Does ‘All Star’ just mean ‘Nintendo Clone’ now?
Sonic & All Stars Racing: Transformed is the second in Sega’s cross-franchise racing series, and much like its predecessor, it’s surprisingly good. Everyone expected the first game to be a straight up copy of Mario Kart, but somehow it latched onto its own feel. That has been expanded and refined in the sequel, but is this type of game relevant anymore?
The mechanics of the game are simple and effective, you race around tracks, you get power-ups and you can lose even if you’ve been winning for 99% of the race because someone gets a lucky pick-up Some see that as a flaw but it’s by design, so that people who are less practised are still able to win occasionally. Skill will get you so far, but you’re never truly safe, there’s always an element of chance. The cars now transform into planes and boats for certain sections of track, and it really does change how the game plays. Boats are less nimble, with larger turning circles and less effective drifting, planes are faster but the challenges of racing in three dimensions are obvious.
The characters are drawn from a collection of famous Sega games, and it doesn’t ever feel like they’re really scraping the barrel. Some characters might be slightly more obscure in the West, but they could have easily added every Sonic character or the entire cast of Virtua Fighter. Instead we have a fairly sensible roster. Unfortunately the character themselves aren’t as unique as they could be, most of their cars fall into three types, and all of their all-star powers (a tremendous power-up designed to help you turn the tide) are very similar. The tracks also suffer from a similar issue in that although they are fun and drawn from a good selection of games, they always seems like they’re not quite living up to their potential. There’s only a couple of places where you will have planes and cars or boats racing against each other, and few of the tracks have exciting gimmicks or twists. One or two of them literally fall apart as you race, and that is a lot of fun, but unfortunately many of them end up just being some pretty scenery.
Graphically the game is a little disappointing, there’s some wonderful details like Sonic’s spines (hair?) waving in the breeze, but the whole game looks slightly muddied and the frame rate often takes a hefty hit on the more exciting courses. It never feels smooth and there are no real ‘wow’ moments on any of the tracks. The sound, too, is sub-par with a terrible lack of catchy themes from past Sega games, something that the first title in the series got so right. When a character activates star-power you can hear a special soundtrack for them, but despite being an avid gamer I didn’t recognise half of them. Samba de Amigo’s in particular is anaemic and forgettable. There’s also a distinct lack of a sense of speed, which may be by design or may be a graphical limitation. You never feel as if you’re getting anywhere quickly and this takes away from a lot of the excitement of the game.
The game has plenty of things for you to do, with a long career mode mixing in drift challenges and time trials, as well as the usual Grand Prix campaign and the ability to set up custom races. There is a reasonably well featured multiplayer mode, but nothing stands out and already there are very few people playing. I’ve never had trouble finding a game, but I’ve never been in a full game either.
The biggest problem with this game is that it doesn’t do anything to stand out. Everything is average, or sometimes even good, but ‘good’ isn’t enough to take my attention away from other more spectacular games that have been released this holiday season. The multiplayer could do with meaningful unlocks rather than stickers that are just little emblems you can put on your licence with no real effect. Different cars or costumes would have been nice or some kind of upgrade system. Single player is challenging but gets repetitive quickly, I got through all of the races (not on the hardest difficulty) within a few hours and now I have no desire to grind through the hardest difficulty in order to unlock the last two characters.
Split-screen this could be fun, but even on two player the graphical quality and framerate drops dramatically, I hate to think what it would be like with four.
Overall, the game has succeeded in doing something different from Mario Kart. The controls are similar, but it feels different. Occasionally the races get exciting such as a spectacular sequence jumping across aircraft carriers. Unfortunately features-wise it feels like a game from the last generation, and I want more from my games now. There are already lots of incredible multiplayer casual racers, and this just doesn’t stand out enough to warrant your time. Go pick up Blur for a fiver instead.