Review: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a love letter to both kart racing and Sega
Not one, not two, but three separate Kart racers have been released in a matter of a few weeks. While we liked LittleBigPlanet Karting for its charm and the ease of use to create awesome tracks, we thought F1 Race Stars was simply average. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed looks to be the best offering of kart racing, with high speed cornering, amazing track designs, and most of all, the awesome transforming of your vehicle to adapt to water and even take to the skies.
A bulk of the game revolves around taking part in various cups (a la Mario Kart) and winning a set amount of races within each cup. Each race will allow you to set its difficulty from Easy to Hard. Depending on your choice, you can then win either one, two or three stars. The reason these stars are important is because they not only help you progress through each cup, but they also allow you to access special stages and extra characters, such as Danica Patrick (wait what?!).
So what about the actual kart racing? A kart racer is only as good as its controls right? Thankfully, the controls are incredibly tight. From the actual steering to the power sliding, it all just feels right. Of course, each racer has varying statistics based on speed, handling and boost, so finding the perfect racer might take a bit of experimentation, until you find the one that matches your driving style.
Each event isn't just about racing though. You'll have drift challenges which task you to drift in specific sections of the track, and to stay in the middle of the track for the duration of the drift. There are also boost challenges which have you racing against time, only to stop it when you boost your kart, be it by drifting to build your boost up, or driving over boost pads. They're not easy by any means, so it's always a good idea to start on the easier difficulty until you get comfortable with the tracks.
Each time you complete an event, that specific racer will also gain XP and levels, which further unlock various mods for the kart. These can then be swapped with your stock mod at the beginning of each race, and offer a boost in one aspect of your kart, such as handling, but sacrificing speed. It adds yet another layer to customization and to make that character your own.
Of course the major change is the aforementioned transformations of each kart. Each race consists of three laps, and no two laps are ever the same. The levels (which I'll get to soon) shift, change and transform, forcing your kart to adapt to the situation. You might be racing on all four wheels the first lap, only to find a part of the track has collapsed, leading you into water, which then changes your kart into a very Hydro Thunder-esque speedboat. Or you might find that you're racing towards the edge of an aircraft carrier, which then transforms your car into a plane (just remember the controls are initially inverted).
The boat and plane controls feels much different from the tight kart controls. The boat requires you to anticipate turns better, as you can't really turn on a whim, unless you brake hard. The plane controls feel great as they give you the freedom to fly around as you'd like. Not in the sense that you have free flight, but you're able to fly high and low, which also sometimes results in finding secret or alternate pathways in the level.
Being a kart racer, you can expect a wide assortment of weapons to either help you take the lead, or take out your opponents. Luckily though, none of them seem unfair at all. Even what equates to the "blue shell", the Wasp Swarm will appear in front of the racer who is in the lead, but it's never a sure fire hit, as you can navigate through them without hitting them. I loved this fact since I absolutely cannot stand most of the power-ups from Mario Kart, due to them always favoring the racers in the back.
The All-Star power-up returns and is once again a game changer. You get a nice boost of speed, better handling, and the ability to knock out racers around you. It doesn't last long, but it can get you that number 1 spot if you're just a few racers behind.
Now on to the levels themselves. Even though the game features an eclectic and diverse cast of Sega characters (with a special cameo from Wreck-it-Ralph), it's the levels that steal the show. From various Sonic themed levels, Panzer Dragon, Afterburner, Skies of Arcadia, Golden Axe, Super Monkey Ball, Samba de Amigo, Jet Set Radio Future, it's all here, and they all capture the essence of each of those games. The fact that each lap is so different from the previous one just makes racing that much more exhilarating, and makes track memorization just a bit more difficult.
It's particularly important to note how beautiful the game is. It's full of vibrant colors, and fantastic set pieces that are all an absolute joy to race through, especially since the framerate doesn't seem to suffer at any time. The game is incredibly polished as well, with the interface just screaming SEGA. I've only experienced one glitch in the game, which resulted in having to restart the race, because the game refused to change any of us into planes, meaning we just kept racing down a broken bridge, only to keep respawning right before it. Not that big of a deal, but definitely annoying, since I was winning!
More importantly however, the game is quite difficult. I can imagine a lot of kids will want to get their hands on Sonic & All-Stars, and they'll get by just fine on the Easy difficulty, however since they can only attain a single star per event, it just means they won't get access to unlocking all the extra levels and characters. It might not be such a huge deal, but it also means they won't get to enjoy the full roster of characters, at least not as fast as they would if they played on harder difficulties. The second you switch to Normal, the game actually ramps up quite a bit.
Overall, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed simply shows how much love the developer has for SEGA, its characters, games, and art design. Longtime SEGA fans will love inclusions of levels like Golden Axe or Skies of Arcadia, and kart racing fans will undoubtedly find the racing absolutely exhilarating, as they switch from land to sea to air.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]