Games still have the power to surprise. When I received a review copy of the ridiculously named, mouthful of a game Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, I let out an audible groan. Another damned Kart racer, so soon after the rather middling F1 Race Stars? I must have been a complete dickhead in a previous life. More so than I am in this one. I popped the disc in to my PS3, sat down on the couch, and proceeded – to my surprise - to have a ridiculous amount of fun.
What I was expecting was yet another mascot-driven clone, a poor-man’s Mario Kart with a SEGA-themed veneer. It’s an easy assumption to make, given the general quality of anything bearing Sonic’s name. What I got instead was an arcade racer that in many ways, makes granddaddy Mario Kart look silly by comparison.
I don’t think I need to go too in-depth in to the general karting mechanics; you drive around a crazy stage at breakneck speeds, hitting your opponents with offensive weapons while trying to avoid those directed at you, all while trying to place first. Pretty standard archetype, that. Developer-for-hire Sumo Digital has tried to change that formula up a little, by adding some much-needed depth – and a pretty brutal layer of difficulty belying the game’s vibrant cartoon aesthetic.
It’s the perfect example of fan service done right. Featuring characters and stages designed around those from classic Sega Franchise old and new, the game regularly stabs you right in the nostalgia gland. Beyond expected characters and levels from Sonic, there are also ones from NiGHTS, Golden Axe, Shinobi, MonkeyBall,Crazy Taxi, Skies of Arcadia and a magnificent After Burner track that nearly welled up my eyes with tears. The level of detail on each track is pretty astounding, and so filed with personality and charm that you’d wish you could disembark and explore each are by foot.
Mario Kart 7 toyed with the idea of transforming vehicles last year, with sectioned that had your vehicle gliding along in the air, or spluttering underwater – but in Sonic All Stars Racing Transformed, Sumo Digital has taken it to a new level. As you traverse each beautiful world, lap by lap, the track dynamically changes, with the game, at pre-determined checkpoints, transforming your vehicle from kart, to boat, or even airplane as necessary – each vehicle feeling and playing playing differently, adding a bit of variety to each race.
Weapons too, though there’s a Mario Kart equivalent for nearly everything, try and inject a bit of spice in to the game – and they’re not nearly as devastating as the ones you’ll find in the plumber’s racer. There’s no bastardly blue shell to ruin your race just moments before the finish line – and the rubber banding, though there, is hardly noticeable. You’ll need to master the art of drifting, making this, surprisingly, a game that’s more about skill than the power-ups you collect. To that end, it’s actually less like Mario Kart, and a little more like arcade racers such as a Split/Second and Blur.
Each of the racers, those you start with and the ones you can unlock along the way earn XP for racing, whether you win or lose, unlocking new stats, giving you the opportunity to tailor each driver to the particular track or challenge.
You’ll probably spend most of your time collecting stars and unlocking content within the game’s World Circuit mode, which presents you with an over world, progressing from world to world much as you would in a platformer. There are some surprising, and refreshing events within the mode, such as a traffic attack where you have to cross the finish line in time, all while dodging a ton of traffic, elimination races, drift challenges and more, including some pretty fun boss battles against tanks. In addition to that you’ll be able to play standard Grand Prix circuits in the Mario Kart vein, as well as standard single races and the time attack stuff you’d expect from a racer. Best of all is that split-screen players can jump in to any of the modes, adding that extra element of couch-based competitive multiplayer mayhem.
Sumo Digital could easily have just made a game that ticked all the fan-service and kart racer feature boxes, without throwing in any creativity or heart – but instead have delivered a great, exceptionally crafted racer that’s way more fun than it has any right to be. It’s fan service at its best – and at its budget RRP of R399 is difficult not to recommend.