Created by Sonic Team / Rated E 10+ / 1 Player / Wii: MSRP $49.99 / Xbox 360: $59.99
Dual Review written by Ray of 2P START! / all screeshots from Xbox 360 version

I’m going to come right out and say it: the Sonic stages in the Xbox 360 version of Sonic Unleashed are the best 3D Sonic stages I have ever played since 2001’s Sonic Adventure 2. It’s not only a step in the perfect direction to redefine the Sonic series as we know it, but also proof that Sonic Team finally gets it.

Unfortunately, everything else about the game is somewhere between blah and atrocious, weighed down heavily by old unnecessary habits from past titles, and proof that Sonic Team still doesn’t get it.

Amazingly, this is the very first Sonic game on a home console to take advantage of 2.5D gameplay, or in other words, side-scrolling gameplay in a 3D environment. It’s ridiculous how Sonic Team went through six full-fledged 3D Sonic titles before bringing him back to his original side-scrolling roots. This is something I have been wanting Sonic Team to do for some time, but I’ve been even more pleased how well they have merged the two gameplay styles together. The automatic switching between 2.5D and 3D gameplay is flawless and does both very well.

Sonic has been given a number of new abilities that are major improvements in terms of gameplay, allowing players to move at incredible speeds while still maintaining control. Instead of dodging objects at high speeds by trying to curve Sonic’s direction with the joystick, side-stepping allows him to quickly move left or right with a button press. Having objects or walls hurling towards you is a lot more enjoyable now that you have an effective way to avoid them, and switching between grind rails is also much more fluid because of this system.

Another major improvement is having rings actually mean something besides serving as a safeguard from death. Collecting rings gives Sonic boost energy – which will blast Sonic forward at ridiculous speeds while ripping through enemies. It’s a fun system that has you constantly collecting rings to help you maintain your top speed. This is a system similar to one introduced in Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS, and I’m glad to see it finally used in a 3D title. It’s an ability you need to use in moderation at first, since screaming forward at 300mph is not the best choice on your first time through a level. Once you start to memorize the stage you can feel more confident in boosting without fear.

Unfortunately, a little too much trial-and-error is a still a problem in these stages. It’s one thing to throw a difficult platforming section in at high speeds, but the real problem is the camera. As you can see from the screenshot to the upper left, you simply have no way of knowing what’s coming after that loop. If the camera were pulled back a bit more, players would have more time to spot an object coming and still have time to react. In many cases, the camera is so close that you don’t even have time to see an object before it either flies past you or you slam into it. Minor changes to the camera work could vastly improve an already spectacular engine.

For the Wii, however, things aren’t exactly the same. After playing both versions extensively, there is no doubt in my mind that the Wii version is a mediocre attempt at recreating the "Hedgehog Engine"originally developed for the 360. The controls are much more rigid and unforgiving, Sonic doesn’t feel as fluid (since none of his animations have much of a transition to each other), the levels themselves are shorter in length (made completely from scratch with almost nothing in common with the stage layout on 360), and two stages were simply left out.

It’s difficult to describe these differences successfully, so I encourage you to watch the two videos below. They are both of the "Shamar: Arid Sands" stage, with the Wii version on the right. To put it simply, the Wii version just doesn’t have the same ‘wow’ factor that its big brother on the 360 has.

 

Unfortunately, the Sonic stages are only a part of the game. When nightfall comes, Sonic transforms into a Werehog. The bottom line is that the Werehog is simply a mess from every angle. He is a poorly designed, uninteresting, and unecessary character forced into a Sonic title. His unique gameplay style isn’t broken as with past titles such as Sonic ’06 or Shadow the Hedgehog, but there are so many minor frustrations that, when added together, ensure the Werehog will be a gameplay chore to just about anyone.

Werehog gameplay is essentially playing Kung Fu Panda: you do some minor platforming, swing from poles, balance on tight-rope walks, and beat up groups of enemies here and there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it seems like every element is just a little more frustrating than it needs to be. For starters, you rarely have a shadow. So when over a bottomless pit, you can never jump from platform to platform with clear certainty that you’re landing where you want. For the moments that you do have a shadow, it’s a ‘real shadow.’ In other words, it’s based on the current real-time lighting of the stage, so jumping will cause it to shift away from underneath you to follow the rules of how lighting really works. A quick note to developers: always give characters fake shadows.

Every move you make is just a little too slow. Pushing objects, climbing up poles, walking while holding objects, sidling across ledges, etc. There are various ways to speed up some of those moves, but it still doesn’t feel quick enough. Plus, why burden the player with a normal speed of ‘slow’?

Fighting enemies is a mixed bag. It can be as exciting or as boring as you make it, based on what combos you use. If you stick with mashing one button, it’s boring as bricks, but if you branch out and do a variety of moves, it becomes a little more interesting. Unfortunately, you’ll end up finding one or two moves that do the most damage or hit the most enemies, and you’ll stop wasting your time doing other less-effective combos.

The levels themselves feel a bit uninspired, and can last upwards of 20-30 min. They also aren’t as visually interesting as their daytime counterparts. I hear plenty of Werehog apologists saying that you can blast through them in 5-10 min, but that’s only true if you know what you’re doing and you’re trying to beat a time. Otherwise, you feel encouraged to check every corner and every door for hidden areas to collect sun and moon coins, which we’ll get to later…

If you thought the Werehog portion was poor already, then the Wii version takes it to a whole new level of frustration. While the Xbox 360 version has an equal eight stages for both day and night, the Wii version only has seven full Sonic stages and a ridiculous 25 full Werehog stages. I still can’t believe it. Even after checking it twice and typing it here, I honestly cannot believe it. These Wii stages are also made from scratch, and are even more generic and uninspired than before.

What’s worse is that the controls for the Wii version are incredibly flawed. The joystick only recognizes that you are pushing a particular direction, not that you’re pushing a direction with a certain amount of force. So choosing when you want to walk and when you want to run is not an option. Instead, the game forces you to walk no matter what, even when you’re pressing the joystick to its limit. After a moment of holding a direction, the Werehog will finally start running. This may not sound like much of a problem, but when you get to a thin walkway, or have to jump from one small platform to the next, you have to start thinking about how long it’ll be before the game forces you to run and messes up your timing because of it. But Sonic Team has recognized this problem, so when you reach a platforming area that doesn’t require much running, they secretly remove the option to run. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing if or when it’s removed. To make matters worse, sprinting requires tapping the joystick twice in one direction. Controls behaving in this manner were unacceptable in 1996, and they’re unforgivable in 2008.

But even if all of these problems in the Werehog stages were fixed, both versions would still suffer from an undeniable fact: no one is itching to buy a Sonic game to play Kung Fu Panda. Case in point: nothing is more un-Sonic than keeping my balance during a long, slow, tight-rope walk. Seriously – who has ever played a Sonic game and said to themselves, "man, this Sonic game would be so much more fun if I could tip-toe across rickety beams over a bottomless pit"?

No one, that’s who.

Well, unless you count the director of Sonic Unleashed

The last part of the game is the hubworlds, and it’s incredibly different for both versions. Without getting into too much detail for the 360, each part of the planet has its own ‘village’ and once you’re there you can talk with humans in the area (this is really overdone and totally unnecessary) and also find the next stage you need to play.

To enter into this stage, however, you will need to have earned enough sun and moon medals. These are scattered throughout the different stages and villages. Some have found this to be a frustrating process of going back to old stages only to wander around looking for a couple more medals needed to access the next world. Personally, I enjoyed this – as it gave me a chance to discover new side levels (act 2, act 3) that I had previously missed because I was too busy trying to race through the game.

The real problem for the 360 version is that the medals are just a small part of way too much crap to collect. If you want to ace the game, you’ll need to collect 400 medals, every video tape, every music record, every art book, every souvenir, eat all the different types of food, and earn every hot dog. These hot dog missions are the biggest, most unnecessary padding to ever exist in a Sonic game. Let me explain…

After clearing a stage for the first time, you can now take part in three different hot dog missions for Sonic. Collect X amount of rings, beat the stage in X amount of time, or defeat X amount of enemies. What it doesn’t say is that you have to clear the entire stage with the specific goal already reached, so don’t try grabbing 100 required rings and expect it to be over. What they also don’t tell you is that dying means failure. So if you grab 100 rings, and die before the goal ring, well, you’re going to need to start over. Yeah, those checkpoint markers are just there to tease you. But you’ll soon realize that simply earning those 100 rings isn’t enough, as clearing that requirement opens up a new one: now collect 200 rings. And once you clear that, you have the dreaded third and final mission: collect 300 rings!

Oh, did you collect 500 rings your first time through during the 100 ring mission? Well, too bad. You still have to do the 200 and 300 ring missions as well. So even if you are able to clear all Lv.3 challenges at once, it only counts for the mission you’re currently on. In the end, each stage must be played nine times. So really the challenge is, "do you have the time and motivation to clear this stage nine times without dying?" Don’t forget, there are still two more three-step missions for each Werehog stage as well. Unbelievable…

Thankfully, the Wii version does some things better here. For starters, you earn moon and sun medals based on what rank you earn when beating a level, and they’ve also done away with the hubworlds. Unfortunately, they’ve replaced these hubworlds with boring temples that you walk around in, doing lame puzzles involving switches between Sonic and Werehog, and opening up doors to the next stage. It’s really, really lame. What’s worse is that Sonic retains his 300mph speed and lightning fast controls in this cramped area intended to simply be walked around in. And although you no longer have to run around talking with humans, they’ve been recreated in text balloons you have to read after selecting them in a menu. Bleh…

There are far too many more things to discuss about problems carried over from past Sonic games, including but not limited to new characters, an "epic" end battle against yet another giant monster, and the list goes on. But thankfully, this time we have the most promising 3D Sonic levels ever created.

So listen closely Sonic Team, here’s the secret to the next Sonic game: instead of spending all of your time and energy creating overworlds, people, conversations, pathetic side-missions, new sidekicks, Werehogs, Werehog stages, Werehog enemies, ‘Night of the Werehog’ animated shorts, and a crap-load of unnecessary collectables, put all that energy into creating 20 more Sonic stages. Then sell it. You’ve got the Sonic gameplay nearly perferct, so just make more of it. That’s the Sonic game everybody has been waiting to play.

Verdict: Ask yourself if you’re willing to stomach the Werehog levels for the glorious Sonic ones. If so, avoid the Wii version and pick up the Xbox 360 version.

Xbox 360 Version: 7/10 | Wii Version: 5.5/10

Reviewer’s Completion:

360 Version: 50/50 achievements | story completed | all hotdog missions completed (sigh) | max sonic stats | max werehog stats | 200/200 sun medals | 200/200 moon medals | all food eaten | all exorcisms completed | talked to all townspeople | gave all souvenirs to professor | all stages completed

Wii Version: story completed | 13 lives | 88/103 sun medals | 65/71 moon metals | 122/216 extras collected

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