(This is the unedited original draft of the review. To see the shorter, edited version check out GamerCheese: http://gamercheeese.com/2012/11/26/sonic-and-all-stars-racing-transformed-review/)
Kart racers are a fun genre, mixing bright colorful characters with unusual racing environments and an element of combat, it has a broader appeal than the average racing game. Problem is, most racing games throughout the years have been cheap cash-ins with very few companies putting real effort into their kart racer. This resulted in a stigma that drove much of the genre, aside from really cheap cash-ins, away and left Mario Kart with a monopoly. If you want a good kart racer, you get Mario Kart.
However, Mario Kart is a Nintendo product and thus exclusive to Nintendo consoles. What about all the people that want a good kart racer and don’t own a Wii or DS? What about XBox 360 and PS3 owners? This was where SEGA and Sumo Digital came in with the original Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, a shockingly solid alternative to Mario Kart available on practically every system out there. It wasn’t flawless but it came quite close to Mario Kart and filled a much needed niche. Nearly everyone that gave the game a chance loved it too and were hoping for a sequel. Really, SEGA could have gotten away with rehashing the same game but with more characters and courses. However, that is not what they did. Instead, they got creative and brought us Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
At it’s core it seems like your typical kart racer. You have zany characters and crazy tracks, you hold a drift button to drift through turns and build up a boost, and you collect items to throw at your opponents. However there is much more to the game than that.
The game’s title gimmick is that as you race your vehicle transforms from a car into an airplane and a boat depending on the terrain. On paper this sounds a lot like Mario Kart 7, but in reality it’s closer to Diddy Kong Racing. Each of the vehicles handles quite differently and has large portions of the track dedicated to them. The boat turns the game into a weird fusion of Hydro Thunder and Mario Kart while the airplane is fully controllable (rather than just gliding like Mario Kart 7) and barrel rolls out of the way of oncoming objects to gain boosts. The trick system has been overhauled since the previous game. Rather than merely spamming a trick button on designated jumps, you now flick the right analog stick in different directions while you’re airborne. There are no longer those obvious “trick jumps” like in the previous games (or Mario Kart) but rather if you hit a jump with enough speed and manage to get a decent amount of air, it is up to you to make the call on doing tricks. It’s a real risk-reward element and adds another layer to the gameplay beyond “drift a lot”.
Speaking of drifting, the boost you get has been tweaked. It is now much harder to get a level 2 or 3 boost and what’s more, there are levels beyond that. If you’re already boosting and you hit a boost pad or use a boost item it actually levels up your boost and makes you go even faster. Finding ways to chain together boost oppritunities is another part of the gameplay and results in the game going at Sonic speeds, in every sense of the word.
Lets not mince words here, this game is fast. Far faster than its predecessor or really any other kart racing game out there. In fact, it’s almost insulting to call this a kart racer which is why some folks even insist on calling it an “arcade-style racer” instead. Honestly, they aren’t wrong as the game often feels more like Outrun 2 meets Sonic Generations than Mario Kart. I can’t help but be reminded of SEGA’s old Genesis ad with the two race cars when comparing this game to it’s competitors.
But while the racing mechanics are rock solid, it’s the courses that are the real star of the show. Each one is based on a different SEGA game, from well known classics like Shinobi and House of the Dead to more unexpected ones like Skies of Arcadia and Burning Rangers. This alone gives the game a leg up on it’s competitors as it means the tracks are more varied than what you would see in a game based in a single world, but it goes further than that. As I mentioned, the tracks often take the players through land, sea, and air with their vehicles changing to match. However, some courses feature branching paths that can give you a choice of vehicles. Stay on the road as a car or take to the sea? But going even further than that, some courses even change between laps. The Skies of Arcadia stage, for example, comes under attack with pieces of the track falling away, leading to more jumps and longer flying segments as the track falls apart. Meanwhile, the Burning Rangers stage is an underwater lab that floods and by the third lap is almost entirely a boat race. Needless to say, these courses keep players on their toes, making it hard to just “drift a lot and boost constantly” or stick to a specific “race line”.
Of course there is another factor to any kart racer: the items. On one hand, the items are just random stuff like bees and snowballs, not actually related to any SEGA game. On the other hand, they are brilliant. All of the items are useful and balanced. The game’s equivalent of the banana peel is a puffer fish that can be either dropped behind you or shot forward like a green shell. Meanwhile the snowball comes in packs of three and fires quickly. If you hit your opponent with just one it stuns them, but all three actually freezes them and holding the fire button will fire all three shots at once! More importantly though, the game is devoid of any cheap catch-up items like bullet bills and blue shells. Yes, that’s right, there are no blue shells.
That should have been the game’s tagline: “Kart racing without blue shells”
While players in the back can get slightly better items to help them catch-up, none of them are overpowered and the person in first is still getting good items. Perhaps the most questionable item then, would be the character specific Super Star move. What this does is it turns your vehicle into its plane mode, though it hovers above the ground if you’re in a car or boat segment. This, however, causes it to go faster and ignore the terrain. While it is doing this you get an infinite supply of a character specific attack. However, these attacks are balanced for their infinite numbers and stun opponents far less than normal items. The result is that the Super Star is little more than a powerful boost.
I would go on about hidden super items and kart mods but this review is already wordy and I haven’t even spoken of the game modes yet! Suffice to say, there is more to this game than there first appears to be.
Fans of the original might be mildly disappointed that they have to work for their character unlocks now. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed features a World Tour mode full of challenges and special races. One challenge may be to drift along a specific line to earn time extensions, another may ask players to take down a tank, while another turns the game into OutRun and asks players to weave between waves of traffic. Clearing these challenges earns the player stars which are used to progress and unlock content. The harder the difficulty, the more stars you get. Contrary to what you might think, this game is not easy. Even on the normal difficulty, these challenges are tricky. Hard and Expert difficulties, meanwhile, are vicious. But, believe it or not, I have not seen a single speck of rubberbanding or blatant cheating. The game appears to actually play fair.
Amazingly, you don’t have to face this challenge alone. As you might notice, at the bottom of the screen is a prompt telling players to press start to join. Sure enough, practically every mode can be played in 4-player split-screen (5-player on WiiU)! Yes, this includes the World Tour mode. This absolutely boggles my mind. The game openly allows players to team up with their friends to take on brutal drift challenges. Better still, you and your local friends can even play split-screen online. That means you and your local friends can challenge your online friends and random opponents all at once. Multiplayer is truly where this game shines.
Of course that raises the question of framerate. The original game had some framerate issues, especially in multiplayer. Amazingly though, I do not have that problem here from my experience with the 360 version. Even in split-screen the game manages to keep a solid 30 fps almost the entire time. Only once did I manage to get a split-second of framerate drop in the many hours I have spent with this game.
Admittedly though, the online is a little odd. You can either make a custom private match, or join a ranked match, but you cannot do a public custom match.So you’re out of luck if you wanna race a specific course against random opponents. The way Ranked Matches work is reminiscent of Mario Kart and that is wonderful. You just click “Ranked”, it finds you some opponents, and you’re ready to roll. Once you clear a course, everyone gets to vote on one of three tracks to be the next course. It not only makes finding opponents easy (even pre-launch), but it keeps things moving at a good pace and keeps track choices varied.
Really, aside from fanboyish whining about them cutting a few of my favorite characters, I have only one complaint with the game: only one person can use each character. So if you wanna play as Sonic but someone else already picked him? You’re out of luck. The game tries to alleviate this by making players pick their characters again each round, but that is not a good solution. If two people are big Sonic fans, they should both be able to race to find out who the better Sonic is. One can only hope they come to their senses and patch this. But, considering they didn’t patch this with the previous game, I doubt they will here.
Beyond that the graphics are colorful and detailed, the courses are bursting with detail, and the music is excellent. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed features remixes of classic SEGA music fitting to each stage. While the lack of vocals on some formerly vocal songs is disappointing, the remixes are universally awesome. I could complain about them picking “Mambo de Verano” instead of “Samba de Janeiro” for the Samba de Amigo stage, or choosing “Splash Wave” over “Magical Sound Shower”, but at that point I may as well be complaining about the color of Sonic’s eyes!
Well, I guess there is one other thing I could complain about: no force-feedback racing wheel support. An odd complaint I know, but the previous game supported it and I may have bought said racing wheel just for that game. Don’t judge me!
So lets see, what we have here is a rock solid racing game with great graphics, lots of content, and boatloads of multiplayer options. I think it goes without saying that this game is good. Some have said that Mario Kart is still better for nebulous reasons, but this is only because they are afraid of shaking up the status quo. I, however, am not. This game wipes the floor with Mario Kart, and that’s coming from a guy who generally sides with Nintendo. Even if you do prefer Mario Kart, there is absolutely no denying this game is awesome.
Better still, the game launched at a discounted $40 price. While a lower price doesn’t make a bad game good, it should make a “I’ll wait ’til it drops in price” game into a “I should try it now”. Needless to say, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed recieves my wholehearted recommendation. Even if you don’t like kart racers, check out the playable demo. You’ll see what I mean.