Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed starts to make sense the moment that you reach the excellent Afterburner stage. Sumo Digital’s slick sequel initially introduces itself as yet another Mario Kart derivative – but it eventually blossoms into so much more. By fusing the best of Hydro Thunder, SkyDrift, and over two decades’ worth of SEGA lore, the Sheffield studio’s latest mascot mash-up sprints to a deserved podium finish.

Indeed, in a year that’s spawned several second-rate kart racers, SEGA’s latest certainly stands out. Drifting through the saturated Mayan structures of Sonic Generations' sultry Sanctuary Falls is a real treat – but the high-octane driving game is arguably at its best when it delves a little deeper into the publisher’s remarkably dense past. Adder’s Lair – designed around the character select screen from Golden Axe – prompts a multifaceted ride through a hazardous medieval fortress, brimming with lava pits and collapsing buildings. Meanwhile, the gorgeous Dream Valley from NiGHTS can’t seem to decide which part of the seminal SEGA Saturn adventure it wants to recreate – so it conjures a tapestry of classic moments instead.

The attention to detail and desire to keep things feeling fresh extends to all 20 of the title’s lovingly crafted circuits. Galactic Parade – a casino infused answer to Rainbow Road – mixes twisting roads with intense aerial pursuits through asteroid belts, while Graffiti City – derived from the ultra stylish Jet Set Radio – depicts a vertical sprint across neon-infused rooftops in a Japanese city that refuses to sleep. There are also layouts based on Panzer Dragoon, House of the Dead, and Shinobi. And if all of that wasn’t enough, a corkscrew pursuit through a collapsing building set in the universe of futuristic fire fighters Burning Rangers should send fans of the obscure into an uncontrollable frenzy.

The quality of the arenas would be meaningless if Sumo Digital hadn’t nailed the actual racing, though. Thankfully we’ve got no major complaints in that department. Cars handle with relative simplicity, slipping into manageable right-angle slides in order to initiate drift boosts. Boats are a little bit slower and harder to handle, but are able to pivot in the air as splashes and ripples send them out of the water. The racing’s perhaps at its least interesting when you’re in flight mode – evidenced by the slender use of the tertiary mechanic – but the mere act of soaring through stages adds an undeniable novelty to the whole experience. It also aids with set-pieces – boosting off a collapsing ramp and into the sky as the track crumbles below is an undeniably satisfying feeling.

Each circuit’s reliance on changing routes and transforming vehicles instil the title with a longevity that similar release’s struggle to match. In fact, you’ll be wishing that the single-player campaign would allow you to return to certain stages more often, as you hop between familiar and forgotten properties at a frightening pace. The lengthy World Tour component – which encompasses a large chunk of the racer’s solo content – is brilliantly varied as well, switching between battle, race, and mini-game objectives as you progress. Traffic Attack sees you carefully slipping between Sunday drivers and boy racers in order to hit time posts, while Pursuit finds you trying to shoot down a tank with a never-ending supply of artillery. Of course, the primary emphasis is on Race and Battle Race objectives, with three stars on each stage up for grabs. Increasing the difficulty improves your reward, with the A-Class levels delivering a steep challenge that juxtaposes the game’s otherwise jovial presentation.

In fact, if there’s any issue with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, it’s that average players will struggle to see all of its content. Characters can be collected by earning Stars in the World Tour mode, but not everyone will have the fortitude to find them. It’s nice that there’s a reward for actually playing through the campaign, but we can’t help but feel that the difficulty gets a little too steep. Perhaps more trivial trinkets should have been reserved for traversing the tougher stages?

The roster of playable racers is top-notch, though, and like the selection of circuits, the cast caters to both the mainstream and the hardcore. The usual assortment of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Dr. Eggman headline the line-up – but they are accompanied by more uncommon characters such as Joe Musashi, Gilius Thunderhead, and Vyse. Even more impressively, each of these all-stars have unique vehicles that are designed with their respective universes in mind – and because of the nature of the game, that means that the developers have had to craft three different vehicles for each. Sadly, Danica Patrick and Wreck It Ralph feel like marketing-driven additions. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the way in which they’re implemented – both control and play fine – but they just feel desperately out of place.

By getting to grips with specific drivers, you’ll earn experience points which allow you to unlock mods. These custom accessories can then be applied to your racer to alter their overall statistics. If you’d rather Beat was a more balanced racer rather than a heavyweight, for example, you can make that happen. In all honesty, it’s hard to notice a massive difference, but we suppose tailoring your favourite character to your personal playstyle makes sense in principal.

Outside of the World Tour mode, there’s also a traditional Grand Prix option which sees you competing in a league across four different tracks. Then there’s the obligatory Time Trials, which find you racing against developer ghosts in order to set the best lap times. Many of the solo options can be enjoyed in local four-player multiplayer – though there is a separate mode for that, too. There you’ll find a range of game types, including standard races and more elaborate set-ups such as Capture the Chao, which is a kind of vehicular twist on the similarly named first-person shooter playlist involving flags.

Should you not have any friends at your side – which is where the game’s undeniably at its best – you can choose to take the action online. The aforementioned custom game types can be played over the Internet, but ranked matchmaking options are also on offer. Sadly, the amount of modes here are limited to the standard Race and Battle Race options, though you can engage in a Lucky Dip if you’re desperate for some variety. The matchmaking is solid enough, but with a very small playerbase, finding a full online lobby can be more challenging than actually winning a race. Assuming you’re successful, though, matches rotate nicely, and the net code is very good. There’s even a neat little mechanic – mirrored in certain single-player events – which allows you to invest the coins you’ve collected on the track into a slot machine for bonuses in the next race. These help to mask the game’s long loading times slightly, but you’ll certainly be aware of the issue after a particularly prolonged play session.

Frame rate is another area where the title struggles. There’s no denying that the racer’s a great looking game, but its sense of speed can be hindered by its inconsistent refresh rate. Still, the art direction throughout is fantastic – and it’s refreshing to play a release that isn’t afraid to put a bit of colour on the screen. Sound is similarly sublime, with a number of remixed tracks readily available to complement the nostalgic experience.

Conclusion

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a feel-good game that’s difficult to dislike. It may not be quite as revolutionary as its title indicates, but it’s still a forward-thinking racer with some outstanding tracks. Difficulty spikes and some minor technical issues detract from its overall appeal, but this is still one of the best kart racers available on the PS3.