The other day I lamented about the lack of arcade racers but November saw no less than three *kart* racing games appear on the circuit. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is certainly the wordiest of the lot.

UK developer Sumo Digital have a track record with creating some of the Outrun games, and recently received a boost to their racing pedigree with the inclusion of staff from the now-defunct game development studios Bizarre Creations and Black Rock Studio. Taking cues from their previous outing in 2010’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing, the developers have added all new transformative elements to their mascot-based kart racer.  Is it a welcome change? Let’s find out.

In a similar theme to Mario Kart, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed puts the player in the boots of a number of popular SEGA characters as they race about in tracks inspired by the games that they appear in. So it’s characters such as venerable Sonic, Tails, AiAi, Beat, Amigo, and a few surprise cameos steering their vehicles through obstacle-laden courses that remind players of SEGA classics like Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Monkey Ball, Samba de Amigo, Golden Axe, and After Burner, to name but a few.

Like the tracks, the essence of the characters is distilled into their vehicles. Sonic appears in his speedster complete with trademark blue fins on the back; AiAi is kitted with a F1 racer with banana accents, and Amigo is riding what looks like a festive party train. Keeping with the tropes of mainstream racers, each of these vehicles has its own characteristics such speed, acceleration, and handling. Each character gains XP as they participate in races, and increases in XP level results in vehicle mods being unlocked. Certain mods reduces the speed but increases handling, while others take away from acceleration to give to the vehicle’s boosting abilities. The tracks are home to a number of go-faster boost pads and sneaky shortcuts, and they are well-stocked with collectible weapons pods that you can use for offence and defence. These include the standard fireworks and ice balls, to more targeted weapons that home in on racers ahead of you, and the dizzying “tornado” weapon that scrambles your controls. So far, so traditional.

The neat gimmick in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed comes with the change of race style that occurs mid-race. Be it at a certain part of the track or during a specific lap of the race, the road may give way to a body of water, and the player’s vehicle transforms into a boat. The race continues and you have to deal with the hazards of piloting a craft on choppy waters. At another point, your road racer may turn into a jet as you take the battle to the skies. While the jet might be faster than the kart or boat, it’s also the most difficult to control. It becomes especially frustrating when you need to dodge not only incoming attacks but the walls of the track, while attempting to collect weapons. There were a few moments where I longed that a transformation gate would rescue me from the hell that was flying.

Speaking of hell, the game’s “World Tour” mode can become torturous. For each race in the world tour, players can compete in class C, B, and A. Those equate to easy, medium, and hard difficulties respectively, with a maximum of three stars being awarded for placing first in A-class. Rubber-band physics creep in yet again and races seem far more close than they are. The weapons fired by the A-class enemies always seem to hit their target, which more often than not just happens to be you. I’ll chalk it up to freaky coincidence. Certain characters and race locations are only unlocked when you have a certain number of stars and because of the difficulty of the A-class races, certain parts of the game may remain inaccessible to less experienced racers.

A four-player split-screen option allows for offline play. Multiplayer is a new addition, however it is quite basic. You start with a rating of 1000 and it goes up and down depending on your performance in one of the only two modes available: race and arena. The latter is like a destruction derby where players are dumped in a level with a selection of weapons and duke it out to be the last person standing.

When it comes to the visuals, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed finishes first. The tracks look lush, colourful, and neon-futuristic. Whether it’s racing across the deck of an aircraft carrier in the After Burner level or the cavernous rivers of lava in Golden Axe, each track has its own flair. The game runs silky smooth too, without any noticeable dips in the frame rate. However, speed kills as they say and I experienced some glitches where I got stuck, looping in a spot and had to start the race afresh. The music gets stuck in a loop too. There is a dedicated tune for each unique track in the world tour. Richard Jacques who frequently composes music for SEGA, dipped into their vault, taking cues from the classic SEGA games to create remixes of songs and modern, new ditties.

In Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, variety is certainly in pole position. There are different types of races to compete in including standard laps, challenges that require your drift through zones under time duress, and versus modes that task you to defeat up to four opponents, one at a time. Ring mode tests your flying skills by requiring you to pass through a number of rings in an allotted time. There’s also battle race, and a traffic attack mode. Thanks to the transform ability, laps are rarely the same, although some of the tracks aren’t as balanced, where the flying sections overstay their welcome. While Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed pays tribute to SEGA’s golden age of gaming it is above all fun, fast, and rewarding to the racer whether they’re loyal fans or newcomers.

Final score: 8  mega drive prawns out of 10

Detailed Information:

Developer: Sumo Digital
Publisher: Sega
Distributor: Ster-Kinekor
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox360, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS
RRP: R399
Age Rating: 10+
Website: http://www.sonicthehedgehog.com/racing/