"Sonic + 3D" is a formula that Sega has scratched its head over for the best part of a decade with ... not a great deal of success. If you ask me, it's the speed factor. Controlling the nippy hedgehog in two dimensions is hard enough. Add a third, and it becomes a twitchy, frustrating experience.
So here's the yaaay news: Sonic Unleashed handles Sonic's speed better than any other 3D game in the series to date. In fact, in its best moments, it's the modern Sonic game I always dreamed of playing: fast, exhilarating, ridiculously fun. Yet this is a game of two halves -- of day and night, of hedgehog and "werehog" -- and while the final product has patches of brilliance that made me love Sega again, Unleashed is weighed down by bloated platform sections of thudding mediocrity.
But let's start with the good bits. When the in-game sun is out, Sonic is his old self, a lightning-fast blue blur. The day stages combine 3D and 2D sections, with often stunning effect. We all know that Sonic works as a 2D game, and that holds true here, but for the first time ever, I loved the 3D portions almost as much. The camera is fixed rigidly behind the hedgehog, and the controls are reassuringly solid. There's very, very little of the twitchiness I mentioned above.
It's a gorgeous game, as well: tons of color and detail, and it feels fast. Crucially, the switch between 3D and 2D and back again is handled flawlessly -- not once did I become disoriented or lose any sense of control. If I had just one quibble, it's that the Wiimote motions used for your speed boosts and homing attacks feels a little similar, and occasionally the game gets confused. Fortunately, thanks to Classic Controller support (which I'd recommend using), this is almost a moot point. Everything else about these stages is really, really enjoyable.
Then the moon appears, and it all goes a bit wrong.
Without exception, I found Sonic Unleashed's night stages to be unimaginative, linear, dull, and devoid of any real challenge. Here, Sonic transforms into his slower, more powerful werehog alter-ego and repeatedly brawls with enemies to progress through the level. Each night stage quickly blurred into one in my mind, with the same tactics employed time and again: run a few yards, fight some generic monsters to make a barrier blocking your way disappear, run again for twenty seconds, fight some more enemies to make a barrier fade away, move forwards again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Like the rest of the game, these parts are pretty enough, but there's such a lot of braindead design. You'll often find yourself running towards the fixed camera (and missing jumps as a result), few alternative routes are offered, and the next time I play a platformer with invisible walls (Sonic the werehog can double jump about ten feet, but the game won't let you hurdle walls that are three feet high), I won't be held accountable for my actions.
That's to say nothing of the combat, which is way too easy for its own good. The default right punch/left punch attack (X and Y on the Classic Controller, or alternating shakes on the Wiimote and Nunchuk) is handy enough to beat most enemies, which means you do little more than mash buttons. Your foes spill orbs that grant Sonic new combos, but why bother learning new moves when you can simply smash your way through? Fighting is also woefully imprecise. Unless you're correctly aligned with enemies to the nth degree, your flailing attacks miss. It's as though Z-targeting never actually happened.
The real kicker, though? The night stages last longer (anything between eight and twelve minutes each) than the day levels (two to four minutes, usually), and there's a lot more of them. At one point, my only motivation for slogging through the night sections was the promise of another glorious day stage. Half an hour of tedium for four minutes of joy. It's like being allowed to have one mouthful of delicious tiramisu, but then being forcefed twenty spoonfuls of cod liver oil before your next mouthful (if you'll excuse the wonky math).
The bits in between aren't so hot, either; just navigating your way to the next stage can be nightmarish. Each of the villages in the game has a sacred shrine containing doors to the various day/night stages. Except you can't just walk into said shrine and choose a level -- that would be too sensible. At first, you have to talk to a bunch of villagers so they can tell you where the blasted shrine is. Speak to the right villager, and then the shrine appears on your map. This is pointless padding, and possibly the most convoluted "stage select" screen of all time.
Sonic Unleashed, then, manages to be both hugely entertaining and hugely dull at the same time, and most of it is the latter (hence the score). Will lessons be learned for next time? Early screens of Sonic and the Black Knight suggest not, which is why I was so critical of it here. Perhaps I'll be proved horribly wrong (not for the first time) and we'll get a well-crafted, thoughtful, and enjoyable platformer, as well as the great running stages from Unleashed. But I'm not holding my breath, and nor should you.
Final score: 4/10