Going through a review of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed without mentioning Mario Kart would be extremely difficult, because the similarities are present from the very beginning. Sega and developer Sumo Digital aren’t shying away from the fact that Mario Kart serves as their game’s inspiration, but, at the same time, they aren’t simply copying Nintendo’s successful formula – they’re evolving it into its own evocative offering.
All-Stars Racing Transformed, a successor to the surprisingly successful Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, takes a thing or two from the page of Mario Kart 7, and even its own past iteration, but evolves those similar concepts into something unique. Granted, Transformed is, at its core, a kart racer, and gamers disinterested by that concept best turn back now, but what it does do for the genre is worth commending.
Like with the first game, Transformed presents players with a wealth of iconic Sega-brand racers, and a few oddballs to keep things feeling fresh. This iteration’s new racers include the likes of Wreck-It Ralph, Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, and (oddly) Danica Patrick. Each racer, from Sonic all the way down, has their own signature kart, which by extension has its own characteristics, be it faster acceleration, a higher top speed, or better handling.
Those characteristics, however, can be tweaked to some degree by the game’s leveling system, which unlocks a different, character-specific mod at each level. Usually a mod will boost one specific stat, like drifting, but at the expense of another. It’s not the ideal leveling system, but it does keep things balanced when newcomers are racing up against veterans.
While a unique cast of unlockable characters will be a major draw at first glance, Sonic & All-Stars‘ greatest achievement is its 20+ maps. While the game’s world tour mode gets plenty of mileage out of each map by mixing and matching various race types, they individually have their own appeal for Sega fans. Each track is based on a specific Sega or video game property, from Golden Axe to Shinobi to Super Monkey Ball. The tracks are designed in such a way to pay homage to the spirit of each game, and they incorporate some of their more popular elements.
However, these tracks are not just static raceways, but are gradually changing landscapes that, usually by the final lap, look completely different. Oftentimes a track will lose its racing surface midway through, and force the player either to the skies or water. Thankfully, as the game’s name suggests, the karts are capable of a transform ability whereby they can double as a boat or plane depending on the terrain.
Yes, Mario Kart 7 introduced the idea first, but Sonic & All-Stars actually does it better, making all three forms play differently. Racing through the skies, for example, has a lot more freedom of movement, and turns each track into a more open play space, whereas the water sections are much looser on the controls. The “transform” concept does make it difficult for casual gamers to hop in and race with ease, but for those who have become jaded by the endless cycles of arcade racers it’s a nice change of pace.
Racing through a track that isn’t simply the same landscape during all three laps is a welcome change of pace, and helps keep the player from running on autopilot the whole way through. Occasionally players will lose sight of where to go next as a result, their sight lines lost in the design of each track, but usually there are guide arrows pointing them in the right direction.
To show off the game’s dynamic maps, Transformed offers a decent selection of modes, from the typical 4-race tournament to the quick race. Players that enjoy a little deeper experience in their kart racer will find that the World Tour fits the bill nicely and offers a wealth of different race types. Like other recent evolutions of the kart racer, Sonic & All-Stars features more than just typical races – like ones focused specifically on drifting, or timely use of speed boosts, or even ones that require beating a single racer. Some are more successful than others, and a few are pretty poorly conceived, but each helps break up the monotony of the world tour — taking the attention away from simply aiming for 1st place.
1st place, however, is still the main goal in many of the modes and races, but achieving it will require not just skill but a bit of luck. The game provides a healthy selection of power-ups to acquire during a race, and players who can use them well will find the greatest success. There are about seven randomly unlocked power-ups available, each meant to assist the player in catching up to another racer or racers, or simply preserving their lead.
Most of the power-ups, though, are different variations on the missile, with some requiring a little aiming while others will seek out a racer regardless of their distance. Then there are items like the power glove, which allows players to protect themselves from any oncoming weapon and then, after “catching” it puts that item in their arsenal. And there are no power-ups like Mario Kart‘s lightning, which put only one player in an advantageous position and leave all others to suffer.
At times it will still seem like the AI controlled opponents end up with the best power-ups at the most opportune times, but thankfully there are three levels of difficulty to choose from — easy, medium, and hard — to help different types of players find a suitable challenge. Be warned, though, the hard difficulty takes that luck and happenstance and turns it into frustration and heartbreak. There’s no worse feeling than having the enemy weapons pile on just as you take the lead.
Multiplayer keeps the playing field as even as possible, but those who have unlocked all of the game’s 20+ characters will find a more serviceable selection to choose from. Racing across the game’s numerous tracks against real opponents makes the proceedings much more challenging, but, at the same time, makes the victories that much more rewarding. Obviously appeal will vary based on a particular gamers’ feelings about the kart racing genre, but for those that loved playing Mario Kart with friends, this is a fantastic evolution of that experience.
With a handful of modes to choose from, including an addictive multiplayer offering, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is more than just Sega’s answer to Mario Kart. Its inventive transforming kart concept and constantly changing tracks keep the gameplay dynamic fresh without becoming too cluttered or confusing. The game suffers from its fair share of rubber banding AI, as many kart racers do, but it alleviates some of that stress with a forgiving learning curve and more accessible goals (like finishing 3rd or better to advance). Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is not the revelation the original Mario Kart was, but it certainly succeeds in evolving that game’s winning formula into a really fun game.
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Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is available now for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U. Game Rant was provided the Xbox 360 version for review.