The action racing genre has seen all sorts of variations and attempts over the years, though very few of the experimental ideas in the rougher games have found their way to more polished experiences. These were good ideas, though, and eventually a team was going to pick a lot of the best ones and make them a cohesive whole.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is exactly that: a polished game with cars, planes, boats, tricks, changing tracks, mods, campaigns, battles and impressive online play.
Much like its predecessor, the game features characters from Sega’s past and present racing around franchise-inspired worlds and shooting things at each other. The characters themselves offer more varied racing this time, and some are just fun to think about. (Some of the early unlockables include Vyse from Skies of Arcadia and Gilius Thunderhead from Golden Axe.) Even the non-Sega characters, seemingly-awkward additions Danica Patrick and Wreck-it Ralph, fit in just fine. Each character gains experience when you play, but this isn’t broken: levels just unlock character mods that tweak stats to lean toward a particular stat. It doesn’t take terribly long to unlock them all, so it gives you a bit of an incentive to try out different racers.
The tracks are more varied this time, too, both in theme and in play. The first game tended to make a few different levels in each theme, but there are many more settings here. This is certainly helped by the addition of air and water sections. These control both well and appropriately: you’ll need to bank your turns more often in the air, and you’ll slide around a bit more in the water. Plane segments remind me a lot of what I liked from both SkyDrift and Kirby Air Ride, but more polished and in stretches that don’t outstay their welcome. Water areas are less special, but they certainly help to spice up the visuals; the water effects are super-nice, and jumping into and out of these areas is often an exhilarating moment.
You’re not going to get in a numb rhythm, either, in the way lap-based games tend to do. The worlds tend to fall apart and change as the race continues (like in Split/Second), and this generally drops land segments into water or makes a path air-only. Some places also let you get in the air earlier than normal, too, and you should look for them; since flying is slightly faster than other modes of transport, they’re essentially shortcuts. You can also jump and trigger stunts like you can in the most recent Mario Kart games, giving you a slight boost.
The racing controls are much smoother, as well. Lead designer Gareth Wilson brings a lot of his Blur legacy here, with tighter drifting and weapons that require precision aiming (and an engine that allows it). You gain more experience when you make longer jumps and hit people with backward shots, and these take an attainable level of skill. The items were already fairly balanced in the first game, but are more refined here (and, once again, very similar to Blur veterans). The “blue shell” is a swarm of bees that can be avoided and remains for the front of the pack, and the snowball powerup allows for quick, bolt-style sniping.
The All-Star moves are a lot less game-breaking in Transformed, too. It’s one of the stats, so some are just slightly better than a boost and others allow you to catch up more, but they’re just not obnoxious like they used to be. (Speaking of obnoxious, the announcer is a lot less obtrusive this time, and if he still bothers you, you can turn him off completely in the options and the music and atmospheric sounds are well-balanced to stand alone.)
We’re having a lot of fun in the game’s career mode, that’s as sprawling as it’s been in the genre. There’s a series of challenges on a branching map, that includes single races as well as special events. Some of these are frustrating, sadly, and a few need patches (like the Boost Challenges, at least on the Wii U version), but if you really don’t like one, you can fail a couple of times on Easy and skip it. Some have you avoiding traffic. Some give you health and have you take out the rest of the field Death Rally-style. Some are series of one-on-one bouts, reminiscent of Blur boss battles. The drifting and time trial challenges are more pedestrian and kind of monotonous, but they’re not the majority of the progression.
Thankfully, this doesn’t replace a standard Grand Prix mode, either. The challenges are where you tend to unlock characters, but there’s a full Mario Kart-style GP mode with points, speed classes and trophies. Once you get past all these, there’s a deep pool of staff ghosts to beat in time trials, and the hard-level challenges to unlock all the medals are quite a task.
What’s best about all this? All of the game’s modes are playable in multiplayer. Four split-screen racers (and a fifth on the GamePad in the Wii U version) can take on challenges and GPs, as well as play online with up to 10 players in playlist-and-voting-based gameplay. This all works amazingly well; the frame rate does take a slight hit with a full complement of players, and in whatever configuration the Wii U GamePad tends to display things at a lower resolution, but the racing itself never stops feeling super-smooth.
I’m not going to stop playing Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed anytime soon. It borrows all of the best ideas and doesn’t do them halfway, and it has things for you to play as long as you’re up for some racing.
Pros: Smooth racing, deep campaign, multiplayer in all modes
Cons: Technical issues on some challenges, low-res GamePad play