I'll admit it. I love kart racers. I know they're not the newest, flashiest games on the block. I know they haven't done a lot to evolve with the times. But I started all the way back with Super Mario Kart on the SNES, and just never really got tired of them.
So imagine my joy when I fired up the XBOX 360 today and discovered that the demo for Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing had gone live. This game is only a few weeks away, and I've been starting to eye it from a distance. It doesn't hurt that the developer, Sumo Digital, is responsible for the fantastic Outrun Online Arcade that appeared on XBOX Live Arcade last summer. Factor in my latent (and, sadly, recently neglected ) Sega fanboy-ism, and here is a demo that I was almost unaccountably excited to try out.Try it out I did. After about an hour spent racing around the single unlocked track in the demo, Lost Palace, I feel perfectly comfortable saying this game is a lot of fun. If that is your only question, by all means, download the demo now and get to practicing. Those looking for a little more information, read on.
Let's start with the presentation. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is certainly an attractive game. State of the art? Not so much, but a classic Sega aesthetic carries the day. The game looks like Sega's work from late period Dreamcast (and early GameCube) updated for the HD age. Track selection in the full game reflects this, with courses based on everything from Jet Set Radio and House of the Dead to Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. The Sonic-themed Lost Palace track in the demo is full of blue, blue skies and sandy beaches, with Sonic's trademarks corkscrews, bumper pads, and item jars in full effect. The track feels nice and big, though you can get around it in a bit more than a minute. The many Sega characters (Sonic, Ryo Hazuki, Ulala, and, grrr, Shadow among them - 22 in all) each have their own customized carts and unique attacks. As a huge fan of Sega's past, I'm loving the art and animation in this game.
Unfortunately, presentation is also home to the game's biggest flaw: frame rate. In both single player and split-screen multiplayer, the game visibly drops below 30 fps often enough to be distracting. It never affects control, but given that the graphics (appealing as they are) aren't exactly bleeding edge, I'm not sure why frame rate is a problem. In fact, I'd happily lose a little graphical fidelity to see the game locked at 60 fps.
While the frame rate stumbles, the control shines. The default layout finds gas assigned to the right trigger, drifts and stunts to the left trigger, and attacks to the A button. It's very comfortable and works great with the speedy on-screen action. Characters can gain boost by holding a drift for extended periods, jetting ahead when the drift button is released. More boost can be earned by performing stunts after jumping off a ramp. Chaining together boosts while drifting through the course, avoiding your opponent's attacks, and trying to land a few shots of your own, is totally engrossing and a lot of fun. It can be hectic, but you never feel let down by the control. The game just feels great.
Gameplay in Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is exactly what you would expect. One doesn't go to kart racers for innovation. Maybe the most unique element in the game is the All-Star attack. Specific to each character (Sonic, for example, turns into Super Sonic), All-Star attacks basically work like a super-powered version of the invincibility star in Mario Kart. That it has the added benefit of auto-pilot and a massive speed boost, not to mention lasting for nearly half a lap of the race, may prove controversial. Opponent AI seems to have been toughened accordingly.
Gran Turismo, this isn't. But anyone looking for some old-school kart racing fun is going to find a lot to like here. I should point out that Banjo and Kazooie are in the 360 version (and the demo), and you can use your Mii in the Wii version. For me, though, this game is all about celebrating Sega. It's almost like visiting old friends you haven't seen in a long time. I'll be checking it out. How about you? Will I see you online, or are kart racers more a part of your gaming past than your gaming present?
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing crosses the finish line for XBOX 360, PS3, Wii, DS, and PC February 23rd.