Review | Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

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"[SEGA] decided to show Nintendo up at their own game…"

Kart-racing hasn’t exactly been represented in the best of lights this year with the disappointing LittleBigPlanet Karting failing to capture the magic of its origin series and F1 Race Stars feeling caught in the middle of arcade racer and simulation style controls. So then, it’s up to SEGA and their second attempt at bringing its franchises together for a test of speed and control, but does it just retread the ground already trodden by its obvious inspiration?

SEGA isn’t a stranger to the kart-racing scene with their first dive into the genre taking their most iconic franchises and sticking those characters into karts to face off against each other on a series of familiar locales. Let’s not beat around the bush here, it was Mario Kart inspired through and through, drifting for certain durations would give you certain levels of boost, weapons were a mix of homing missiles and leader destroying cheap-os and each character had different stats for speed, acceleration and handling. Whilst not the most inspired game, it had extremely lush tracks and used the licenses to their fullest. So then, with Mario Kart 7 launching last year, what is SEGA’s response to the addition of various transportation methods? Well, they decided to show Nintendo up at their own game and create a product that is ambitious and goes above and beyond what is probably expected from a kart racer.

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Transforming is the main idea that ties all the ambition together with not only the vehicles that house the iconic characters transforming, but the tracks themselves also transforming lap after lap and keeping things interesting in a way not many racing games can achieve when stuck in reality or with strict game modes. Sections of track will fall away leaving only the sky as a means to traverse the world giving you a whole new perspective on the finely detailed environments based on a plethora of SEGA’s classic games ranging from Mega Drive to Dreamcast and beyond. Highlights include flying past the Golden Axe character selection skeleton carved into the side of a castle and being launched through space after a lap of a seemingly standard Rainbow Road clone catching you completely off guard. The only element that feels out of place is the weapons, a random collection of items like fireworks and blowfish that don’t have any relation to anything SEGA based. 

"…gives a lot more nostalgia fuel than anything released in 2D on the XBLA/PSN."

All of the tracks featured in the game are not only full of life in the mechanics, but also tout exuberant visuals. All of them are based on levels or familiar landmarks from classic SEGA games, they are all filled with lush colours and busy backgrounds that really sell the feeling of a coming together of all of SEGA’s greats and gives a lot more nostalgia fuel than anything released in 2D on the XBLA/PSN. Another factor that helps that is the fantastic remixes of classic level themes and I know that every SEGA fan will appreciate a remix of ‘Super Sonic Racing’ from Sonic R. 

Being a kart racer means that a lot of the problems that usually inhabit kart racers are still present here, a heavy reliance on rubber-banding to create challenge, weapons that can screw you over mere centimeters from the finish line, you know, the usual kart racing stuff. With the problems that kart racers exhibit here, all of the plusses that come with that genre are also present with smooth drifting controls linking together boosts with tricks that also give you extra boosts and further launch you ahead of the pack making for satisfying amounts of speed build up.

Not that doing so is easy, especially with the harder difficulty settings being really unforgiving and heavily punishing mistakes. This becomes especially frustrating on the special objective races, which task you with doing very finite tasks to gain time, one slip up meaning failure and a restart. These harsh margins mix with the kart racing genre fundamental issues and create some quite frustrating moments with the later levels when played on the harder difficulties. It won’t get in the way of you having fun with most of the content being accessible without ever touching those harder modes. Having the content locked away behind the career mode means you will have to spend a significant amount of time unlocking characters and levels, but this obviously means that the game doesn’t reveal all of its surprises in one go and keeps things engaging as you race through the fantastic tracks and unlock more iconic and obscure characters.

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Being a compilation of characters and games, a few exclusions are bound to happen with a lot of, maybe too many, Sonic characters making the cut, whereas more recent franchises like Yakuza don’t get a nod.

Outside of the main World Tour mode are the usual selection of modes such as Time Attack which includes developer and online player ghosts for you to compete against as well as custom race mode where you can pick a track, a character and just race. Grand Prix allows you to compete in cups where you race across four tracks to compete for points and then there are also the multiplayer options.

Pretty much everything in the game is playable in four player split-screen and for the most part the game holds up when rendering all four screens. The problems with having such busy backgrounds on the tracks arises during these split screen races with the track ahead being hard to make out amongst the highly saturated colours and busy animation. You can also take four local players into online lobbies and play up to ten player races online that are easy to set up and have a pretty intuitive lobby system with track voting and quick character selection making things pretty painless. 

"…goes beyond what its peers have done."

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a very enjoyable kart-racer, but also a game that stands as a shining example of how to make a game that stands above the fundamentals of the genre and goes beyond what its peers have done. A must for those looking for a refreshing kart-racer but have been disappointed with recent offerings. 

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