As soon as you load up the game you're given a CG-taste of what to expect from it. The intro shows Sonic and friends duking it out in a tight and competitive car race, before Vyse (of Skies of Arcadia fame) takes it to the next level by firing missiles at Sonic. Sonic dodges the missiles before the track before him disappears and the racers plunge off a cliff. This is no ordinary kart game though, and their cars quickly transform into airplanes. The racers aren't out of danger yet though, as a dragon from Panzer Dragoon swoops after them. They quickly seek the refuge of a river, with their airplanes transforming into boats, before Dr. Robotnik makes an appearance. Sonic and Robotnik ram into each other and the intro ends. Phew!
The intro perfectly shows the nature of Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed – it's a combat-enabled kart game, where the karts can transform into planes and boats on the fly. Most of the tracks take advantage of this particular feature, and in any given race you'll find yourself using at least two of the kart's three forms. Some tracks naturally change between road, water and air, but others ‘terraform', changing the layout of the track mid-race. Happily vehicle transformations take place automatically, allowing you to focus all your energy on winning.
It's safe to say that you'll need every bit of focus you can muster as Sonic, despite looking like a game targeting a younger audience, is surprisingly tough. When you play offline you can take part in the World Tour, Grand Prix, Time Attack or single race. Whichever mode you decide to play you also have to choose the difficulty from one of four settings, from easy to expert. Easy and Medium difficulties are straightforward, especially once you've learned the track, but Hard and Expert provide a definite challenge – one that will be too much for many players to overcome.
Speaking of World Tour, this is where you'll spend the bulk of your offline time with the game. When you start you can only participate in the first tour, but there are six tours in the game. Each tour comprises multiple events but you have to complete an event before proceeding to the next. You're awarded stars the first time you complete an event on each difficulty setting; one for easy, up to four for expert. Stars stack so if you finish an event on Hard you get three stars, so you don't have to win the event on each difficulty to unlock all the stars.
The path through each tour is non-linear, which is to say it branches at certain points. Often the branches take you to special events that, once complete, let you unlock new characters, mods (more on them later) and gates that block your progress. Unlocking these things requires stars, encouraging you to go back and play tougher difficulties, or advancing to the next tour if you're stuck. You can unlock most of the tours by completing everything on medium, but if you want to unlock all characters and every possible pathway you're going to have to complete some on Hard or Expert, both of which are quite challenging.
In other modes all you can do is race, but in World Tour there are a bunch of different event types to play. Among these are drift and boost challenges, as well as , battle and ring races, versus events, traffic attack and pursuit, which pits you against a tank in a fight to the death. I won't go in-depth on any of these event types, but suffice to say there is great variety there, and it will maintain your interest from start to finish.
Each character is rated in five areas; speed, acceleration, handling, boost and all-star. No character dominates all areas, so you'll have to pick and choose a character based on your own preferences. Every time you complete an event your character earns experience and eventually levels up; doing so unlocks a mod for them that adjusts their base stats. There are mods for every attribute and while each of them improves an attribute it also takes away from another. For example the handling mod improves your handling by two, but it also decreases speed by two. It's a balancing act in other words, and it's up to you to find the best combinations for each race.
Each race track in the game is based on one of the many games in Sega's catalog. There are plenty of Sonic-themed tracks, but there are also tracks based on Panzer Dragoon, Afterburner, Jet Set Radio, Super Monkey Ball and Golden Axe among many others. Tracks are wonderfully diverse, featuring an excellent mix of tight and twisty as well as open roads, tricky water sections that feature realistic physics and flying sections.
As mentioned at the top of the review tracks occasionally ‘terraform', changing mid-race and mixing things up even more. Learning the layout of each track is, of course, crucial to your overall success. There are a few shortcuts and places where the track branches in multiple directions, some giving a significant advantage over the other paths. Finding the quickest path is an absolute necessity on the tougher difficulty levels.
Once you're racing the first thing you'll notice is the handling is instantly intuitive, taking many of the best aspects of kart racing games of years gone by. You can get a boost start as the race begins with proper timing of the accelerator. Drifting plays a key role in the game, and is as easy as holding L2 as you go around a corner. The longer you drift, the bigger the boost you get when you stop drifting. You can extend a drift by turning into it, which holds your line on straight sections, or switch the direction of your drift for twisty sections by quickly releasing and then holding L2. It's a piece of cake in game, and feels perfectly balanced.
Playing Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed with multiple players is a blast, and it's as easy as grabbing some friends. Up to four players can play locally with split-screen, with friends joining in just about any game mode, be it World Tour or any of the other modes. This is where the game really thrives, especially if you have friends of roughly the same skill-level. There's not much more fun than crushing your friends' hopes and dreams as they hurtle toward the finish line, only to be upstaged by a last-second weapon attack.
Online play is harder to assess, mainly because the lobbies aren't very populated at the moment. If you can find some people to race against, there are five different modes to play – Race, Battle Arena, Battle Race, Capture the Chao and Boost Race. The different modes offer plenty of fun, though there is no clear standout mode.
As far as issues go there are only a couple worth mentioning. The first is that collision detection can be suspect, particularly when you're in boat form. For example, when you hit a ramp while drifting you'll sometimes come to a complete stop for no apparent reason. Another minor issue is that there are times when you get the feeling the AI cheats. This is nothing new to kart racing games but it's still annoying how often you get hit with weapons with the finish line in sight, or when AI racers don't even slow down when hit by weapons.
The game is visually striking, and looks even better in motion. The frame-rate never dips, there's no screen-tearing or other problems; basically it runs like a dream. It's easy to see the resemblance between tracks and the games they're based on, and there's great diversity between them. There are the twisty roads of Ocean View, the extremely colourful Samba Studios, and the tight confines of Afterburner's Carrier Zone and the open spaces of Dragon Canyon. If you stop and look closely objects lack much texture work and detail, but while the game is moving it looks just fine.
If you've played many Sega games then you're going to love the music, which is mostly comprised of remixed tunes from the game each track is based on. The opening race – Ocean View – is based on a Sonic game and the music is a remixed tune from the Sonic CD intro which I loved. If you haven't played the games the music has been taken from you're going to get less out of it, but for mine the music is great. The sound effects all work well, particularly those for the weapons.
Overall I was truly surprised by Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed. The cutesy visuals belie the difficulty, and in turn the depth of the game. This is not the sort of game you play for a weekend and then put away for good, rather it takes time to master and learn its intricacies. While you couldn't call this an original game it has done a great job of taking the best elements of kart racers from years gone by. Vehicles handle wonderfully, and it's a ton of fun with friends. If you don't mind a challenge and enjoy racing games Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed comes highly recommended.
Review By: Mike Allison