Two years back, SEGA released a kart racer that I never truly expected to impress – but against all odds, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing had me hooked, with its nostalgic characters and colourful tracks keeping me entertained for hours on end. So, when I heard that a sequel was being made, I was obviously excited to see whether Sumo Digital would be able to hit the mark a second time – perhaps creating something even better.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (or S&ASRT) attempts to take the formula to the next level by taking the race to land, sea and air – with each of its drivers controlling transforming vehicles that change form as you progress through the tracks. In all honesty, I found this concept to sound somewhat desperate – as if the creators had no idea how to expand the land-based karting premise, and instead opting to add a gimmick to try to differentiate the game from its predecessor. Coupled with a low price tag upon release – a mere £25 as opposed to most £40 titles, I wasn’t getting my hopes up for anything spectacular, though I was looking forward to some fresh tracks.
However, I was very happy to discover that S&ASRT is actually pretty damn good. The road racing is as tight and exhilarating as ever, and the boat and plane modes actually expand the courses far beyond anything that was possible when restricted to the road in the previous game. The boat sections feature impressive water physics and tricky manoeuvering, and taking to the skies is a joy, giving opportunities to get some fantastic views whilst dogfighting your way to the finish line – all whilst feeling as though it flows together into a seamless racer.
The majority of the old cast return to the tracks, and are joined by a good selection of new characters – including the likes of Golden Axe’s Gilius Thunderhead, Shinobi’s Joe Musashi, and Vyse from Skies of Arcadia. Whilst it’s a shame to lose the Virtua Fighter representatives, and retro classics such as Alex Kidd and the Bonanza Bros, I felt the new roster had a more rounded selection of characters, and the trade-offs were worth it. Sadly there are no motorbikes this time around – but I can only assume this is to do with balancing character sizes as it wouldn’t be that complicated to add some wings to a bike or turn it into a jet ski. That said, the cars have all been custom-built around each character as before, so there’s still plenty of variety when it comes to vehicles – especially since each vehicle has three modes.
Aside from the SEGA cast, there are a few guests joining the fray – hence the removal of “SEGA” from the game’s title. Perhaps one of the coolest additions, Disney have allowed Ralph from the new game-themed movie Wreck-it-Ralph to enter the fray – turning him into a real video game character. Sadly, while the release of S&ASRT timed nicely with the release of the movie in the US, the UK won’t be seeing the film till next year, so we’ll have to make do with this for now. Also joining the fray, somewhat awkwardly, is real-life racer Danica Patrick – US Nascar star (whom I knew nothing about until this game), racing in a Hot Wheels designed vehicle, the Danicar (…sigh). She neither added nor took away anything from the game to me really. Lastly, if you purchase the Xbox or Nintendo editions of the game, you will also be able to unlock your Avatar or Mii, respectively.
Of course, as much as the characters are a selling point in a racer such as this, the most important parts are the tracks themselves. This seems to be the area that has been improved the most – while the original game featured multiple tracks based on only a few SEGA titles, S&ASRT has a selection of 16 new tracks composed of a vast array of different game locations, and also four returning tracks from the previous game. Locations include the canyons of Panzer Dragoon, escapades in the world of NiGHTS, and soaring around the crumbling ruins of Sky Sanctuary Zone from Sonic & Knuckles. There’s a great variety in themes, and each stage is brimming with detail, from the Mega Chopper fish that rampages through the water in Seaside Hill, the military jets that dart around the After Burner stage, and the airship filled skies of Rogue’s Landing.
In terms of karting, the game plays much in the same way as the first – which is a good thing. Characters are able to drift around corners, or perform tricks when jumping over ramps to earn boosts to get ahead of the competition. Passing through a blue ring on the track will activate the transformation for the next part of the track, depending on whether it leads to road, sea or air. Often the path will split – giving you the choice to stick with your current vehicle a bit longer on an alternate path, or take a route in a different form – although it can sometimes be tricky to tell which route is faster.
The boat form is perhaps the hardest mode to master – the water really does make controlling the vehicle harder work, and drifting is essential to getting around quickly. However, waves in the water can be turned to your advantage, allowing you to perform trick jumps for boosts. Planes are easy to control once you get to grips with them – and are the fastest vehicles, too – so you’re always best to try to transform to flight whenever possible. However, to truly get the most out of flight, you need to master its own drift – which can be a tougher way to pilot, but again – there’s boosts to be earned by flying skilfully.
One of the best things about the transformations is that it’s given the creators so much freedom to change the track as the laps progress – as the race progresses, things will often change throughout the stage – bridges being destroyed, new paths opening up. One of my favourite stages, the Panzer Dragoon stage, basically has one lap done in kart form, one in boat, and then a final lap in the skies. It really makes the races exciting, and the stages almost feel alive with all the action going on. Not all courses use all three modes, either – for instance, the NiGHTS stage is a race utilising only boat and plane forms.
Of course, no karting game would be complete without weapons. Seeing as how the tracks have evolved so much since the first game, a new set of weapons have been designed with the dynamic tracks in mind. I must say, I’m quite impressed with the weapons as they generally feel rather fair and balanced. You have Boosts and homing weapons as always, as well as a blowfish that acts as a floating mine to place where you wish. The Whirlwind is perhaps the only weapon that feels a little unfair when it comes to facing the AI – it reverses the left/right controls of the person it hits – but the computer mostly seems to shrug off this ailment and drive rather well regardless. The Hornet is a nice alternative to the “Blue Shell” weapon (damn, I wanted to write this without referencing Mario Kart!), as it places a swarm of bees before the racer in first place – but rather than doing guaranteed damage, it can be avoided if the racer skilfully evades the swarm.
Of course, it wouldn’t be All-Stars Racing without character-specific All-Star weapons – one of my favourite features from the original game. I’ve got very mixed feelings about the changes to this aspect. The original game featured very cinematic, unique attacks per character – Sonic would transform into Super Sonic and blaze his way up the track, AiAi would leap into his Monkey Ball, joined by his monkey friends, and Beat would abandon his car to skate up the track in style. However, these moves were perhaps a bit overpowered, and the cinematic nature of them made them impossible to implement into the online mode of the original game. So, with that in mind, the All-Star moves have been toned down, in exchange for balance, use in and making them available in the game’s online modes. The characters still have unique animations, but none of them leave their vehicles – mostly they get some objects or holograms surrounding their vehicle, and are automatically put into their Plane form, regardless of their location in the stage. Most have the ability to either fire a projectile, or send out a shockwave attack by pressing the weapon button while in All-Star mode. It’s been done well, and is still satisfying to use – but I will admit I miss the sheer awesomeness that the original All-Star moves had in the last game.
The game offers a decent selection of modes, with World Tour being the bulk of the single-player “campaign” as it were. To begin with, you only have access to a couple of events, and must unlock stars in each event to open up the locks to progress to the later events. Depending on which difficulty you attempt a stage on determines how many stars you earn – meaning you’ll need to start attempting them on higher levels if you want to progress further. Aside from regular races, World Tour offers a fair selection of different challenges – including Boost Races which have no weapons, Drift/Boost challenges which involve having to drift or boost to stop your timer running out as you pass through checkpoints, and Pursuit challenges that require you to chase a tank around the stage, collecting ammo to fire, whilst avoiding the attacks it puts in your path.
Progressing through career mode also allows you to unlock new characters by earning enough stars to open them up – although you often need to beat them in a rival battle or time trial sprint first! The whole time you are playing, you also rack up experience for the character you are using, which unlocks “Mods” that allow you to tweak characters’ stats more to your liking – perhaps sacrificing a little of Sonic’s speed for better handling, for instance. While each character feels unique, it does allow a little customisation if a character doesn’t feel quite right for you.
Aside from World Tour mode, the game offers a traditional Grand Prix mode, which lets you compete in traditional 4-race cups for points, which add up to your final position at the end. This is of course great if you just want to dive into some straight-out racing, and locally you can play up to four players – which was something lacking in the original game. Sadly, it seems there’s still no way to play Grand Prix online, though. However, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with Single Races, and Time Trial leaderboards if you prefer to compete a little more indirectly.
Despite a few minor complaints – the simplified All-Star moves, the lack of motorbikes (Shadow just doesn’t suit a tank…) and the lack of online Grand Prix, I’m still immensely impressed with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. While I was unsure if Sumo could produce another great karting game – they’ve actually blown the original game out of the water – and soared into the skies.