I think for most people, Sega’s All-Stars line of games has actually been a surprisingly decent series. Given the genres it’s attacked so far – racing and tennis – are already filled to the brim with quality titles, it says something that Sumo Digital has managed to pull off some unique and fun titles utilising Sega’s catalogue of characters. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a sequel to their last kart racing game, and is no exception to this rule, providing some great nostalgia and fun gameplay.
Transformation is the big mechanic this time around, as karts can shift into boats or aircraft in order to continue the race over sea or in the sky. Immediately, this might sound suspiciously similar to Mario Kart 7, which introduced underwater segments and gliders for the first time to that series. However, the transformation in All-Stars Racing Transformed really is unique in its own right. When you’re on the water, the handling on your vehicle becomes very different as you fight against dynamic waves, use momentum to your advantage, and keep an eye out for ramps. In the air, you’ve got full control over the direction of your craft, as you dive and rise and get into dogfights with other players. The transformations, triggered by certain points in each track, are handled fluidly and are never jarring, making this a really cool feature.
Your traditional land-based karting is very solid, too. Just like Mario Kart, you can drift around corners to fill up your boost meter, although there are many ‘drift levels’ you can achieve to magnify this effect. You can also pull off tricks using the right analogue stick, generally when you’re sailing off a ramp or cliff. These also can provide you with a momentary burst of speed, which is vital for getting ahead in certain races.
You’ll need every bit of help you can get in the game’s main ‘World Tour’ and ‘Grand Prix’ modes. The AI of your opponents can be startlingly difficult, even on the mid-range ’2 star’ difficulty setting. Not only does a degree of rubber banding seem to be in effect, but you sometimes just don’t seem to have anywhere near the speed of other racers on your track, even if you’re in the fastest car available. In World Tour, the different difficulty options come with different requirements for success – you may only need to place 3rd, for example, to succeed on the average difficulty, while you’ll have to come 1st on the hardest. This not only means that your opponents get harder as you raise the difficulty, but you have to out-race them even better. For those who like a challenge, it certainly provides one, but no matter what your experience you’ll find yourself restarting races over and over again on any difficulty other than easy.
World Tour contains a slew of different races, taking you through different ‘chapters’ (analogous to Mario Kart‘s cups), although not all of them strictly fall under the definition of ‘races’. There are drift challenges, that challenge you to drift within a certain path, time attacks, one-on-one rival beatdowns and even times where you have to chase down and destroy tanks. Since tracks repeat over the course of the game, it’s a nice way to keep things fresh, though not all of these modes succeed in being fun (the final rounds of the tank levels do tend to get very annoying).
The tracks in the game are all taken from famous Sega properties, like Sonic, Jet Set Radio and Panzer Dragoon, although they don’t always resemble the games they’re from. Some levels like Sanctuary Falls from Sonic & Knuckles or Carrier Zone from After-Burner are cool levels in their own right, but don’t necessarily showcase the right ‘feel’ of the games they represent. Nevertheless, others do a better job, including Super Monkey Ball‘s contribution, and a bonus level included in the Limited Edition taken straight from OutRun.
Like any kart racing game, there are plenty of weapons to catapult towards your foes. None of these seem to be drawn from any Sega franchise, which feels like a missed opportunity, and as a whole they are rather disappointing. To start with, the containers you run into to pick up weapons are too small and spaced apart to easily hit, unlike Mario Kart‘s trademark giant cubes. The actual weapons themselves are often imprecise and there’s usually no guarantee they’ll work the way you want them to. Homing RC cars can be avoided by boosting, fireworks just seem to dart in whatever direction they feel like, and the bee swarm creates a spread of the angry insects to avoid for every racer, not just your intended target. The only one that can be relied upon is the star, which transforms your kart into its air form, makes you invincible and gives you a speed boost (although not even this is enough to win some single player races).
Any complaints I have against the AI dissolve when playing against other humans, either locally or online. Here, races become much fairer and much more enjoyable, as you match wits with other lowly humans and experience much closer races. The ‘arena’ mode where players simply duel against each other, however, isn’t quite so fun. It lacks the transformation element, and the aforementioned impreciseness of most of the weapons make it a bit of a chore to actually play, as they become the focus.
If you’re a long-time Sega fan, then you’ll appreciate the folks Sumo Digital being ones too. They clearly know their Sega history, and some levels celebrate lesser known characters from games like Bonanza Bros or NiGHTS. Sega’s original and long-forgotten mascot, Alex Kidd, is an unlockable racer, and even Ristar makes an appearance at the start of every race. One unlock in the game that is sure to please fans combines the Dreamcast and Daytona USA in a very cool fashion. It’s still anyone’s guess what Danica Patrick is doing here, though.
The tracks are all colourful and very appealing to the eye, even transforming before your eyes as races progress. While you might start off a level on the road, parts of the track crumbling away will force you into the sky before it’s over. However, the framerate isn’t as silky smooth as I would have liked, and when there’s action on screen the game can slow down.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a worthy pickup for both kids and Sega-nerd adults alike. It’s a solid kart racer with a unique twist, and just enough nods to Sega’s history to make fans want to unlock everything the game has to offer. The single-player can be unfairly difficult, and the weapons alongside some of the modes are disappointing, but I’d still recommend it to anyone with any history with the company, or to parents looking for a HD kart-racing Christmas present.
A lot of nostalgic Sega nods | Transformation is fun | Mechanics are solid
Difficult AI | So-so weapons | Some subpar modes