Review: Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed
Genre: Racing
Developer: Sumo Digital
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 11/18/12

For reasons that only seem to be apparent to Sega, they’ve been trying to get Sonic and his assorted friends over in a racing game environment for over a decade at this point, starting on the Game Gear of all places with Sonic Drift, and it’s generally not worked out well. You’d think that Sonic, as a character, would transition well to a racing experience (given his gimmick and all), but such has not been the case; be it on foot, in go-karts or on hoverboards, the games have generally been… adequate at best, and horrid at worst. Sega seemed to have hit on a winning formula with Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing back in 2010, however; by expanding the concept to “all Sega characters” and basically making it into Mario Kart, they ended up with a game that was pretty solid, and certainly better than their past attempts. Well, Sega’s hoping lighting strikes twice, clearly, with Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, as they’re taking the elements of the prior game that worked and expanding from there, which is a fine strategy on its own. How they’re expanding is where things could get dicey; while the core “race and use items” concept remains the same, the races now take place across land, sea and air, in transforming vehicles, sort of like Diddy Kong Racing, only with players swapping on the fly. Well, while this could have been an amazing disaster in the making, Sumo Digital seems to have put a lot of effort into making sure such is not the case, as Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is a heavily fan-service stuffed racing game that’s not only fun for fans, but fun period.

There’s no plot to speak of here, unless the unspoken “a bunch of Sega characters are racing each other” concept speaks to you personally, so let’s talk about the game modes. The game is broken down into three main categories: Career, which houses all of your local single and multiplayer modes, Match Making, which handles the online racing elements, and Custom Game, which is an amalgam of the two meant for private goofing around. Career Mode allows players to jump into World Tour mode to go through various series’ of race types to unlock bonuses, Grand Prix mode to go through five cups at four standard races apiece, Time Attack mode to make good times on tracks, and Single Race mode to get down to plain old racing. Match Making allows you to jump onto Xbox Live and challenge others in regular competitive races, Arena matches, or “Lucky Dip” sessions that mix and match the two. Custom Game basically acts like a multiplayer custom race creator, allowing you more involved customization functions for local or online racing, and while you can just jump into normal races from here, you can also make things like Battle Races, Boost Races and “Capture the Chao” events, depending on what you’re in the mood for. There are a crazy amount of race types to mess around with and modes to spend hours clearing out, so you’ve got plenty of play options to have fun with, which is always a good start when your game is all about its gameplay: the more ways you have to experience the gameplay, the better.

Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is mostly carried by its artistic style, visually, though on a technical level it’s certainly pretty good. The characters all look like they do in their other incarnations, for the most part, and their vehicles look interesting in all of their different modes. Humanoid characters, however, tend to look a little weird in winning poses in comparison to the more cartoon styled characters, especially Vyse, who looks like he’s about to snap at any moment with the creepy grin on his face. The race environments are the real star of the show, however, and it’s not even close. The special effects and lighting effects that are used look fantastic, of course, and the texture quality is generally very nice, absolutely. What makes them a treat, though, is that they’re not only based on various Sega franchises, and not just “Sonic the Hedgehog and a couple novelty acts to shut complainers up” either. You’ll see After Burner, Panzer Dragoon, House of the Dead and of all things, BURNING RANGERS themed tracks here, and anyone who’s been a long-suffering fan of the company will basically love every inch of the tracks because of how attentive they are to detail and concept. Aurally, the game music is about thirty percent music created for this game, which is all fine, and music culled from the franchises that the characters and tracks are a part of, which is all basically awesome. The voice acting is fine enough, as you’ll mostly only hear it during win and lose quotes, along with the odd comment hear and there during a race; nothing stands out as particularly good, but it doesn’t need to given its sporadic use. The sound effects are also generally pretty solid, as the racing noises are as one would expect and the rest of the effects have a pleasant arcade feel to them that fits the experience well.

Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed plays like the majority of racing games in its field, mechanically: the left stick steers, the right trigger is your gas, the left trigger is your brake and drift button, and the A button uses your power-ups you collect from the field. Fans of Mario Kart or Blur should have an idea of how the more advanced mechanics work as well. As you race around the track, there are item caches to race over that award you with power-ups, including boost items, weapons of various sorts, and items that can assist you or impede your rivals on the track. You can fire them forward or backward with the up and down directions on the left stick as you press A, depending on your need at the moment, or let them fire in their default direction by simply pressing the button (or if they’re beneficial to you alone and need no input). As you take turns, you can drift through them by holding the left trigger, which allows you to power slide through the turn at a minimal loss of speed, and builds up boost (up to three levels worth) that is burned upon ending the drift session for a fast exit from the turn. You can also make use of tricks to earn boost, as you can perform tricks while airborne and, if you land successfully, you’ll get a quick boost to send you rocketing forward. Different courses will also have different environmental assistances and hazards, such as boost pads and markers to drive over for a quick boost forward, multiple paths, edges to fall from, moving walls and more, so you won’t just be competing against your opponents in many courses. None of this should be new and different unless you’ve never played a game of this type before, of course, as most of it can be considered staple pieces of the genre at this point. As such, fans should be perfectly fine inside of one race, and the controls and mechanics are simple enough that even new players should be fine in a few races.

Where the game gets into more novel territory is in the transformation system. Each track features different locations where your vehicle can transform from car to boat to plane, depending on the hazards ahead, which it will generally do instantly upon passing the transformation point. Cars and boats generally control in a similar manner, though boats tend to be a little more… floaty mechanically, for obvious reasons. Planes, however, allow full movement in all directions, which could theoretically be disorienting at first, but the mechanics are thankfully simplified enough here that anyone can get the basics down, and the game even offers the option to simply the controls further if you find them too problematic. The stages take a lot of advantage of this mechanical change, as well, as they will frequently change from one lap to the next, so one lap may be heavily driving based, but the next lap may rely more on water travel, and the third may switch to air travel because the stage has fallen apart. This makes tracks a lot more interesting as well, as the tracks take full advantage of the mechanics created, and vice versa, which makes both feel more interesting and important than they’d otherwise be on their own. The game also doesn’t simply ape the standard weapon varieties one would expect in the genre, as it incorporates its own unique weapon types, like swarms of wasps to impede the lead racer, a hot rod booster that can be detonated to injure surrounding racers, and All-Star power-ups that allow your racer an attack unique to them.

As you complete races with a character, online and off, you’ll earn experience points with the racer based on a number of factors. When the racer levels up, they in turn unlock a new tuning style for their cart, allowing them mild mechanical changes from the other styles available to them. Now, a character is generally going to stick to a general theme, style-wise, no matter what tuning kits they unlock, so a character who is speed-heavy will likely always lean in that direction no matter how many kits you unlock. However, this does allow for some modifications that can make racers more useful across all the tracks than they’d otherwise be. As such, you’ll find that you don’t need to swap to a better handling character on more turn-heavy tracks once you unlock a more handling-focused tuning kit for your more speed-oriented character, which makes characters more versatile than they’d otherwise be. You’ll likely not be interested in leveling up every character, of course, as it’ll take a good three or four hours to max out one character, but you can certainly max out your favorites without too much trouble. Tuning kits only affect four of your character’s categories: Speed, which changes their top speed, Acceleration, which changes how fast they get to top speed, Handling, which changes how well they take turns and steer, and Boost, which changes how fast they move when boosting. Their All-Star ranking is dependent upon the character and doesn’t change regardless of kit, but this isn’t likely to be a race-changing element in any case so it’s not a huge deal how high that ranking is. The other four categories contain a spread of twelve points, regardless of the racer, so outside of the All-Star category every racer is evenly balanced numerically, so you can feel comfortable picking anyone, as they’ll eventually have a tuning kit you’ll like even if you don’t like their starting stats.

You’ll spend most of your time in the beginning in the World Tour mode, as this is where you’ll find the majority of your unlockable content. There are five tours immediately on display (with a sixth tour to unlock), and you’ll plow through each in order, earning stars for your performance as you go. Each tour offers a variety of race types, including normal races, Drift Challenges (drift along paths to keep the time limit from expiring), Versus (beat individual opponents in sequence), Traffic Attacks (dodge cars on the field and hit gates to keep the time limit from expiring), Pursuit (shoot a tank and avoid its attacks) and all kinds of others you likely won’t expect. Each race allows you to compete on Easy, Normal and Hard difficulties, with each difficulty awarding one more star than the one before it. As you progress through the tours, you’ll find locked paths that require you to have a set amount of stars available before they’ll let you past, as well as locked characters and customization options that require the same. Now, you can unlock a good amount of content playing through the races on Easy, of course, but if you want to unlock all the characters, courses and such, you’ll need to step up your game a bit, as some locks will require a lot more stars than Easy offers. You can unlock a good amount of content without having to move onto Hard, of course, so even inexperienced players should be able to unlock most of the cool stuff without too much punishment. You can also unlock a few things by taking on the Grand Prix races, and you’re always earning experience no matter what race you’re taking on, but World Tour will be your bread and butter mode for a good long while.

Depending on your skill level and what you’re aiming to unlock, you can clear out World Tour in around five to ten hours or more, though if you’re aiming to get all the possible stars available that’s going to probably take a significant time investment. The same goes for character leveling, as you can level a few characters during your World Tour work, but leveling up everyone will probably take days or weeks of time investment. The multiplayer, online and offline, also offers a fairly good amount of variety, since local players can jump into nearly any mode available and race with no difficulty, and online play offers a decent amount of options to choose from. There are a fairly large amount of characters to choose from, including Sega mainstays like Sonic and Knuckles, more niche characters like NiGHTS and Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, and odd additions like Wreck-it Ralph, Danica Patrick and an animated VMU for you to unlock, as well as the various stages and custom tuning kits. Further, the game also has a fairly wide variety of Achievements to unlock, covering all sorts of random acts and success metrics. As such, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is very much a game you could easily spend a large amount of time on, whether for fun or progress, as there’s simply a large amount to do with it, no matter your interests.

Now, in fairness, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed owes a lot of its core mechanics to the Mario Kart foundation it’s built upon, and it borrows somewhat from Diddy Kong Racing as well with the various different vehicle types. That’s not to say it’s not very good at what it does, but that it’s more of an assembled mix of excellent mechanics from other games than its own thing, and it just happens to do what it does very well because it borrowed from other games that did very well. It’s also worth noting that, while the game has a certain level of balance to it that allows less skilled players to have fun with the game, that level of balance doesn’t extend so well to the transition between difficulty levels. To put it another way, playing on Easy difficulty is a walk in the park, and you’ll find that you easily blow out opposing racers as if they weren’t even trying, but when you step up to Normal, you’ll be fighting for third place wins and have to exploit every possible Boost option and shortcut possible to do any better than that. When you realize that there are two difficulty levels beyond that (there are S ranked stars you can unlock after completing the Hard, or A rank, difficulties), that’s about when balance considerations go out the window, to be honest. It’s not that these races are impossible or anything, so much as it is that the difficulty curve is spiked upwards, to a much larger degree than in something like, again, Mario Kart or Blur, which makes the experience a bit more frustrating for younger or less skilled gamers as a result. Also, while there are a lot of good ideas here when it comes down to the variety of races available, they’re not all winners, and it would be better to have more of a chance to play the better ideas (Ring Race for example) instead of things like Arena, which is generally not a favorite in any game that does it.

That’s not to say that Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed isn’t Sega’s best effort at a mascot themed racing game yet, because it most certainly is; while it borrows ideas from others and makes a few missteps, it’s still a fantastic time that should be fun for fans and newcomers alike. There are plenty of modes to try out and make progress in to keep things active, and the game is a visual and aural treat for Sega fans while also being pleasant for those who just want to sit down and race. The gameplay is very simple to acclimate yourself to, whether you’re new to the genre or have been playing for years, and the game adds in some novelties, like the transformation gimmick, that are implemented well and make the whole experience sing. With all of the unlockable content in the game, the multiplayer modes online and offline, the upgradable characters and more, there’s also plenty of reason to come back to the game for a good while. If you’ve been around the genre a while you’ve likely seen what it’s done before on some level or another, the game has some balance adjustment issues from one difficulty to the next, and not all of the race variations are winners, sadly, which hurt a bit on one level or another. The final product, though, is one that’s easy enough to enjoy both as a novelty racing game and as a huge love letter to Sega fans, and Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is worth checking out regardless of which side of that equation you fall into.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GREAT
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: GREAT
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GREAT


Short Attention Span Summary:
Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is Sega’s best attempt at a racing game yet, as it takes their robust franchise history and crams it into a racing game that is mechanically quite sound, making for a game that’s very enjoyable, it not a little flawed. There are plenty of game modes available that offer the player lots of options, and the game looks and sounds great for fans and newcomers alike. The core play mechanics are simple to learn whether you’re experienced in how they work or not, and the game is crafted to a level where the game and its more unique transformation mechanics compliment each other instead of existing independently in any capacity. There’s a lot of extra content to unlock and upgrade, as well as a robust amount of multiplayer content on and offline, so you’ll certainly have plenty of reasons to come back to the game regardless of what your interest in it is, as well. The game borrows noticeably from other games in the genre, mind you, so you’ll potentially have seen what the game has to offer in advance, and coupled with some awkward difficulty transition and occasionally unsuccessful attempts to expand the racing modes, the game does have its share of disappointments. The overall package, however, is quite well designed, so while Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed may not be the most original game of its type, it’s easily one of the better ones, and fans of Sega and the genre will find it an easy game to love because it’s basically designed with them in mind.


One response to “Review: Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed (Microsoft Xbox 360)”

  1. […] About the only Sonic titles people seem to agree on is that Shadow the Hedgehog is terrible and Sonic All Stars Racing is pretty good. I’ll admit that I haven’t really enjoyed Sonic’s 3D forays […]

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