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 was supposed to provide the unrelenting speed fans have been clamoring for, and it does finally offer a healthy dose of turbo-charged levels to burn through. Unfortunately, even with Sonic's trademark speed finally on full display, Unleashed lacks one very important element: fun. The imprecise platforming, absentminded camera, and poor level design make Sonic's levels an unplayable mess, while his baffling transformation into lumbering werehog comes with a whole new slew of problems. Put simply, there is no reason to play Sonic Unleashed.
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 allows you to 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, since the arduous combat levels take far longer to complete than the sprint-to-the-finish-line hedgehog races.
The werehog levels are extremely tedious. The levels are evenly divided between platforming and fighting, but both elements offer more frustration than excitement. Even though you can unlock more combos as you progress through the journey, your combat strategy never evolves beyond mindlessly tapping two attack buttons with an occasional jump thrown in for good measure. You're given a shield for when things get too hectic, but it's hardly ever necessary. The enemies are stupid, blithely standing around until you take the fight to them, and their lack of variety becomes oppressively obvious after just a few hours. You’ll be given a few checkpoints in each level, but these are awkwardly placed, so you'll have to repeatedly mash through the same battalion of enemies if you can't properly navigate the woeful platforming sections.
As a werehog you're equipped with stretchable arms and the ability to grab onto ledges. This should come in handy when venturing around these stages, but a few arbitrary restrictions have been tossed in to make even simple navigation annoying. First of all, you can only grab onto certain surfaces. If you mistime a jump, you often won't be able to grab a nearby ledge to save yourself, resulting in a quick death. Second, your arms' stretchiness varies at random, so while it may be possible to grab a ledge from a certain distance at one point, from that same distance later on in the level, you'll find your reach stunted. The camera also hinders your progress. You are given free control over your view when standing in the middle of a large plot of land. But when placed on a precarious walkway where a perfect line of sight is necessary, your camera control will be severely restricted, allowing only slight shifts to either side of your character. Because the punishment system is so immediate and severe (falling in water results in instant death), these miscues will quickly steal away your precious lives, leaving only frustration in their wake.
The Sonic levels don't fare any better than the lousy werehog parts. Your goal is to run as quickly as possible to the finish line, but the camera is rarely able to give you an optimal view and the controls are far too loose to provide the pinpoint accuracy you'll need. These technical problems mean you'll have to memorize stages before you can breeze through them. The game is not responsive enough to allow you to consistently avoid obstacles the first time you encounter them, so you'll find yourself repeatedly plowing headfirst into spikes and falling down countless bottomless pits before you finally know where each obstacle lays ahead of time. Extra lives--something you’re usually happy to see in a game--actually serve as a warning in Sonic Unleashed. Particularly cheap sections are often adorned by these markers, ensuring you can play them repeatedly to memorize their cruel layout and hope luck is on your side.
Even after you commit these stages to memory, though, you'll still die over and over again because of the unresponsive controls. A few levels take place on the water, making you sprint at top speeds to keep from sinking below the surface. Moving laterally while blazing through waves is sluggish, but you'll still have to swerve to and fro to complete the missions. In other stages, you'll have to perform wall jumps to succeed. This ability only works on certain surfaces, but even when you find an ideal place to ricochet from, the finicky timing means you'll try and fail until you do it perfectly. Certain sections require you to slow down and perform precise jumps across tiny platforms. The controls are built for speed, though, so a slight push on the analog stick will send Sonic sprinting to his death. The game also tosses in quicktime events at random moments. Some of these will catapult you to different parts of the level, but other times you'll be hit with an instant death if you can't meet their strict deadlines.
Even the between-stage hub is a total drag. Though the professor is supposed to guide you to the next goal, he does little more than point you in a general direction and send you on your way. You'll have to talk to specific citizens to open some levels, and trying to track down the one person with pertinent information is an out-of-place burden. The level entrances are often hidden in random locations and hunting them down can be maddening. Worse, when you finally find one of these entrances, you'll often be kept from entering it until you collect a certain number of moon and sun pieces from previous levels. Collecting items in platformers is expected, but the loose controls and obstinate camera make searching for missing pieces grueling.
The boss fights follow the theme of the other elements in Sonic Unleashed. These battles are long and tedious, forcing you to play the waiting game for minutes on end until the giant beasts open themselves up for attack. The sheer length of these ordeals makes the fights far more aggravating than they would otherwise be. The attack patterns are easy to learn, so you'll spend more time standing around waiting for them to let their guard down than actually attacking them. Even worse, their attack patterns don't drastically change through the fight, so you'll be repeating the same basic dodge maneuvers until you can finally vanquish these oversized annoyances.
The lone bright spot in this otherwise painful mess are some cheery, bright visuals. The graphics are far from cutting-edge, but aside from some frame rate hitches, the game runs smoothly and the levels are pleasantly colorful. The game is at its best when your interaction with it is minimal and you're able to simply admire the view. The camera adjusts for cinematic impact while you tear through loops and grind rails as Sonic, and though you're doing little more than pushing right on the analog stick during these sections, it is entertaining to watch Sonic swoop by. It's sad that Sonic Unleashed is only enjoyable during the moments when you're hardly in control of it.
Pretty pictures aren't enough to make up for the miserable gameplay. Almost nothing else in this game even reaches the level of mediocrity. The Sonic levels are poorly laid out and have unresponsive controls, the werehog portions have monotonous combat and a wonky camera, and even the hub world is so difficult to navigate, you'll spend way too much time searching for the next level. There just isn't any fun to be had in Sonic Unleashed.