Thursday, 22 November 2012

REVIEW - Sonic & AllStars Racing Transformed (Xbox 360 / PS3)

Ever since Super Mario Kart was unleashed on the SNES in 1992 developers have tried, with varying degrees of success, to capture the same magic that Nintendo managed with their cute and highly enjoyable spin on the racing game formula. When the initial bar is set so high it can be a hard act to follow, and what ensued was a plethora of cheap imitators to the fat plumber's crown. Sega tried themselves back in 1994 with Sonic Drift on their Game Gear hand-held, but it was fairly poor, and was quickly ignored (though it gained a sequel a year later). But it wasn't until 2010's excellent Sonic & Allstars Racing, developed by Sumo Digital, that we were finally given a worthy alternative to Nintendo's kart racer. It stuck fairly close to the template set all those years ago, but offered such huge fan service to Sega fans that you couldn't help but love it, flaws and all. Now Sumo have blessed us with a follow up, Sonic & Allstars Racing Transformed, so how does it compare to the high levels set by its predecessor?

Well the good news is that what we have here is a much improved racing title, that offers heaps more variety than before, much better drifting, a better frame rate, and even more Sega love. The bad news is that many of the characters you know and love have disappeared, or once again not made an appearance.

The Transformed part of this new title is a reference to the fact that at certain points during races you transform from the standard kart to either a boat, or plane, and back again. It sounds like a simple mechanic, one already seen in Mario Kart 7, but here it is put to much greater use. It is also worth noting that Sumo Digital had this game in the works when Mario Kart 7 was showcased at the E3 show, so they must have been kicking themselves that day. However, this doesn't detract from this game at all, as Allstars Transformed is an absolute riot to play. The transformations are a stunning addition, each mode of transport playing differently but all of a very high standard. The kart's handling is wonderful, and the drifting mechanic is now easier and more satisfying than ever, bringing to mind the smooth corner drifting antics of Outrun 2 SP. This improvement in the driving mechanics may be due to Sumo hiring Gareth Wilson, who worked on the excellent Project Gotham Racing series, as lead designer. It's not just the ground-based karts that handle well, both the water and air based vehicles are similarly enjoyable to control, the boats bringing to mind the turbulent water based races of Hydro Thunder Hurricane, and the airborne sections playing like Sky Drift or Pilotwings. Often when games try their hands at multiple styles they all lack in some areas, but here they all feel highly polished, enjoyable, and blend effortlessly together.

The stages themselves are one of the most important factors in any racing game, and here Sega have really outdone themselves. Flying through the vibrant forests of Nights, rushing down lava waterfalls in the Golden Axe mountains, taking off from the Afterburner ship, and driving through the beautiful village from Skies of Arcadia, only to see it destroyed by an airborne armada, are just some of the mesmerising and epic sights you will experience. Each stage plays perfect homage to its original source title, and will bring back wonderful memories for anyone familiar with the games in question. There is a truly fantastic Outrun Bay track that sees you racing through the first level of the arcade classic, only to find yourself suddenly morphing, mid-air, into the boat form, to carry on across the ocean surface. 

The level of fan service here is incredible, and the developers have clearly taken the time and effort to make every stage as special as possible. It is with some disappointment then that the character roster itself isn't as impressive. The Bonanza Bros and Ryo are nowhere to be seen, and new additions such as Disney's Wreck-it Ralph, and bizarrely, real life racing driver Danica Patrick, seem extremely out of place and reek of marketing decisions. When I first unlocked Danica I didn't know what game she was from so I Googled her, only to find page upon page of photos of a scantily clad female racing driver and model. Hot? Undoubtedly. An appropriate character for a Sega kart racer? Absolutely not. Wreck-it Ralph does a better job of fitting in, but still feels out of place next to the known ensemble. He isn't a particularly interesting character, and as his movie isn’t even out yet, he is an unknown entity. It's a shame these characters were used when others were dropped. It is also a let down that Toejam & Earl failed to make the cut again, even with heir titles recently re-released on XBLA & PSN. The Streets of Rage franchise is also notably absent, as are other well known gaming heroes such as Kid Chameleon, Vectorman, Wonder Boy, and Clockwork night, all of which would have been a perfect fit for this gaming world. There are still some great additions to the character roster though, which I won't spoil for you here, but they will definitely get the nostalgia glands flowing when you find them.

As well as the wonderfully colourful and charming visuals, the music is also outstanding, with Richard Jacques on remix duties managing to deliver some truly spectacular re-imaginings of classic Sega game tracks. The Panza Dragoon, Nights, Outrun, and Afterburner tracks spring to mind as being excellent tributes to the original songs. It is the high quality of the audio, along with the gorgeous visuals and the brilliantly designed courses that all come together to make this such a great package. The racing feels great, with the new drifting a particular pleasure, you will be effortlessly gliding round corners in no time, and each time it feels satisfying to pull off. Morphing into different vehicles looks excellent, and each handles brilliantly. I haven't had this much fun racing on water since Hydro Thunder Hurricane.

There is a lot of content to sink your teeth into here, the main bones of the game being the Career Mode, which offers a World tour, Grand Prix, and Time Attack mode. The World tour has you earning stars in races, which add up to unlock gates that block your progress, and unlock new characters. Races can consist of your standard 'beat the rivals' mode, a Ring Chase mode that sees you flying through rings of light, Pilotwings style. Boost Race pits you against the clock, which stops every time you hit a boost, Traffic has you avoiding neon cars that litter the road, and Drift Races encourage you to drift to a certain race line in order to earn valuable seconds. Finally there is Pursuit, which tasks you with destroying an escaping tank with rockets you pick up on the road. Each game type is enjoyable and adds a nice level of variety so as to stop proceedings becoming repetitive.

Grand Prix is the more standard mode which pits you against 9 other racers in a tournament comprising of 4 stages. The person with the most points at the end is the victor. There are medals to be achieved and online leaderboards, so you will find yourself coming back to better your overall GP time. It is a nice touch and adds longevity to the game. The time trial is also excellent, with computer ghosts to beat as well as those of your friends. It is one of the only games (apart from Outrun Online Arcade) that I have actually enjoyed playing the time trial mode to better my lap times, but this is in no small part due to the amazing stages being infinitely replayable, just to experience them, to hear the music, and to feel like you are part of the Sega world.

There is also a levelling up system, whereby you earn XP for every performance, even if you fail the challenge. Levelling up unlocks new mods for your driver that, once selected, change the attributes of your car, and choosing the right one for the different race types is the key to success.
The game is quite challenging, even on the standard medium setting, but on Hard and Expert the game can be punishingly difficult, with no room for error. Add in the usual element of luck that comes into play with any weapons based racer and you will find yourself struggling to gain enough stars to unlock some of the best secrets. 

The offensive items at your disposable are a nicely thought out bunch, and satisfying to unleash. You have forward firing fireworks and snowballs, mine-like blowfish, a homing missile in the shape of a remote controlled toy car, and even a defensive baseball mitt that catches projectiles fired at you (allowing a revenge attack). There is also the nifty 'Hot Rod' that propels you forward at high speed, overheating your engine which you must detonate before it gets too hot, the resulting shockwave sending your opponents into a spin. Thankfully there is no 'Blue Shell' here, the weapons are fair and balanced, and can even be avoided with a nifty barrel roll if you have impeccable timing.

Overall, Sonic & Allstars Racing Transformed is a highly polished, and hugely entertaining kart racer with superb tracks, characters, music and a level of variety not usually seen in this genre. It is great in multiplayer, both online and off (bar some occasional frame rate drops in split screen), and with a retail price of just £24.99, is great value for money.
The transforming mechanic not only breathes new life into a genre that often struggles to come up with fresh ideas, but also manages to finally topple Mario and pals from pole position. It is both a huge improvement on the original Allstars Racing, and the best kart racer of this generation, though non-Sega fans may not be quite an enamoured with it.

The Good:

  • Great fun and challenging
  • Amazing courses and remixed music tracks that pay tribute to past games
  • Decent variety of modes keep things interesting
  • Great local and online multiplayer
  • Awesome Sega fan service

The Bad:

  • Some poor character roster decisions
  • Higher difficulty levels are very frustrating

Developer : SEGA
System Reviewed : Xbox 360
Also available on : PS3
Price : R.R.P. £19.99