Every new Sonic release carries a hope that Sega's blue hedgehog will be able to regain the form that made him a star in the early '90s. And most every venture into the third dimension has resulted in various degrees of failure. Sonic Unleashed is able to buck the trend started by previous Sonic adventures and continued by the high-definition versions of this very same game. The Wii version uses the same concepts as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 renditions, pairing Sonic's trademark speed through loops and over collapsing bridges with slow-paced werehog levels that focus on precise platforming and hand-to-hand combat. However, with entirely new levels and much more responsive controls, the Wii version is a vastly superior experience. The combat is repetitive, and there aren't enough levels that focus entirely on speed, but Unleashed is an ultimately fun adventure that brings back fond memories of Sonic's heyday.
The story begins with Dr. Eggman shooting the world with a giant ray gun. Predictably, the planet breaks apart, but there is an unexpected side effect as well. Innocuous Sonic gets transformed into a giant, mean-looking creature called a werehog. This abomination emerges only when the sun goes down, and the game lets you play stages during the day and at night to make full use of your dual personalities. Even though there are an equal number of hedgehog and werehog stages, most of your time in Sonic Unleashed will be spent at night, given that the shallow combat takes far longer than the sprint-to-the-finish-line hedgehog races.
The traditional Sonic levels are a blast. You'll sprint across the land at top speeds, just like Sonic is supposed to do, and tight controls make the whole thing very enjoyable. It's incredibly easy to snatch precious rings as you sprint by, target enemies to leap to higher platforms, and wall-jump up tight passageways, all without slowing down for even a second. The responsive controls are the backbone of this adventure, making it fun and rewarding to sprint through these levels as fast as possible, but the level design also deserves praise. Everything is intelligently laid out, letting you see obstacles well in advance. You'll never find yourself running into an unseen wall of spikes or falling down a pit because you couldn't see a platform located beneath you. Punishment is also kept to a minimum. Often, if you miss an important jump, you'll merely fall to another part of the level and continue on your way. When you do die, you are placed near where you fell off, which encourages you to experiment with more-difficult paths through levels.
The biggest problem with the hedgehog levels is that there are not enough of them. Each of the eight unique environments has only one hedgehog stage to run through. This isn't quite as bad as it sounds, considering that the same levels can be replayed with different tasks, but it is disappointing to have only a handful of different worlds to sprint through. Your main goal is always to get to the finish line in whichever manner you choose, but the other goals add restrictions that offer some variety. For instance, you'll be asked to collect a certain amount of rings or plow through a level without being hit by an enemy. Each instance adds a few tweaks to the basic layout, but the dearth of new worlds is grating after a while. Nevertheless, seeing as how the levels are so fun to play, you'll still find yourself going back to set new records or search for branching paths that you missed the first time.
The werehog levels are a drastic change of pace from those of the hedgehog. These levels are split between mindless combat and deliberate platforming, though you'll thankfully spend longer navigating the environment than destroying forgettable enemies. You have a few standard platforming tricks up your sleeve, such as double-jumping across treacherous pits and climbing up poles, but you also have stretchable arms that let you reach distant platforms. This twist doesn't add a whole lot to the experience, merely giving you more leeway when you're trying to leap across gaps. Camera control is taken out of your hands, but the game almost always gives you an optimal view to traverse these environments. The slower pace is pretty jarring after playing the superspeedy Sonic levels, but it can still be satisfying to play as the werehog.
Jumping and grabbing is an enjoyable, if uninspired, experience, but the combat you'll have to endure is anything but. It is mindless to a fault, forcing you to repeat the same attacks throughout the entire game. Each arm is controlled independently, but there isn't a difference between your right-hand and left-hand attacks. There is no strategy or skill needed; you simply rush headfirst into battle and let your werehog limbs fly. You'll unlock more combos as you progress through the game, but you won't have to worry about pulling off any specific moves in the heat of battle. Mashing without thought is all you need to succeed, which makes these combat encounters awfully boring. There are only a handful of battles in each level, and you can dispatch the enemies fairly quickly, but these brawls make the werehog levels more tedious than they should be.
The visuals are cheery and inviting in Sonic Unleashed. The camera adjusts during loop runs and rail grinds to show a cinematic angle, letting you enjoy the scenic vistas as Sonic speeds by. The frame rate stays high, even when you're battling giant robots while sprinting along twisted paths. Sonic is at its best when you're flying through the levels at top speeds, and Unleashed is able to capture that enjoyment quite well. The responsive controls are easily adaptable depending on your preferences. You can use the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, Classic, or GameCube controllers. Regardless of which controller you use, the hedgehog sections rely on the analog stick and buttons to get by--only sprinting requires a sharp whack from your Wii Remote. In the werehog stages, you'll have to swing your arms to punch, which gets exhausting after a while. Regardless, no matter which option you choose, the controls are responsive.
Sonic Unleashed for the Wii is completely different from its high-definition counterparts, and is all the stronger for it. The hedgehog's speed is captured quite well here, letting you fly through levels with ease. The werehog sections are a bit too plodding, but the platforming sections are still quite enjoyable. It's just a shame that you'll spend more of your time controlling the lumbering werehog than the speedy hedgehog. Even if you have to endure a few too many boring werehog fights, it's still worth playing through this adventure just to see Sonic sprint again.