Despite the fact that pretty much every successful platforming franchise has had a go at the karting genre, very few have ever managed to come close to capturing the majesty of Nintendo’s Mario Kart franchise. Despite being the first of its ilk, the SNES version of MK is still, to this day, one of the finer examples of how the genre should be executed, and with each iteration of the series on a new platform, Nintendo manages to refine it in such a way that makes it practically untouchable by the opposition.
Earlier this month Sony tried it with LittleBigPlanet Karting, and while they delivered a decent track-based romp, it wasn’t in the same league as Nintendo’s series. Step forward Sega, with the follow up to 2010’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing the publisher is making its second attempt at the series, and given the fact that the first one was pretty tasty, it’s fair to say that we’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is, to skip right to the heart of the matter, a genuine competitor for Mario Kart’s throne. Taking everything that the company learned from the original game, it massages all the raw materials into one monstrous kart racing delight. While the pre-release hype surrounded the fact that players’ vehicles would transform throughout each course to tackle a variety of terrain, it’s actually something that plays a relatively minor part in the success of the game overall.
Initially, however, things don’t seem to have worked quite according to plan. The main culprit is the game’s unique handling. First time around the drift based action felt an awful lot tighter right off the bat, which meant for some serious pick-up-and-playability, but with Transformed there’s a certain amount of adaptation required on the player’s front in order to really get the most out of each of the karts and characters available.
With a grand total of 29 playable characters, each of which can be levelled up to a maximum rank of level 5, while also having a number of upgrades available which alter the handling, power, speed and boost ratings of their vehicles, it’s fair to say that Transformed carries quite a bit of depth. All the usual culprits are here, including Sonic, Tails, Amy Rose, Knuckles, Dr. Eggman, Metal Sonic and Shadow from the Sonic series, and a variety of other Sega favourites from Amigo (Samba de Amigo) to Beat and Gum (Jet Set Radio) to Nights (Nights into Dreams), and there are even a few surprises like Wreck-It Ralph from Disney’s recent animated movie. Wii players can take their Mii characters into the action, while Xbox 360 owners can do likewise with their Xbox Avatars.
Obviously though, everyone is going to have their favourites, and in most games they’d tend to stick with them, however given the fact that there are so many different unlocks and stickers for each character available there are plenty of incentives to experiment. Likewise, not all the characters are available right from the off; you’ll need to play through the game’s ample career mode, World Tour, to unlock them, again giving the opportunity for experimentation with each of their abilities.
Unlike the majority of kart raging games, simply picking Transformed up, cranking the difficulty up the highest level and expecting to coast your way through World Tour isn’t really an option. Simply put, the game is surprisingly tricky. Thankfully, it never reaches the point of being frustrating, but we found it enough of a challenge early on tackling each event in B class. C class is available for completely beginners, but that offers little challenge, while A class requires a top place finish in every race to taste success, putting it out of reach of most players until they’ve managed to unlock a sufficient number of mods to beef up their racers’ stats.
The end result of such a reasonably balanced difficulty curve is that, for a change in the karting genre, you’ll often find yourself happy with a second or third place finish – and even those are tricky enough to come by at times. This establishes a much more satisfying gameplay experience, and affords players the scope to try new things, knowing that not finishing first isn’t going to be the end of the world. It’s thoroughly refreshing, and it’s something we wish more developers would try.
It’s something that’s magnified by the continual changes in your mode of transport. The karts handle pretty much like you would expect them to, with drifting playing a huge part in your chances of success, but when you take to the water you’re going to find yourself faced with a whole new physics engine. Waves generated by the environment and your fellow racers can help or hinder you, and you’ll need to approach corners very differently if you’re to hold the optimal race line.
Similarly things feel a lot different in the air too. There’s a temptation there to over steer when approaching tight turns, when it’s minor adjustments and carefully distributed taps on the air drift button that’ll dictate how well you hold your line. The fact that several courses see you switching between each mode many times over the duration of the race means that you’ll need to at least become reasonably skilled across the board if you’re ever going to trouble the A class races, but it’s a challenge that’s well worth embracing due to the satisfaction and rewards that await you down the line.
The course themselves are based on the various Sega franchises represented in the game’s character roster. You’ll take on courses influenced by classic Sonic titles, Samba de Amigo, Skies of Arcadia, Shinobi, Jet Set Radio and more, with plenty of nice visual references to the games that spawned them. To ensure that each track feels organic and alive, they evolve as you progress through your three laps. Some will see major environmental changes that affect in a big way the route you and the other racers need to take, while others simply litter the tracks with environmental dangers, pushing your racing skills to the limit as you approach the chequered flag.
There’s a lot more to Transformed than just World Tour mode though. Players can opt for the more traditional Grand Prix mode, which plays out over a series of races with points being awarded for each place on the grid. Finish top of the points ladder at the end of the races and you’ll claim your win. It’s a mode that Mario Kart fans will perhaps feel more at home with, but it’s also a nice break from the World Tour’s disjointed races and world map type approach (not that it’s a bad thing or anything).
On top of the other handful of single player modes, you can also get to grips with the game’s online multiplayer, which offers players the chance to tackle a Grand Prix style game via an online lobby (which adds in AI controlled racers to make up for any missing humans), single races or battle races. Given the fact that the game’s difficulty curve is a little higher than most, online multiplayer offers a fantastic opportunity to beef up your skills, while earning XP and increasing the competitiveness of your characters.
Wii U players might find the going a little bit tough at the moment however, as finding other players to compete with is trickier than we would have hoped for given that the game is so new. Fingers crossed this can be explained away by most early adopters opting for titles like ZombiU and New Super Mario Bros. U to start their collection, and there’ll be an improvement in the weeks ahead. Another thing that Wii U users need to be wary of is the fact that World Tour’s boost challenge events are currently broken and impossible to complete. We’re not sure how exactly that got through Sega’s QA department, but we’re assured that there’s a fix on the way shortly – so it shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
On the presentation front, Transformed fares quite well. There’s no slowdown or frame rate issues to be seen on either the Xbox 360 or Wii U versions (which we used to compile this review), while the courses each boast their own unique look and feel, with bright colours utilized wonderfully in order to strike strong contrasts and temp the player’s eyes away from the action for the split second needed to lose control – which is quite sneaky, but very definitely in line with the challenge on offer.
The one thing we weren’t particularly impressed with, however, is the game’s choice of music. Just like in the original, each course has its own sonic motif (no, the OTHER kind of sonic) influenced by the game it’s based on. While some of them tick the right boxes, others feel bland and devoid of any immediacy, which ends up taking quite a bit of energy from the experience. It took us a while to figure out why things didn’t feel quite right at first, but eventually we realized that it was the music.
Strange and all as it may seem, it does have quite an effect on the way you approach the races; higher tempo, more aggressive soundtracks will often find you chomping at the bit to get past that bugger ahead of you, while the elevator music-esque pieces will dull the sense of immediacy. Of course, this is easily solved by throwing your favourite band’s latest CD into the HiFi (wait, do people use HiFis anymore? Or CDs? Christ we’re old), but that’s not really the point. It’s an area that should have been better tailored to suit the high octane action on-screen.
So, down to the big question – how does Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed stack up against the competition? Well, it makes light work of the pretenders such as LBP Karting for starters, and once you start to ease yourself into the game, adjusting to the handling and upgrading your karts with unlocked mods, you’ll find that it starts to compare very favourably to the Mario Kart series. As for whether it’s an MK beater, that’s really going to be down to the individual.
There’s certainly a huge difference in the way the game feels, particularly when you switch from asphalt to water to the air and back again over the course of a lap or two, but those who are willing to accept something a touch different from the norm are going to love Transformed. It’s got enough new ideas to supplement an already rock solid starting point to make it the best kart racer of the last decade for us – and, yes, that means we think it’s better than MK Wii and MK7, although you may disagree.