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.
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.
I enjoyed the demo, but found that it felt a little slow. MK always had such a sense of speed to it. The Golden Axe stage is spectacularly done!
@KALofKRYPTON I think it's the frame rate that gives the 'slow' impression (especially compared to Mario Kart). Once you start boosting around corners and learning the track, it moves at a pretty good pace I feel.
It was the same thing that stopped me getting the first one. I really like the game, but even drifting then boosting seems like it's a bit muted. Does the speed increase over the course of the game at all, or are you fairly convinced it a framerate issue?
@KALofKRYPTON There are no CC options like in Mario Kart, so it stays the same speed throughout. However, some tracks feel "tighter" and more "windy", which adds to the sense of speed. The Burning Rangers level feels parituclarly fast.
Which stage is in the demo? Golden Axe?
Remove Ralph and the NASCAR woman, improve the loading times (takes me well over a minute to get from 'Press Start' to the menu page), make it much quicker to restart races/events/online races (the amount of button pressing here is ridiculous) and stop CPU characters having imaginary weapons (seen them not pick a weapon up then fire one at me) in a update then the game will be great rather than good.
Oh, and whoever thought up that Team Sonic trophy should be taken out back and shot.
@get2sammyb There's the Golden Axe one, not to race but do a timed/pass through rings sort of thing. And the other one to race on is Panzer Dragoon I think, looks fairly Green Hill Zone but with Dragoons all over the place!
Has anyone tried the Vita version? Is it identical with the PS3 one?
@belmont You'd hope so. I assume it's been developed in house- and Sumo are quite good (the Vita F1 2011 port notwithstanding).
@belmont Sadly, no. I have heard good things, though.
How is the Vita version different? If it's worse than the PS3 version, then I might as well just buy the PS3 version instead. Requesting a review of the Vita version please!
@Knux I'll see what we can do. Watch this space.
So is this that much better than LBP Karting or does Katy just hate Sackboy?
@rjejr This is way better than LittleBigPlanet Karting in my opinion.
The Vita version is the same game just the controls are a wee bit lose and the Team Sonic trophy is different.
I agree that Ralph and Danica Patrick shouldn't be in the game and those two slots could've went to two different franchise.
I might have to get this game. It looks too good to pass up.
This review makes me miss James.
Great review though Sammy!
I've played this a bit in what little spare time I have had lately and really like it. As for the questions regarding the Vita version: From what I've seen online, it's the same game as the PS3 version but it MIGHT be missing 2 characters (not sure who). It's not out here in the states until next Tuesday but hopefully I'll be able to get it and clear some things up.
Does anyone know whether there is cross-play functionality between Vita and PS3 versions?
@isnchz We'll definitely do something with the Vita version ASAP seeing as so many people are asking.
Found the demo last night - thanks KalofKrypton - and had a fun time racing but that boost challenge is killing me. Even on easy I can only get 2 or 3 gates. Looks like this could wind up under the tree, in part b/c it's $40, which somehow seems cheap compared to $60.
Don't treat it like a straight racer, or even Mario Kart for that matter. Drifting and boosting almost constantly is the only way to win the race and do well on the challenge. Once you've banked a few points you can change the 'profile' of your car. The only other one available is for better control, this helps. Basically, unless you're on a perfect straight with obstacles in your way, you should be drifting building up a boost. Same goes for boat and plane sections too.
This looks a lot better than MKWii. I'll be sure to pick it up for my Wii U.
Thanks, waiting for it.
I picked up a PS3 version for £20 and must say that it's the best kart racer I've played recently. We are enjoying it now in split screen and Vita-PS3 play would be awesome. Although, I have a bad feeling that it might not be there. If it is, then this means insta-buy of Vita version for me.
@isnchz If you check the comments in the PS Blog, it seems there is 0 connectivity between the Vita and the PS3 version. http://blog.us.playstation.com/2012/12/18/sonic-all-stars-racing-hits-ps-vita-today-nab-bonus-dlc/
@nathanuc1988 thanks for the info!
Oh, well, Vita is still gathering dust then.
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