There’s something about the ubiquity of Nintendo that makes things difficult for other developers. After all, Nintendo was the first to make a party game, so every similar game falls victim to comparison. The same holds true for 3D platformers, mascot fighters, and, of course, kart racers. But while the original Sega kart racer was much more obviously inspired by the ever-present Mario Kart series, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a much different take on the formula. Sure, there are still elements that can be compared to Nintendo’s karting series, but once you start playing Sega’s effort, you’ll quickly see that it feels much different.
The most obvious difference is the eponymous transformations. At certain points during each race, the vehicles automatically transform between a car, a boat, and a plane depending on the situation. Cars handle as you would expect and are confined to the main track, whereas boats are the slowest form and must navigate waves that affect their steering. Conversely, planes are by far the fastest, but they often contain the most hazards to dodge. Fortunately, the developers at Sumo Digital are well aware about how often each should be used, creating fun and unique tracks that mix and match those combinations. Only a few tracks use all three vehicle modes and some don’t even bother using the car transformation at all. It all comes together to create a kart racer that doesn’t feel like anything that’s come before.
There’s also a greater emphasis on the skill of the player, as drifting, shortcuts, tricks, and item usage all factor heavily into play, especially on higher difficulties. Drifting is handled like most other games with a stronger boost that can be earned the longer it is held, though it may not always be the best tactic depending on how the curve is laid out. Shortcuts are always plentiful, especially with the freedom that flight allows. However, the most ingenious shortcuts are the ones laid out right in front of the player, as some alternate routes allow you to transform from a slower vehicle to a faster one much earlier. It truly encourages players to experiment during each race. The final element comes in the form of tricks, which are performed by flicking the right analog stick in various directions while in the air. For the karts, a successful trick will earn you an extra boost upon landing. Planes are a bit trickier though, as the right analog stick is used to barrel roll away from oncoming hazards, but you can earn a boost by performing it at the last possible moment. It’s a high risk, high reward system that encourages players to always be on the lookout for trick opportunities.
Items are also a major part of the racing, which should come as no surprise to kart racing fans. Strangely, the items don’t seem to have any connection to past Sega games, though many are similar to other kart games. Take the firework for example which can be fired forward or backward and will even ricochet off walls, or the RC car that will hunt down racers ahead of you, or the blowfish which acts as a mine. Then there are the unique items like the catcher’s mitt which will block any item coming at you and place it in your inventory to use, the All-Star which gives a character-specific boost of speed and a weapon, or the Hot Rod which provides players a boost but will explode if used for too long. It’s a nice mix overall with the added benefit that many can be avoided if you have enough skill.
But all of these gameplay additions won’t mean much if there aren’t great characters to play as or fun tracks to race on. Fortunately, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed has this covered in spades. There are over 20 racers in the game ranging from the typical Sonic staples to the more obscure like Vyse from Skies of Arcadia and Gilius Thunderhead of Golden Axe. It’s a great mix for almost any Sega fan. The tracks are also well done with references to Sega games that didn’t get a playable character such as Panzer Dragoon and Billy Hatcher. They’re all spectacular to look at and contain some appreciable Easter eggs for longtime Sega fans. It all comes across as a great love letter from a company with a history of quirky games.
The single player unfolds in the Career Mode which is where a majority of your gameplay will take place and is also how all of the characters are unlocked. There are the typical Grand Prix races and Time Attacks, but the bulk of the experience is in the World Tour. Here players are challenged to complete a variety of different races in order to earn stars, though the amount earned depends on the difficulty of the race. Fortunately, rather than just the typical races that can be found in Grand Prix, there is quite a lot of variety to the World Tour. In addition to normal races, there are also Boost Races, which prevents the use of items, Drift Challenges, which task players with drifting inside a marked area in order to earn time and complete a course, and Versus, where players race a single opponent to see if they can stay ahead for sixty seconds.
Many of these events actually train players how to race more effectively. The aforementioned Drift Challenge naturally focuses on drifting, Ring Races teach players how to fly, Boost Challenges show players how to chain boosts together, and Traffic Attack trains players on how to weave through courses without slowing down. Finally, there are the challenges that are just about having fun, such as Pursuit where players chase down a giant tank while firing missiles at it. World Tour alone can provide at least fifteen hours of gameplay, though it does have the unfortunate side effect of locking away much of the content. The stars you earn are used to unlock new characters, and while most can be acquired by completing the Medium challenges, some of the later characters require a lot of stars, which may prove to be a challenge for players who are less experienced at racing games. Some of these events, especially the later ones, can be downright brutal. Thankfully, the game never resorts to rubberband opponents, but they are brutal when it comes to item usage.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is an absolutely beautiful game and is filled to the brim with details. For example, the Skies of Arcadia track features an airship battle in the background that gradually destroys most of the racetrack, forcing everyone to transform from karts into planes. Then there is the NiGHTS track which takes racers through a small section featuring each of the original game’s more memorable bosses. It all looks great, though it comes at a bit of a cost. Load times, at least for the Playstation 3 version, are incredibly long. There’s a good ten second lull between each track and even switching modes can cause a load time. It’s never enough to ruin the game, but it can get aggravating between races. The game is also full of graphical glitches that typically occur during victory laps or character animations. On multiple occasions, I watched my character fall through the level or fail to transform. It never caused the game to freeze or anything, but it was obviously very noticeable.
Finally, the music is another strong point. Each track has a recognizable tune or a catchy beat that only adds to the experience. I especially loved the Samba de Amigo track and the pure joy it creates. There are also character specific songs that play when they use the All-Star item, which injects even more personality and will be instantly recognizable to long-time fans. Even the sound effects pop, whether it’s the satisfying sound when you hit an opponent or the engine noises that create an excellent sense of speed. Even the omnipresent announcer never becomes too annoying.
Though some may scoff at the idea of Sonic racing in a car, this is truly a great game. Sega fans will obviously get the most out of it, but even those who aren’t familiar with these properties will find a lot to love in the racing itself. With plenty of characters, twenty tracks, and a full-fledge career mode, there’s a lot of gameplay here for racing enthusiasts. And at the lower price point of $40, there’s no excuse for you not to pick it up.
Of course any great racing game also has plenty of multiplayer options and All-Stars Racing Transformed is full of them. Even outside of the dedicated multiplayer sections, players can race together through almost the entire career mode in split screen. It’s a great option for when you first pick up the game and just want to start racing and unlocking characters.
And then of course there are the offline multiplayer modes. In addition to standard races and boost races, players can compete in the Battle Arena which acts much like Mario Kart’s arenas. It’s just as fun and has 5 areas inspired by the existing tracks. Comparatively new though are the Battle Races which act like the battle arena except that players are racing at the same time. It becomes a game about survival more than anything as each player can only take three hits before they’re eliminated. Finally there’s Capture the Chao which is a variation on capture the flag. In one of the arenas, Chao spawn and must be picked up and brought to a specific point. Whoever collects the most Chaos wins. With the right group of players, it can be great chaotic fun.
Unfortunately, in my experience, online did not fare as well. All the modes that can be found offline can be played online with up to ten players, but there’s just no one to play with. Maybe it’s because I own the Playstation 3 version and most other players decided to pick up the game on another console, but I barely got to play with other people online. And there was never a point where ten people filled the lobby. The most I was able to experience was six. It’s a shame too because the game runs great online with no noticeable hiccups. The glitches sometimes reared their ugly head though with me getting shunted through a solid wall and off the course in one instance.
In all, there’s a lot to enjoy about the multiplayer offerings for Sonic & All-Stars Racing. If you have friends to play offline then it’s a blast, but online it can get a bit bare. Fortunately, you and your offline friends can compete together online as well. It’s a solid package that sorely needs more players.
Developer: Sumo Digital Ltd.
Release: November 18, 2012
Available On: PlayStation Network (Vita), PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Mario Kart series - Like it
Crash Team Racing - Love it
Burnout series - Love it
Sega games - Love 'em