By Leo Stevenson
I've always been a Nintendo fan boy. In school yard arguments regarding whether a fat mustachioed plumber could beat a hyperactive blue hedgehog in a wide range of activities, I was always firmly part of "Team Mario". For me, Sonic has always played second banana and his more recent adventures have solidified him - in my mind at least - as a pretender to the throne. With Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sonic may have, and for the first time, appeared in a game I actually prefer to the Mario version.
A few years back, Sega released Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, and while a serviceable Mario Kart clone, it didn't step out from that series' shadow. It was fun, but very strictly by the numbers and most definitely played it safe. With Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sumo Digital have taken some calculated risks and played with the genre's conventions. In doing so, they have produced a brilliant kart racer that surpasses Mario's most recent kart outings and does so in style.
The titular "Transformed" doesn't only refer to the switching of your vehicle between a car, boat or plane. It doesn't only refer to the way that each track is in a constant state of flux so that each of the three laps may be different than the last. It certainly doesn't refer to any playable Transformers characters -- totally missed opportunity right there, by the way -- but instead most importantly alludes to the attempts to make this a different kind of kart racer. To "transform" the genre, so to speak. While not a massive departure from the norm or a revelation the likes of seeing Mario in 3D for the first time, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (SASRT) adds new features and plays with standard inclusions enough to warrant the suffix.
The actual transforming of vehicles is a surprising delight. Fully expecting it to be an annoying gimmick or wholly superfluous I was pleased when it turned out to be neither. While it may seem initially disappointing that you are unable to change vehicle types on the fly, the more you play the more you realise that the forced transforming adds to the tension and fun of a race. Being able to transform willy-nilly would have rendered the game an unplayable mess.
At certain points along the track, you will pass through a "transform ring" and your vehicle will change depending on what lies ahead. It's not uncommon to start in a car, change into a boat part way before transforming into a plane before going back to a car all before one lap has finished. It's an engaging and dynamic system that keeps you on your toes throughout the race. Cars handle just like you'd expect in a kart racer and there is a definite sense of speed -- fitting for a Sonic game -- especially when you manage to chain boosts together. Boats are a little harder to control, feel a little sluggish and corner widely. They take some getting used to but can also make or break a race the most easily. Mastering the boat sections is essential if you want to stay out in front. Planes handle differently again and are by far the speediest of the three. When in an aeroplane you are still confined by the boundaries of the track, but in a much less rigid way so while in the air you can shave precious seconds off your time and sneak out in front of your rivals.
The racing in SASRT is rock solid, but more than that it's a lot of fun. Ever changing tracks, combined with transforming vehicles, fun and useful - and not over powered - pick-ups and a great sense of speed all add up to a great game. There is something else that truly makes this game shine though.
This game is almost exclusively comprised of elements to make Sega fans giddy with excitement. From the cast of colourful characters - including characters from Sonic, Jet Set Radio, Space Channel 5 and even using Ristar as the flag waver - to the themed pick-ups and the incredibly detailed tracks SASRT knows its audience, knows what they want and delivers. Even as a Nintendo fan boy I was excited to see who would be unlocked next or what the next track would be based on. Aside form the cast of characters and the huge amount of tracks there is lots to do.
The meat of the experience is World Cup. A series of races and challenges in which progressing through each track and unlocking every character will be a lengthy and somewhat difficult experience - especially on A rank - but a fun experience non the less. Then there are the standard Grand Prix and Time Trial modes which will add further replayability for those completionists amongst us. The mode that will see the most action though is of course the multiplayer with the full kart racing suite available for both online and offline versions of the mode.
I could only come up with very minor gripes during my time with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and they all relate to the same thing. The difficulty. Like in most racing games, in order to ramp up the difficulty often times the developer will simply let the A.I. drive the perfect line and/or ensure they get equipped with the best and most deadly pick-ups. This frustrates me to no end, especially when I'll be dominating a race only to be sent packing back to 6th place on the second to last turn. It doesn't make me want to try again and do better, it makes me want to rip my hair out and scream about the unfairness of it all. Other times it just feels impossible to get out in front, like every racer has their weapons aimed squarely upon me and is ready to let loose the second I make any ground. It doesn't happen all the time and is actually fairly infrequent which makes the times these incidences of unfairness stand out all the more. They aren't game-breaking by any means, but do be prepared to replay a few events multiple times. What kind of kart game doesn't infuriate you once in a while though?
With Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sonic has finally stepped out of Mario's shadow and delivered a game worthy of his rich history and that of Sega's. By far the best kart racer released in recent memory and both a great game to play alone or with friends -- whether real or online. I had an absolute ball with it and can't recommend it highly enough to kart racing and Sega fans alike.