The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was a decent-enough kart racer, though there wasn’t a whole lot going on under the hood. Its fan-service drenched exterior coated a game that was completely adequate, but not exceptional in any way. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed lives up to its name, injecting the fledgling series with a much-needed boost. Its retooled structure not only rockets it past its predecessor, but it earns the game a spot among the best that the genre has to offer.
You notice the central gimmick as soon as you hit the track. As you drift through corners and blast your opponents with a variety of items, your vehicle undergoes a series of transformations. You might start off in an ordinary wheeled vehicle, but things get mixed up when you zip through special rings on the track. At that point, your kart sprouts wings or turns into a boat. Think of it as an exciting, dynamic interpretation of Diddy Kong Racing’s main bullet point.
The three different vehicle types offer more than cosmetic differences. You battle shimmering waves and whirlpools in the water, while your aircraft adds a larger degree of navigational freedom to races. I was a bit skeptical about these transformations, but I became a convert in short order. Take the Afterburner-themed race, for instance. You start off on an aircraft carrier in your kart and quickly shift to flight, racing through boost rings and taking potshots at your opponents. Then you hit another carrier’s deck, turning back into a kart for a short while. When you launch off the deck, you can either keep straight and go the boat route, or veer to the side and make a relatively tricky jump to take to the skies. Several of the other tracks provide that kind of flexibility and alternate paths, which made me feel like an active participant to these vehicular changes instead of just being along for the ride.
Random power-ups have long been a fixture of the kart-racing genre, and Transformed provides a nice selection. They include familiar items like boosts and missiles, as well as slightly more exotic pickups such as controller-reversing tornadoes, a three-stage engine boost, and a mitt that catches incoming weapons. They’re common enough to keep races frantic, and I appreciate that none of them are overpowered enough to ruin races. The characters have their own unique All-Star powers, which provide powerful (and temporary) speed bursts and special attacks. For instance, Tails takes the sticks of his biplane, firing off missile salvos. These aren’t only reserved for the slowpokes; I’d find them even when I was near the front of the pack.
My favorite improvement is the mod system. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed features a nice roster of classic Sega characters with their own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve always hated how characters are typically chained to their stats. What if I want to play as Sonic, but I’d prefer better handling over top speed? Now, you level up your characters and unlock special mods. They tweak the stats for individual karts, letting you focus on the attributes that you want the most.
Another big change is how missions are incorporated into the campaign mode. You collect stars by completing races at different difficulties, and you use them to unlock the next challenge on a branching path between events. They all funnel back into a fairly linear structure (it is a racing game, after all), but it’s possible to bypass annoying missions like some of the trickier drifting challenges if you want. I thought the missions were among the most interesting portions of the last game, and it’s cool to see them incorporated into the main game rather than being segregated from it.
Sega nerds still have a wealth of content to enjoy, which is great for people like me who grew up with the company. Aside from the cast of the Sonic games, the roster and tracks are basically where many of the classic franchises have gone to die. There are nods to Skies of Arcadia (Vyse is playable!) and Panzer Dragoon, and even that dopey little Ristar guy pops up to wave the checkered flag. It’s the best possible kind of fan service, and I spent most of my time playing the game with a grin on my face. In a bizarre bit of cross promotion, auto racer Danica Patrick and Wreck-It Ralph show up to the races, too.
As good as the game is, it does have a few issues. Some of the tracks – mostly the sections that involve flight – can turn into a confusing mess if you bump into a wall. The camera doesn’t always know what to do in those instances, and several times I found myself spinning around trying to find what direction to go. Onscreen arrows usually pop up to help out, but when they don’t you may as well restart the race. Take the Golden Axe-themed level, for instance. A large part of it focuses on flying through a tight cavern, with rocky outcrops and an angry dinosaur. You're fine as long as you expertly navigate through the hazards. Things fall apart if you clip a wing and get turned around. Younger players in particular will likely get as frustrated slowly turning their now-stationary aircraft around, frantically trying to point their way toward the nebulous path. There are also some nasty difficulty spikes in missions, which don't often provide much (if any) room for error.
On the multiplayer front, the game supports 10-player online matches, as well as four-way split-screen action. Wii U owners can play with five racers — four on the TV, and another wielding the GamePad. Some friendly advice: While the game does support Wii controllers, don’t bother unless you also have nunchuks. Tilt controls make the game essentially unplayable. Better still, pick up some pro controllers. I never latched on to the battle races or the capture-the-flag style events, though they work well for what they are. For me, I’d much rather stick with racing, which is what the series does best. The Wii U version is home to a few exclusive minigames, including a Super Monkey Ball game that uses the GamePad’s tilt controls. The Wii U version is definitely a great pick to show off the system's unique functionality.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a great variation of the kart-racing theme, and it holds its own against the Mario Kart series. I’d recommend it to not only the few remaining die-hard Sega fans out there, but also anyone who’s itching for a more fantastical approach to arcade racing.
Email the author Jeff Cork, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.