The metamorphosis of the kart racer.
Editor's Note: This review covers Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game. We'll be covering the Vita, 3DS and Wii U versions soon.
After the disappointing LittleBigPlanet Karting and the rather lightweight F1 Race Stars, it's hardly been a banner year for kart racers. Yet the ever-reliable Sumo Digital may just have changed all that. Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed might have an unwieldy title, but it's a beautiful, inventive racer that dares to be a little different. For once, the Mario Kart comparisons aren't warranted.
Of course, you could be forgiven at first for thinking the developer had been looking over Nintendo's shoulder and copying its homework. After watching that initial E3 trailer of Mario Kart 7, showcasing its gliding and underwater sections, the folks at Sumo groaned: their idea had been well and truly gazumped. Yet it turned out the difference these tweaks made to Nintendo's beloved series were relatively subtle; the changes here are, appropriately enough, much more transformative.
That's because a good deal of the time you spend racing won't be on a solid surface. At various scripted points the track will disappear beneath your wheels as Sega whispers in its best Doc Brown voice: "where we're going, we don't need roads." You'll hear a few brief metallic whirrs and clanks, accompanied by a vaguely familiar, Hasbro-baiting sound and your vehicle will either take to the skies or speed across the surface of the clearest, bluest waters you've seen since Wave Race.
This makes for some truly adventurous tracks, many of which are entirely different on the second and third laps. An AfterBurner-themed stage sees you soar through skies before swooping down and drifting around an aircraft carrier, ready to line up your next take-off, while a Golden Axe track sees you plunging into a sea of gloopy orange lava. Even the Sonic stages, which you might expect to be the safest of the bunch, are filled with creative flourishes - from the barrier-free ribbon of undulating track in Galactic Parade that feels like a Rainbow Road tribute act to the crumbling masonry of Sanctuary Falls. Each level is filled with shortcuts and alternate routes and it'll take several replays before you find them all.
It's a lovely-looking game, too, with lots of crash-bang-wallop effects, dazzling lights and sundry other visual tricks. Tracks are bright, expansive and hugely detailed. It's incredible the frame-rate manages to stay as solid as it does. There are one or two minor hitches, but you'll barely notice as you focus on staying ahead of some surprisingly competent AI rivals. All this visual opulence does come at a slight cost, however. Occasionally things can get so busy that it's easy to drive straight into a speed-sapping hazard, and once or twice - particularly while airborne - you may lose sight of where you're supposed to be going. Though for the most part tracks are well signposted, you'll occasionally be guided back on course by an invisible hand, while sections of the course that look invitingly accessible are revealed to be anything but, as you're suddenly and rather crudely reset to the place you `fell off'.
In that sense, it's not quite as tightly designed as a Mario Kart, but it's telling how infrequently you'll think of Nintendo's game when you're playing. While the original felt like Sega's attempt to piggyback the success of gaming's greatest spin-off, Transformed is very much its own beast. When you're messing about in boats you're more likely to think of Hydro Thunder Hurricane, while lifting off into the blue is as different from Mario's fluttering descents as it's possible to get. It can seem a little slow at times when you're floating among the clouds, but turbo gates and mid-air drifts are there to give you a bit of a speed boost.
It's very smartly structured. The Career mode takes you down a series of branching pathways; success often unlocks more than one route forward, with others only accessible once you reach a certain star tally. Each event has three difficulty settings, meaning that youngsters should be able to reach the end by earning bronze medals, but the additional characters and bonuses will only be available to those who challenge themselves at the very top level - and earning the full three stars is tough, even in the early stages. Meanwhile, there's a welcome variety of events, from vanilla races to drift and boost challenges via ring races and traffic attack modes, with new characters unlocked by beating their fastest lap time. There are a few combat-focused asides, also: Pursuit asks you to bring down a rampaging tank with missile pickups as it fires rockets back at you, while Battle mode requires you to use your arsenal of weaponry to eliminate rival racers.
Again, the weapon set differentiates this game from its peers. A baseball glove can catch incoming projectiles (though you can also boost-dodge out of harm's way when the klaxon blares), while a blowfish can puncture the hopes of a persistent opponent on your tail. A drone can latch onto the racer in front to give them a shock while the Hot Rod gives you a temporary boost and a fiery blast that must be released before you overheat. Elsewhere, the wonderfully malicious whirlwind reverses your target's controls - though of course, should it hit you, it suddenly becomes profoundly irritating, particularly in multiplayer. Whether you're racing on or offline, there are plenty of modes on offer, from traditional races to more battle-focused options. Split-screen local play sacrifices a little detail for the sake of speed and fluidity; pre-release, however, we've been unable to test the quality of Sega's netcode.
It's a balanced and entertaining racer, then, but above all else, Transformed is incredible fan service. Long-time Sega acolytes will delight at some of the characters and stages, and it's to Sumo's credit that it's prepared to dig a little deeper than the obvious favourites. Cult heroes like Skies of Arcadia's Vyse rub shoulders with Space Channel 5's Pudding, all racing through stages based on Shinobi, Panzer Dragoon and Burning Rangers as Ristar waves the chequered flag. The final surprise in particular - we won't spoil it, but it's a cracker - can only have been conceived by a studio that knows and loves Sega as keenly as any fanboy.
Beyond its obvious appeal to Sega fans, this is a rich, bold and substantial arcade racer that demands your attention. It might not be quite as finely tuned as Mario Kart, but it's a good deal more ambitious, and different enough that it deserves a place alongside it in your gaming library.
More than just another kart racer, Sonic and All-Stars Racing is a bright, handsome and thoroughly enjoyable ride.
+Thrillingly dynamic tracks
+Some great unlockables
+Lengthy, challenging Career mode
- Too visually busy at times