Reviews, Sega Retro

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed: The Retro Review

The developers at Sumo Digital have tuned up their old car, shoved a jalapeno up the tailpipe, changed the belts, look, whatever generic trope you want to indicate for the existence of Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed. You know, that Sonic and Sega racing game? They made another one of those.

Without a doubt, it’s a better game than the predecessor. It’s more of everything: more vehicles, more characters, better physics, more track variety, and so on. It also does what it can to give character/item based racers the competitive edge that the genre has difficulty in reaching. On the other hand, the game has mishaps and hiccups that occur more often than it should which can cause the game to be a frustrating experience, especially in some of the game’s more heated situations.

The game will take time to get used to as the physics for vehicles and even the items have changed drastically this time around. Vehicles appear to have more weight. When cars collide together and crunch and jar the camera, it gives off the feeling that everything in this game is just a bit harder, grittier even. Controls can take some time to get used to, especially since the game only tells you briefly about them through in-game prompts, and the instruction manual for certain releases of the game contain little to no information. You’re met with the usual standard for modern racing games, and similar to the previous game, the shoulder buttons are used to accelerate, brake and drift to build up boost, which is still executed verbatim Mario Kart style, if they’re both held together. Certain elements such as tricks and All-Star moves have seen a massive overhaul that creates new strategic possibilities.

Learn to drift as soon as possible, as drifting for a period of time rewards boost which will help you keep up with the competition.

The key difference with this game is that your vehicle can change from a car, to a hovercraft and to a plane depending on what the track calls for at any given time. The car-mode seems to contain the most arcade-like physics out of the three since your path is usually a road that is caught between invisible walls at times to prevent your character from escaping. Hovercraft seems to react to the waves of the water more directly, and in some cases giant splashes of water will launch your vehicle into the air to perform tricks. It can also be difficult to play as the craft is more likely to cause you to tip over and change direction entirely should you not drive off a ramp quite right. Plane mode comes off as being the most fun mode to control since the trick system reacts differently whilst in the air. Plane mode is more prone to invisible walls everywhere and in some levels may force you into them when it looks like an ordinary shortcut. This is especially apparent during some of the more clustered levels in the game such as the Jet Set Radio track.

Stunts are now executed with the right analog stick. Tilting it up or down will flip your car forward or backward, and left or right will barrel roll the car left or right as well as move the vehicle in that direction which allows for correcting your trajectory if you’re about to collide into a fork or a wall. Stunts have to be timed carefully because landing incorrectly, tapping the right stick to perform a stunt too quickly or sometimes just performing one too early on the lip of a ramp or wave of water causes your car to slow down considerably. When in a plane, performing stunts will have you dodge in the direction chosen which is useful for avoiding some obstacles. Understanding how far your vehicle goes when “dodging” in any vehicle mode opens up possibilities for navigating courses. Some trial and error may be needed to have full comprehension on how it works.

The game has three engine class modes, along with an additional class that can be unlocked once certain conditions are met. Each class determines the difficulty of CPU opponents as well as how fast the vehicles run. On the faster classes, it is imperative that you study each course to know where to drift, to perform stunts, where to avoid hazards and where boosters lie at in order to achieve first place. The hardest class may be incredibly difficult as not only are the CPU characters more savvy at where everything is, you may be running too fast to be able to react to certain ramps or areas of the track, causing you to overshoot jumps and collide with terrain, some of it due to unintentional track design.

Items are fairly easy to read on what they do. Each course contains a number of item containers that reward players randomly with offensive or defensive advantages such as homing weapons, landmines, boosts and more. Players will need to pay careful attention as they can also backfire on them, such as the Hot Rod item, which gives them a speed boost with the added attack pressing A again to perform an engine exhaust emitting fire around them. Failure to time it properly causes the engine to backfire and slow you down.

More often than not, you’ll run across bugs that may even prevent you from being able to complete a race.

Other items also range from being very effective to ultimately useless depending on some situations. For example, the Swarm weapon spawns large bees in front of the racer in first place that they must avoid or will drastically slow down as a result. They’re best used in close corridor paths for both cars and hovercrafts. However for wide-open areas, especially for planes, there may not be enough to block oncoming racers or even not be in their direct path whatsoever. It also would have been nice if items were more inspired by Sega games rather than going for the generic route. Seeing a giant, cartoonish blowfish while running through the Skies of Arcadia level with elegant battleships blasting apart an innocent floating island village just gives off the impression that the items could have benefited from also receiving the same nostalgic treatment that is distributed for every other element in the game.

All Star items have received this kind of treatment, along with an overhaul as to how they work. Just like in the first game, players who are having a difficult time during the race are likely to receive a power up that may turn the tides in their favor. In Transformed, most of the All-Star moves operate similar for every character. All-Star moves also require you to manually control your character through the course, otherwise you’ll end up crashing against walls or falling off the track. You’ll periodically have the ability to fire a weapon or activate an area of effect that surrounds you to slow down opponents. You are also able to reward yourself with items or benefits before each race (or through the casino in World Tour mode) by spending coins in the Bonus Chance slot machine. Coins collected from the courses can potentially grant you bonuses, providing luck. They don’t change the game entirely, but they can help players gain the lead early if it’s a particularly handy bonus.

Those who opt for high level play are more likely to get caught into some of the underlying issues the game has more often than not.  Players are likely to fall off of floors, or reset on the track only to fall back off, run off ramps into obstacles that should not be reached in the first place, or simply be bombarded with weapons from opposing players. Basically, there will be situations where you will lose the race that are completely out of your control, either due to the game’s design or just general hiccups.

World Tour Mode contains most of the variety and content in the game.

Content wise, Transformed is a much meatier package compared to the last game. There are general matchmaking as well as custom match settings for both local and online multiplayer. Plus up to four players (five on Wii U) can join in one console for all online and most offline game modes. Career mode houses most of the main content and can be played with up to four people cooperatively.  Most of the  time will be spent in the World Tour mode nestled under the Career options. While you’re able to unlock tracks as soon as you play them in every game mode, World Tour is the only way to unlock most of the characters and mods. World Tour contains a number of challenge types that range from simply racing for the top position to specialized challenges such as flying through rings, around traffic, or utilizing boost to freeze the timer. You’ll earn stars based on which engine class you choose. If you can complete the harder challenges, you’ll earn the stars from the lesser difficulty modes as well. The harder difficulties may prove to be tougher because the requirements will become tougher to meet. CPU opponents become more aggressive  and timers leave very little room for error, especially for Traffic Attack modes.

For those not too adept at the game, easier difficulties allow the player to progress and still be able to see most of the content the game has to offer. An added bonus for multiplayer career sessions allows players to store one item for all the players to gain easy access to. Which means trailing players can farm for devastating weapons for the lead human player as well as replace CPU opponents in some of the challenges, which make challenges easier to accomplish and farm XP for characters much quicker. Not entirely game breaking, but idling players can provide an advantage even if it wasn’t quite the intent of the game designers.

There also exists Grand Prix, Time Trial and Single Race modes for career mode. Kind of a bummer that some of the challenges presented in World Tour mode do not tie in with the other game modes. Both Time Trials and Single Race modes grant access to the DLC tracks for co-operative play. For competitive play, you can go to Custom Game that allow for local play or online play with friends with additional game modes such as battle arena, battle race, capture the Chao, and boost race. For playing online with random people, matchmaking is the way to go which also allows for racing, arena based games or both through the “Lucky Dip” mode which will randomly select between the five different multiplayer game modes. For the arena based modes, the weapons are a little difficult to aim at opponents online, especially for homing drone weapons that collide into walls moreso than chase opponents. Playing against those with latency issues when playing online also make it especially difficult for weapons that require manual aiming.

There  is plenty of Sega fan service dished out for this game compared to the original. Each track is based off of one game which nets one track theme for the 25+ tracks with changing scenery to accommodate for the different vehicle options. Environments are huge, and look highly detailed. Unlike the previous game, environments aren’t entirely made up of pre-existing assets and in a number of cases, had to be recreated just for this game. There are a cast number of characters to choose from, a handful of them being pleasant surprises, such as Vyse from Skies of Arcadia or the return of Gillius from Golden Axe, to complement some questionable ones.

Kudos for trying to up the female character roster with very few female protagonists to choose from, leaving us with characters such as Mee Mee from Super Monkey Ball and Ulala’s rival Pudding from Space Channel 5. Not that they’re bad choices, but some may not be as recognizable. Regardless, they are still nice to see as a number of them haven’t been seen since Sega Superstars Tennis. This also means there are more than just additional Sonic characters filling up the roster. The omissions of characters from the last game such as Opa Opa and Ryo Hazuki are missed, but in order to make room for fresh faces and avoid having too many characters with similar or duplicate stats, this type of game isn’t the best suited to have these many playable characters.

Oh, my sweet MEEMEE, I am here for you. If you marry me I’ll gi– uh. Note to self, change caption before the end of review process.

Character animation continues to be a bit of an issue in terms of characters behaving inaccurately or awkwardly. You will see them float in the air or even stand in their seat while driving well over 88 miles per hour, showcasing their amazing ability to withstand extreme forces of turbulence which simply looks unnatural. Characters also appear to react somewhat uncharacteristically, especially when it comes to winning races. Suddenly, Shadow the Hedgehog is showboating for the audience despite being a character normally associated with angst, or Beat who clutches onto his arm and stands in place posing for the camera.

In terms of environments, Sumo Digital did a commendable job of ensuring that each track has the utmost detail. Not just in terms of how they look but what happens within them as well. Certain portions will deteriorate and change, you’ll be attacked by road hazards, water will splash when large objects fall from the sky, and more. Unlike most other Sumo Sega games, some art assets had been recreated from games that didn’t feature content with high fidelity and still manage to mesh well with everything else that goes on in the game. In motion, the game looks great especially when navigating through courses at high speeds. You do get four tracks from the original All Stars Racing which look by and large the same, save for a few instances where they had to deal with a different physics engine. The framerate for the most part stays at a constant 30 frames per second, and the game will change its detail over the course of a race when necessary, even when played with up to four people. In order to keep the game speed up, the game may blur everything around you, possibly to hide the game skipping frames. When playing online, it becomes more apparent as the environment becomes such a blurry mess that it’s difficult to keep up. It’s not happening constantly but is certainly noticeable.

Rounding out the game’s nostalgic factor leads us to the game’s soundtrack which contains by a number of remixes composed by Richard Jacques. You’ll recognize plenty of songs from Sonic CD, Sonic R, Skies of Arcadia, Panzer Dragoon, and more. They also seem to develop a form of cohesion instead of just throwing in the songs vanilla, outside of the tracks that came from the original All-Stars Racing. You’ll find a number of catchy tunes; though bear in mind that a lot of the remixes range between techno to just flat-out dubstep. Not a deal breaker, but can become a bit of an issue if you’re already turned off by either genre.

Sega diehard fans will find plenty to enjoy in terms of nostalgia. It is still Sega characters meet Mario Kart, and there are moments where the game can become too frustrating from a number of issues. The game’s mechanics aren’t immediately apparent, and some challenges or game flaws can become aggressively annoying. If you invest your time to understand the game, you will enjoy it more assuming you don’t get thrown off due to one of the game’s numerous faults. If you’re up for another Sega racing crossover, you’ll have a good time with Transformed.

This review was written based on the Xbox 360 version along with notes from Retro staff on Playstation 3 and Wii U versions.

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