Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed Review
What is with this triumphant return of kart racing games? This is insane! First, Codemasters put together F1 Race Stars which was a solid game, even if it might have misjudged its audience a bit, and now Sega is coming in with this crazy new game, Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed. I went into this game on PC expecting a bad port with boring racing and drab visuals, but it's completely blown me away. Transformed has some excellent tracks, an inventive and fun range of silly weaponry to use against other racers, and a cast of characters that, despite being a tad odd and sometimes downright goofy in its diversity, actually showcases all of Sega's current franchises (including those not even being used anymore) all together in one crazy game.
Each track is themed after a particular game, whether it's Skies of Arcadia, Jet Set Radio, Afterburner, Samba de Amigo Golden Axe, or more mainstream Sega stuff like Sonic or Super Monkey Ball, or the PC-exclusive stuff from Total War, Football Manager, or Team Fortress 2. It's a pretty wide range of themes, and what helps bring these to life is how this game will surprise you with transitions on the track, where all of a sudden in the middle of the race, the course breaks apart and your go-kart transforms into a boat, or in some cases, you simply take to the air as your kart transforms into an aircraft. This is where the Transformed name comes in and your kart refits and reshapes into a new vehicle. It's really a nice touch that helps keep the races fresh as you go through them, but also shows you more of the sometimes very lush environments that developer Sumo Digital made. Oh, and if you're wondering where all this talent and hard work just suddenly came from, now's a good time to mention that the UK-based Sumo Digital team that made this game includes many of the people that came from shuttered racing game studios Bizarre Creations (Project Gotham, Blur) and Black Rock Studio (Pure, Split/Second).
Littered throughout each track, you'll find the usual stuff you see in games like this: boost pads, big loops, theme park-attraction backgrounds, multiple paths, and lots of powerups to collect that give you random weapons and defensive powers to unleash. Transformed allows you to press the brake on the left trigger as sort of a handbrake for power-sliding around tight corners, and the game does include drift-based challenges and tracks that you have to complete while drifting through certain sections. There are other modes, too, even in the career mode, with things like traffic-dodging time trials and rival-based events where you have to beat a succession of opponents in one-on-one races, and these are all accessible and fun. In the career mode, all of these races can be done on three difficulty settings, and you can get through an event without first place, but being that career mode always starts you in last place - which is usually 10th in a normal race - that makes these races a hectic dash to pass everyone else and get into first before a race is over. This structure of race happens in a very wide range of racing games, all the way from the silliest arcade games to some of the most serious sims, and it's starting to wear thin.
Still, this is the kind of game where this kind of race structure is probably the most acceptable, so it's hard to stay mad at a game like this for long, especially with how much fun it is otherwise. You'll see that charm in no better place than the characters themselves, as they show a lot of personality when driving - whether it's the Shogun: Total War samurai in his, er, samurai-mobile or whatever or Sonic in his speedy little race car, they all have a lot of fun and unique animations that go along with some mostly-balanced stats for speed, handling, boost power, and all-star power. That last one comes in whenever you get the all-star powerup, and it gives you flight no matter what section of the course you're on along with invincibility and massive speed for a short while. If you're even remotely near the front of the pack when you activate this power, you should end up in first unless you just smash into a wall repeatedly or something.
Once I figured out that Sonic Transformed's most interesting little gimmick was the transforming between kart, boat, and aircraft, I became concerned that it'd quickly wear thin and only annoy the player. And there are a rare few spots where that's the case, but it's never a big deal for long and it adds a lot more to the game than it takes away. You'll even develop a few bits of strategy, like an out-of-the-way boat ramp in the water with the glowing circle that denotes a transformation - spend the time to head over and jump off that ramp, and you might transform into the much faster aircraft than the others who took the shorter route to stay in the water.
On PC, Sonic Transformed is a pretty solid port, with a decent range of graphical options, exceptionally sharp visuals once you start getting into the 1920x1080 range or higher, a fast and stable frame rate, and support for up to four players on the same PC if you just connect up some additional wired or wireless Xbox 360 controllers. The game fully supports both keyboard and gamepad controls and menu options, too, and you can take anywhere from one to four players in solo or split-screen modes into online play with any mixed number or type of players in race and battle modes. All of this is delivered through basic online functionality through Steam (with achievements, friend-joining, all of that). Games are hosted directly from the host player's PC, which is really all you need to get solid online play in a kart racing game. The only downside is that PC gamers had to wait a couple months after the console releases, but frankly, I'm doubtful many people were really hotly anticipating this game in the first place, much less the PC gaming crowd. I'm here to say that if you've ever enjoyed kart racing games in the past on any platform, this one is definitely worth a look - especially if you've got a couple of gamepads kicking around. I plugged my modestly-powerful laptop into the TV, connected a wireless receiver for Xbox 360 controllers, and had a blast doing split-screen racing with this game with sharper visuals and smoother frame rates than I could have gotten on a console anyway.
What makes Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed stand out from the crowd is its diversity. The PC version of the game includes several PC-only racers (including a trio of guys from Team Fortress 2 - crazy!) and the look back at Sega's decades-long history of its most beloved games reminds us that despite its occasional high-profile failure, Sega really has put a lot of great games in its stable over the years. Pulling them out in a racing game like this when some of these games may not ever see another true sequel might almost seem exploitative, especially towards fans of those franchises that'd rather see a dedicated game, but if anything, this should remind gamers that Sega hasn't forgotten, either. Nostalgia aside, Sonic Transformed as a kart racing game is a blast to play and it comes highly recommended, especially at the reasonable Steam price of $30 (or $80 for a four-pack).
Disclaimer: This review is based on a downloadable version provided by Valve Software over Steam.