Game: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed Review
Developer: Sumo Digital
Available on: Xbox 360, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Windows PC, PS Vita, 3DS
Reviewed on: Wii U
I may be being a bit controversial here but it has always baffled me how, whenever an arcade style racer, which may or may not feature karts, or some kind of super-deformed participants, is released, it is always labelled as a “Mario Kart clone”, or somehow compared to Nintendo’s benchmark 1992 title. Sure, Super Mario Kart was the first hugely popular game to feature wee little go-karts, and there were a plethora of clones released in its wake, like Street Racer, for example. But no matter how many times a game is given the “Karting” suffix, or compared to the twenty year old Nintendo game, nobody has ever, ever come close to hitting the same heights, even Nintendo themselves. Anything else is, in my mind, just a scaled down racing game.
Nothing comes anywhere near emulating the perfection of O.G Super Mario Kart; it stands alone. There have been some great sequels and other fun games featuring karting action, like Crash Team Racing or Diddy Kong Racing, but they lack the precision and balance of that legendary game, and go to lengths to expand the size and scope of the tracks beyond the pared-down, proper go-kart feel of the original. They are arcade style racers.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is another such game, which has been lazily mentioned in the same breath as Mario Kart. Developed by the often impressive Sumo Digital, who seem to have a knack of reproducing the same kind of amusement arcade sense of fun and wonder that SEGA became famous for, are at the controls. They have a fine pedigree with arcade racing thrills, what with their brilliant Outrun 2 conversions and sequels, not to mention the fact that the Sheffield based crew feature among their numbers staffers who have previously worked on other tremendous racing games like Project Gotham Racing and its truly wonderful Dreamcast forebear Metropolis Street Racer.
It may feature cartoony visuals, crazy vehicles and power ups and a selection of characters drawn from SEGA history, much like a Mario Kart has a selectable array of denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom, but this is no Mario Kart clone. It is a wonderful arcade style racing game straight out of the old school, which evokes comparisons to the likes of the magnificent Noughties Outrun titles, classic fare like Wave Race and the just-one-more-go thrill of SEGA’s own Crazy Taxi. It is also quite easily the best non-platforming game that the Blue Blur has ever had his name attached to, and has provided me with an unexpectedly tasty launch day treat for my new bit of Nintendo kit.
STORY: Being a mascot based racer, there was no need for Sumo to mess about shoehorning a story into this game. But the characters and locations themselves create a rich sense of history and tradition and make the game a treat for fans of SEGA and its storied past. As well as Sonic and a handful of his cohorts and enemies, the game described by our own News Editor, Colm Ahern as “snappily titled” features a wealth of other faces from arcade and console games past and present. Ai Ai from Super Monkey Ball, Beat and Gum from Jet Set Radio, BD Joe from Crazy Taxi, Mr Shinobi himself, Joe Musashi, NiGHTS, Amigo, Ulala…there are just tons of recognisable favourites. There are two licensed third party characters which slot in nicely without being jarring – NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, and Ralph from the excellent – and current – animated movie Wreck-It Ralph.
I was particularly enamoured with the inclusion of Golden Axe’s pixie-beating dwarf Gilius Thunderhead, and Vyse from sublime Dreamcast RPG Skies of Arcadia. There is even a brand new character known as AGES, who is a bizarre amalgamation of three well known items from over the years: Daytona USA’s Hornet, the aircraft from Afterburner, and…wait for it…a Dreamcast controller!
And let us not forget the stages you race in. There are tracks based around Panzer Dragoon, Afterburner, House of the Dead, Samba De Amigo, Outrun and various incarnations of the Sonic franchise, there’s even some off-the-wall inclusions like a Billy Hatcher & The Giant Egg themed stage, and one set in the same universe as one of my favourite slept on SEGA titles, firefighting anime classic Burning Rangers, which is the first time SEGA have revisited this forgotten gem.
GRAPHICS: SEGA games are always best when they are big, bright and colourful, swathed in vivid bright blues with colour and detail that pops out from your screen the same way they had the knack of tempting you towards one of their classic arcade cabinets of yore. This is a great looking game, with tons of snazzy effects and beautifully designed tracks. A sumptuous Panzer Dragoon stage sees you traversing epic canyons and soaring through arcane structures past fire breathing dragons. The Sonic levels are all crisp blues and greens, with some shimmering water effects that hark back to the aforementioned, still impressive Wave Race. The level of detail is amazing, from the moment Lakitu substitute Ristar waves the flag to start you on your way, you will be keeping your eyes peeled for all of the magical SEGA touches as you whizz round at incredible speeds, all the while marvelling at how solid the frame-rate holds together.
SOUND: With soundtracks based around well known compositions from past games, there are many tunes to enjoy here. Whether it is the salsa style Samba De Amigo beats, the chirpy Sonic The Hedgehog themes, or the majestic orchestral fare that suits the Panzer Dragoon stage down to the ground, this sounds like a perfect arcade mashup in the aural stakes. Engines roar, characters let rip with catchphrases and chatter, and a voiceover signifies when a power up is activated, or congratulates/commiserates you on your achievements. Best of all? When you fire the thing up you get the classic Megadrive-style “SEEEEGA!” *swoons*
GAMEPLAY: At its core, Transformed is a racer that asks you to compete in three-lap courses with the aim of getting on the podium in order to progress. Like the recent Outrun games, drift is a big part of the game and using the left trigger to maintain and then boost out of a gnarly drift is often the key to achieving victory on the twisty, turny tracks. There are item pickups which give you the opportunity to take out your opponents, and some of them are particularly inspired; like a spiny pufferfish that can be dropped to puncture tyres, an ice blast that freezes enemy cars, speed boosts, a whirlwind that reverses the controls when it hits (a particular pain when it strikes you) and a baseball mitt that you can employ to catch any projectiles aimed at you. Collecting trickily placed coins on the track allows you to build up a meter and unleash an All Star special move, which is basically a character specific ultra speed boost that allows you to make up a whole lot of ground in a matter of seconds. Sometimes you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by using a well-timed drift to nab a coin and unleash it. There are speed boost arrows on the tracks marked in shocking pink, which you will need to ensure that you position yourself nicely to hit, lest you stay behind the leading pack.
The main draw to this game, however, is the fact that you do not simply drive around the same bit of track three times. In fact, you don’t always drive in the traditional sense of the word at all! The tracks change and transform before your eyes, and passing through a blue gateway will transform your vehicle into something completely different altogether. Your formerly land-based ride will suddenly turn into a boat, hovercraft or other water-based vessel to speed across watery areas, or grow wings and allow you to soar and barrel roll your way through the skies, just like you would in Afterburner Climax or Panzer Dragoon Orta. It is thrilling, well implemented and gives each and every race a distinct flavour and sense of variety. This isn’t an entirely new concept, of course. As much as I don’t like to keep trotting out their name, Nintendo got there first, and not just with Mario Kart 7, either. Diddy Kong racing featured three different ways to get around the track. But this is surely the most breakneck, bombastic collision of land, air and sea transport to date. Each different vehicle type feels noticeably different. On the water, waves and turbulence affect your movement – whereas in the sky you can move in all directions the same way as you would pilot your Afterburner F-14, swooping down, soaring upwards and using well-timed barrel rolls to avoid obstacles and opponents.
There are plenty of ways to play the game, too. Standard single race modes and one-off Grand Prix events are a great way to get to grips with how the game mechanics work. A Career Mode features a World Tour series of progressively more difficult races and challenges, each one featuring three levels of difficulty. Completing these branching stages – which feature standard races, drift challenges like those in Outrun, or even boss battles against huge missile-firing tanks – awards you with Stars which are then used to unlock new stages and characters. Over the course of the game each character also receives XP depending on performance, which allows you to mod each individual vehicle and levels up your stats. Star Coins that you collect on the tracks are also used to play an inter-race slot machine, which randomly awards you with extra bonuses and items to help you along your way.
Like many of the games we have looked at on Wii U, you can happily use the Gamepad to play off-TV, which is as impressive as always, even more so when you factor that here you can easily switch between the two just with a simple swipe of your digit. That’s right, just like that ancient E3 trailer which showed gamers using a gesture to make crazy witchcraft happen, you can simply draw your finger across the screen to transfer what is on your tv onto your Gamepad screen. When you aren’t using it to display the core action, the Gamepad can also be used as the main controller when playing on the telly, and features a handy map and rear view mirror, as well as an ace weapon camera so you can time your item use to perfection. You can even use the Gamepad as a steering wheel-style motion controller, for goodness sake. You cannot accuse Sumo of not delving into the immense possibilities that the tablet controller has to offer.
Locally you can play with up two five players, which is obviously awesome, and there are some fun mini-games on offer, including a fun Monkey Ball-themed stage where the Gamepad wielding player controls a huge ball attempting to prevent other players from gobbling bananas. Add into the mix the fact that you can unlock the ability to race using your own Mii character, and it is fair to say that the developers have done a great job at making the Wii U version of this game extremely enticing for those undecided on which format to buy it for.
LONGEVITY: It will take you ages and plenty of skill to hoover up all of the Stars needed to unlock everything in this game, as some of the challenges are brutal. There are options to play the game online too, in 10-participant multiplayer or Battle Modes, which will lend the game a great deal of mileage too. You will definitely want to unlock all of those SEGA characters and tracks, mark my words, and I can see this game being a near permanent multiplayer family fixture for some time to come.
VERDICT: Being chock-full of incredible fan service, a genuine sense of challenge and well judged arcade racing gameplay means that this is my favourite third party release for the Wii U to date. It is an excellent game that had me beaming from ear to ear from the moment I started my engine right down to the sixtieth time I failed that damn tricky three-star drift challenge. It sets the bar pretty damn high for Nintendo themselves, who will surely want to make sure that any forthcoming racing titles of their own come correct and are done justice on the impressive new HD hardware at their disposal. Gone are the days when a Nintendo Wii port of a multi-format game are relegated to a lowly third place, this is able to stand on the podium and get showered with bubbly.