Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed Review (PC)
The kart racing genre, popularized by Nintendo's Super Mario Kart in 1992, has slowed down significantly during its teenage years, seeing fewer releases and even fewer innovations to the original formula of power sliding, shooting items and wacky mascot races.
Sega's Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, a direct sequel to 2010's Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, isn't here to reinvent the genre or launch any major innovations. The game's main marketable feature, transforming between boats, planes, and go-karts during a single race, isn't necessarily an innovation so much as it is an extension of the multi-vehicle concept introduced in 1997's Diddy Kong Racing.
The excitement that comes from playing Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed isn't linked to anything new it does, but instead, from everything old it has wonderfully re-imagined.
An early level in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed has the player steering a boat-shaped Sega Dreamcast controller through rough waters while giant aircraft carriers tower above and a remixed After Burner tune blares over the air.
The same blue skies, bright colors and blazing guitar solos from classic Sega racers like OutRun, Daytona USA and Sega Rally have carried over into the company's latest driving game. At a time when browns, blacks and grays are dominating video game color palettes and bland techno or sound-alike symphonic scores are being slapped onto virtually every release, it's refreshing to play a game that's lighthearted in its presentation, preferring colorful, imaginative worlds to the dark, gritty realism of most modern games.
The only weak aspect to Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed's visual design are the cars themselves. In addition to being flat-out ugly, many of the cars fail to align with the personality of the characters behind the wheel. Why is Sonic driving a blue batmobile? What did poor Beat do to deserve a redneck ATV with flame decals? In a game that's otherwise gorgeous, it's mystifying that a design element this crucial could go so horribly wrong.
On maximum settings, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed looks stellar, maintaining 60 frames per second, even with advanced features like motion blur and dynamic lighting/shadowing turned on. The PC port easily surpasses the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, both of which peak at 30 frames per second and lack many of the advanced graphical features found in the PC release.
Inconveniently, Sega has hidden the graphical settings inside its own separate launcher that can only be accessed outside of the main game. When players are first setting up the game to their liking, it can be a hassle having to repeatedly quit the game, boot up the configuration launcher, then restart the main game just to see the performance difference in something as basic as turning anti-aliasing off.
One modern intrusion into Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed's retro paradise is the inclusion of multiple non-Sega characters like NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and Disney star Wreck-It Ralph. These two characters, in an obvious money-grabbing, cross-marketing ploy, feel hugely out-of-place among talking hedgehogs, monkeys trapped in balls, and flying purple jesters. Other unlockable characters, such as Sega's own tie-wearing Football Manager and Valve's goonish Team Fortress ensemble, aren't quite as inappropriate given their gaming pedigree, but both drivers still seem like wasted roster spots that should have gone to Sega legends like Shenmue's Ryo Hazuki, Akira from Virtua Fighter or the duo Toejam and Earl.
Maintaining boost combos is the key to posting the fastest lap times in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. The easiest way to earn boosts is by triggering one of the pink boost pads scattered throughout the courses. Skilled players will find ways to extend their boost combos by completing lengthy power slides or performing aerial stunts. Boosts have three power levels, so the longer the power slide or the more difficult the stunt, the stronger the boost effect becomes.
Item management and item luck, while important, are not essential to victory in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Aside from the rare "All-Star" power up, which puts one lucky racer in a temporary "god mode" with unlimited firing ammo, most weapons are easily avoided and have only a marginal impact on the outcome of races. There is even an option to completely remove power ups from multiplayer races, ensuring that skill, not luck, will determine the winner.
While the twenty courses are themed around various Sega video games, many still follow standard tropes of kart racing level design. There's a haunted house level (House of the Dead), an ice level (Billy Hatcher), a lava level (Golden Axe), a beach level (Sonic), etc. Overall, about two thirds of the tracks are unique recreations of Sega's game worlds, while the other third feel like generic kart racing levels.
In terms of difficulty, it's easy to avoid crashing in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, but chaining together long boost combos takes tons of practice and experimentation with finding the best areas to perform special moves. Hard difficulty will have gamers replaying tracks multiple times before moving on to the next, while the unlockable Expert difficulty requires near-perfection behind the wheel.
Controlling your vehicle is easy as long as you have a game controller plugged into your PC. Playing with a keyboard is a noticeable handicap, as using the four arrow keys to steer simply doesn't offer the same level of control as an analog joystick. Of the three vehicle types, the kart controls can be picked up naturally, whereas boats and planes will take much longer to learn. Planes have a heavy feel that often results in oversteering, whereas boats are slow to turn, often feeling unresponsive while attempting to cut through the choppy, wavy waters.
The genre staple Grand Prix mode offers five cups total, each containing four courses. Here the player is awarded points based on how he or she places in each race, with the winner of the Prix being the driver who earns the most combined points. Online leaderboards are built into the Grand Prix mode, letting gamers keep track of how their times rank among friends.
The expansive World Tour mode contains much more variety, offering both races and special events. One of the wilder events has your character chasing down a fleeing boss tank and pelting it with rockets. But typically, most events involve little more than a slight twist on the normal racing, such as races with all items turned off or a last man standing item fight in the kart battle arena. Each world features about 10 events, providing around 8 to 10 hours of content on the hard difficulty setting.
By including split-screen multiplayer in all of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed's offline and online modes, Sega is finally showing that it has learned from the mistakes of Daytona USA and OutRun Online Arcade. While the split screen view demands a powerful computer to maintain a steady frame rate, being able to take up to four friends with you into the online world is a tremendous technological accomplishment.
Aside from the basic three-lap races, which can be played with or without weapons, there is a dedicated battle mode that uses either full courses or confined arenas. Those same battle arenas are borrowed for Capture the Chao mode, which is essentially capture the flag in go-karts. Capture the Chao is easily Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed's most interesting and unique game style, though actually connecting with a full room of racers outside your friends list proves difficult.
Player population is a major issue across all of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed's online modes, as even the normal race events struggle to find more than three to four players at a time. Despite being the best version graphically, the PC version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed seems to be significantly less popular than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 releases.
If you are able to matchup with someone else from your continent, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed's online performance is smooth, with the only issue being the lack of a mute function for disruptive players.
Launching at the discounted price of $30 for the PC version and $40 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a game that all Sega fans should play, regardless of their interest in the racing genre.
Developer Sumo Digital has created an enjoyable racing engine, but it's the nostalgic environments and retired Sega personalities that push the overall fun factor beyond the standard racing fare.
To play Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed purely for its kart racing is like reading Playboy only for its lifestyle articles; the pleasure derived from gawking at Sega's scenery far surpasses the mechanical fun of steering, shooting and boosting.
Audio: The upbeat, energetic soundtrack features remixes of familiar Sega tunes alongside new songs of synthesized guitar rock.
Visuals: Sumo Digital's PC port is nicely optimized, including advanced lighting, shadowing, anti-aliasing and a flawless framerate. Unlike most modern console-to-PC ports, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed takes full advantage of the platform's graphical muscle.
Control Scheme: The simplified layout uses gas, brake and a single button for firing weapons. Stunts are easily performed by flicking the right joystick in one of the four cardinal directions.
Learning Curve: The kart handling will feel natural both to beginners and to long-time racing fans. Boats and planes, however, are much more difficult to control, requiring hours of practice before solving their quirks.
Lasting Value: With tons of unlockable content and multiplayer options, gamers will want to keep their engines running late into the night, whether it's to beat a friend's top time or to fully level up all the game's drivers.
Score - 8.0 (Great)