A road trip down memory lane
It was like everybody had the same epiphany: Mario Kart wasn’t what it used to be. Over the years, Mario Kart had begun to more heavily emphasize its party game elements – running the race was becoming less important than knocking your friends around with blue shells. And so, a number of kart racers were born that vowed to “fix” Mario Kart – you had Split/Second, Blur, and ModNation Racers all vying to fill the niche no longer satisfied by plumbers throwing banana peels. But leading this wave of clones was Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, a game that was perhaps more directly analogous to Mario Kart than any of the games to come after it. Rather than tack on wacky new gimmicks, All-Stars Racing was more or less just Mario Kart, but with many of the more nasty tricks sheared away. It was a great game – though far from perfect, and that’s where the sequel, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed enters the picture: it not only corrects a number of the biggest problems from the first game, but expands to cover transforming vehicles that cross land, sea, and air.Last year’s Mario Kart 7 also happened to feature vehicles that could tackle the sky and the sea, too – but All-Stars Transformed‘s implementation is in a league of its own. MK7‘s water and flight aspects felt like like they were supplementing the driving aspect – hit a particular ramp the right way, and your kart would sprout glider wings for a couple seconds as you sailed over a gap. Here, flying and sailing are just as integral as driving – some tracks, like Sanctuary Falls, are 75% flight, while others, like Outrun Bay, take you up the beach via road and then back down across the sea. And, much like the vehicles themselves, many tracks are in a constant state of transformation, with routes changing lap by lap. Even the game itself transforms – the real meat of ASRT‘s singleplayer is World Tour mode, which often detours beyond simple race events and in to boss battles and challenges that have you dodging police cars under strict time limits.
If there could ever be such a thing as a “hardcore mascot kart racer”, it would be All-Stars Transformed. This is a legitimately difficult game that rewards skilled play, and that surfaces in several places. The most noticeable, perhaps, is just how smart your opponent’s A.I. is – whereas Mario Kart‘s opposition seemed to largely function as moving targets that launched attacks at random, computer-controlled opponents in All-Stars Transformed race to win, employing strategy far beyond what you would expect to see out of a kart racer. In addition to having deadly aim and expert drifting skills, computer-controlled racers seem to be more aware of their surroundings, engaging in keep-away tactics that intentionally deny you from collecting items. This lends each racer an intense personality that will have you cursing their names as you get frozen in a block of ice or thrown into a tornado.For those of you out there looking to get back at your opponents with a trusty lightning bolt or a blue shell, you’re out of luck – the closest thing in ASRT are the trademark “All-Star” moves, which provide temporary invincibility in addition to a unique, character-specific attack. For example, when Sonic activates his All-Star, he temporarily gains a shield of rings, a burst of speed, and can freely jump out of his vehicle and use the homing attack to strike nearby opponents. And while that’s definitely a useful attack, it’s not quite the all-powerful “win button” you’d typically see in a Mario Kart game – most All-Stars are usually only good for moving up one or two places. Rather than rely on blue shells, a number of tracks in All-Stars Transformed feature unique enemies and hazards explicitly designed to slow down racers at the head of the pack – unless you’re skilled enough to dodge the onslaught of lasers in a stage like Galactic Parade. It’s just a shame that more tracks don’t feature this type of interactivity, because it’s a remarkably intelligent way to make sure the guy in first place doesn’t pull too far ahead – and it provides a unique incentive to do well, as it offers racers near the front of the group another layer of fanservice.
All-Stars Transformed loves its fanservice. Top to bottom, the entire game plays like one giant love letter to Sega fans, regardless of era or region. A major failing of the first game was the small handful of Sega franchises being represented – but that’s not an issue here, as tracks in ASRT cover everything from Sonic the Hedgehog to Shinobi, with pit stops in obscure games like Burning Rangers and House of the Dead EX. But it doesn’t stop there: expect to see references to Comix Zone, Holosseum, and even Japan-exclusive games like Segagaga. Honestly, I could spend the rest of this review pointing out all of the references this game makes to Sega’s legacy, but the point is that Sumo Digital seems to “get” Sega fans in a way that I don’t think even Sega themselves does, and it goes a long way to elevate the All-Stars Transformed above Mario Kart‘s typical “eh, I dunno, it’s all just generic Mario stuff” sensibilities. I just wish more thought had been put in to the weaponry itself – even worse than the first All-Stars Racing, all of the item pickups in Transformed are weird, generic cartoon items that have have very little to do with Sega or racing, and in some cases, like the Blowfish item, don’t even have much to do with themselves. They’re all still functionally useful, of course, but I feel like the visual designs tied to those functions really miss the mark, because literally every other part of this game has some very deep nostalgic ties.All of this would be for naught without a strong gameplay base, and for the most part, All-Stars Transformed delivers with responsive controls and interesting track design. But don’t expect this to control like a kart racer; Sumo Digital have gone the extra mile and implemented more realistic driving physics this time around. It’s not quite Forza, but it does mean that the handling model is a bit more sophisticated than you’d normally expect from this genre. That’s not always a good thing, though – while everything is more or less fine when you’ve got four wheels, the other two modes can be a little more touch-and-go, with boats feeling especially squirrelly. There does not seem to be any sort of consistent way to tell how much over steer is too much when on the water, and I occasionally found myself spinning 90 degrees when trying to make slight steering adjustments. Online, these problems are somewhat exacerbated. Lagged players often warp around the track, and should you be unlucky enough to get too close, the ensuing impact is often uncharacteristically powerful and can even be enough to send your racer unfairly sailing off the track. Lag causes other problems, as well, such as one online event where a little internet hiccup caused my vehicle to not transform when it should have, leaving my car sailing off in to an abyss of nothingness for close to a full minute.
The game generally feels like it is perhaps missing one final layer of polish. Even though it all comes together in the end, with nice visuals and a stable framerate, every now and then you get the sense that the game is tearing at the seams a little bit, be it from glimpsing the horrifying red void beyond the horizon of Seasonal Shrines or Dream Valley’s skyboxes, or from the fact that when you finish a race, sometimes your controller won’t stop vibrating until the start of the next event. But despite lacking that one final layer of polish, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is still an incredible game. To reduce it down to simply a “Mario Kart Clone” feels a little unfair at this point – it owns its identity in a way few kart racers have been able to do. None of its problems ever really get in the way of having a good time, and with tons of content and modes both online and off, there’s plenty here for you to enjoy. Any way you slice it, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a must-own for any Sega fan – and even if you don’t have any nostalgia for these franchises, it’s still a great racing game.