverse gameplay. True, there was a mix of slow and fast levels in the classic titles as well, but you were still playing as the same character the whole way through, and there was always the feeling that the next speed-altering section was just a screen away, keeping you on your toes the whole time. You don't get that here, you know the daytime stages will mostly focus on running and the nighttime stages will mostly focus on brawling. There's not much surprise and thus not much reason to remain focused on your task.
Even worse, however, is the flying stages. I have no problem with the stages being in the game, because there have been such stages in previous Sonic games and it's well-established that Tails flies a plane. I do, however, have a problem with these stages being almost entirely QTE-based. In Sonic 2, all you needed to do was move the plane around with the directional pad and jump on enemies with the regular jump button. It still represented a decent challenge. Unfortunately, Sonic Unleashed takes the ludicrous step of turning what should be straightforward stages into timed mini-games where you have to keep pressing buttons as they appear on the screen. These sections are becoming more and more commonplace in games, but they're entirely appropriate sometimes. For instance, in games such as Heavy Rain where the amount of actions you have to perform could not practically be mapped out onto a regular control scheme, or on occasions in cutscenes (e.g. Resident Evil 4, Mass Effect 2) where a button prompt will give you a split second to make a potentially big decision. But in the case of Sonic Unleashed's flying stages, they serve no purpose. All you're doing is moving the plane around, dodging enemy missiles, and firing missiles at the enemies. There is simply no reason why you cannot do this with a regular set of defined controls. The QTEs were presumably put into the game to simplify the experience and provide something different, but they do the exact opposite, making things far more complicated than they need to be and looking like they've been shoehorned in because every other game is doing it.
I could also complain about how boring the hub worlds are, but they're at least functional unlike in Sonic '06, and Sonic Adventure had them as well yet was still a great game (as do a lot of excellent games) so it would be imposing a personal dislike of hub worlds in general onto the game, which wouldn't really be fair.
The second major fault, in my opinion at least (and I recognise this will be really subjective but I still think it holds true), is the story. The implementation of the werehog stages has a poor execution. I don't have a problem with creating new styles of level in Sonic games, after all Tails and Knuckles have been around since the very early games and had flying/gliding/climbing abilities that Sonic could not emulate. When done correctly, it's a good way of creating replay value, and in many of the other 3D Sonic games, there were multiple characters with intertwining story-arks that usually were pretty well done and tied together well at the end. But that's the problem - the werehog is not a new character. He's just Sonic with a different physicality. So instead of two defined characters working together on separate paths thus keeping the story at a fast and urgent pace, it's one character slowly meandering his way through a single plotline despite the stakes apparently being higher than ever before. This comes across as a major downgrade from the unity and teamwork that played a big part in many of the previous games.
Not to mention, the excuse given for why he suddenly has this affliction is extremely asinine. Sonic has the powers of the chaos emeralds drained into him (or something) and this somehow turns him into the werehog. Even if you can still pull out an amazing explanation for this, it still relies on a major pull as well as completely retconning a radical new dimension to the emeralds that wasn't necessary. I guess this was done to try and add some sort of internal consistency to Sonic's transformation, but all it does is strain artifice. To me, this is the same as if Sonic '06 introduced Silver the Hedgehog as an alter-ego of Sonic where he's gained telekinetic powers for some reason that takes ages to try and justify to the audience. Ditto for Shadow. For me personally, the werehog would have been far more believable if he had just been a new character, rather than requiring this new unforeseen event caused by one of the major recurring factors in the game that has never exhibited anything close to this before now. In fact, Sonic has an annoying little sidekick in this game called Cookie who has little to no personality or traits outside of a high-pitched voice and liking sweet foods. It would have been much easier to accept that HE was the werehog, and that it was just another supernatural occurrence in this already bizarre world, as well as being really funny to see this unimposing guy become such a hulking monstrosity. Plus, there could then have been a co-op mechanic where Sonic could switch to Cookie (who can fly) to get over long gaps in the daylight stages, and switch to Cookie as the werehog to fight hoards of bad guys in the night stages. It's not like this game needed Sonic to be transformed in order to have drama, they make it pretty clear that the fate of the world is in jeopardy regardless of whether Sonic's a werehog or not. If anything, it's a distraction.
Both of these major flaws make it difficult to enjoy the game as much as I would like to, but it still holds up as a decent title and gets more hate than it deserves. In fact, you'll rarely see reviewers criticise the game for the reasons I have. They'll usually just cry because it's not constant endless running or because they think every single entry into the series should be exactly the same as the original games. In fact, IGN earned derision for saying they shouldn't even have made any sequels as they got progressively worse after the first game, which is complete rubbish especially since Sonic 2 is often considered the best game on the Mega Drive and Sonic 3 and Knuckles is also a masterpiece. By that logic, Super Mario should never have got a sequel because Mario Bros 2 wasn't as good as the original. There's nothing wrong with trying different things, as long as the core element remains intact. On this occasion it didn't quite work out for the Sonic series, but the daylight stages proved to be a solid foundation for the improved titles in the following years.
I can't recommend going out of your way to play Unleashed, but nor should you strive to avoid it. It's a decent game and, considering what an unmitigated atrocity Sonic '06 was, this was a big improvement.