Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed: Driving Into Dreams

There have been a number of attempts to dethrone Nintendo’s Mario Kart over the years, but none of them have been successful, at least in the multiplayer sphere.

There is one aspect of Mario Kart that has pretty consistently sucked over the years, though, and that’s the single-player offering. Offering little more than predefined Grand Prix championships, one-off races or time trials even in the most recent installments, Mario Kart has always struggled to provide anything of real substance for the solo player. Which is fine, as the series has always been known for being best experienced with at least one friend, right from its inception in the 16-bit era.

This has, however, left a decent-sized gap in the market for other developers to come along and offer more robust solo experiences in kart racing titles. And one game that succeeds admirably in this regard is the cumbersomely titled Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed from Sega.

Sonic Racing Transformed, as we shall refer to it from hereon, saw a number of releases on different platforms with a few differences here and there. Most notably, “Special Editions” of the game shipped with a track based on Sega’s classic racer OutRun, and the PC version subsequently saw a decent amount of post-launch support with a variety of different characters added to the mix.

The core gameplay remains largely the same between versions, but in the interests of not getting too sidetracked in the differences, assume this article is based on the Wii U release, since that is the edition I have the most experience with — and, as a Wii U launch title in North America and Europe, it has a degree of historical significance, too.

Despite Sonic’s Japanese roots, Sonic Racing Transformed is actually a Western-developed title, brought to us by the UK’s Sumo Digital. This Sheffield-based developer has been a frequent partner of Sega on many of their flagship franchises, with their past work including most of the home ports of OutRun 2, including the excellent OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast.

The team that worked on Sonic Racing Transformed also included former staffers from Bizarre Creations who had been put out of a job by Activision’s disastrous handling of their excellent “powered-up racer” Blur, and former employees of Disney’s Black Rock Studios, who likewise found themselves without gainful employment after their parent company’s similarly dreadful treatment of the also-excellent Split/Second.

That’s one hell of a racing game pedigree right there, so it’s not altogether surprising that Sonic Racing Transformed ended up being so good, both in terms of its core racing mechanics and with regard to its single-player game structure.

Sonic Racing Transformed’s title comes from the fact that races aren’t exclusively confined to ground-based tracks. At various points in pretty much every race, you’ll find yourself passing through glowing blue rings, which will cause your kart to transform into a hovercraft or aircraft, requiring a quick shift in play style.

Each type of vehicle has its own way of handling, though all have a variation on Mario Kart-style “power-sliding” for tight turns and earning boosts if you keep a single slide going for long enough. It’s also possible to perform stunts by flicking the right analogue stick; doing this at optimal moments such as going over jumps or transforming into other forms can also reward you with boosts, and the aircraft stunts also provide a means of quickly increasing or decreasing altitude or strafing from side to side.

The tracks are varied and pay tribute to a wide variety of Sega games from over the years, including everything from Sega’s most enduring franchises such as, well, Sonic, to elderly arcade classics like Golden Axe and The House of the Dead. Sega even acknowledges some of its more obscure titles from over the years, such as Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, NiGHTS, Burning Rangers and Skies of Arcadia. Each circuit includes Split/Second-style dynamic scenery, often radically altering the structure of each lap, as well as some excellent remixes of classic Sega tunes by Richard Jacques.

Structurally, Sonic Racing Transformed does offer the usual lineup of Grand Prix, time trial and one-off races, all of which can be played with up to four players (five on the Wii U version thanks to the additional screen of the GamePad) but the meat of its experience is in the World Tour mode, which sees players progressing through a node-based map, completing objectives and earning stars, with new characters, events and game features unlocking as certain numbers of stars are collected.

The cool thing about World Tour mode is that it doesn’t restrict itself exclusively to straight races, otherwise it’d just be a Grand Prix mode with a fancy front-end. No, in World Tour mode you’ll also find yourself competing in a variety of events clearly inspired by OutRun 2’s Heart Attack mode, such as having to overtake as many cars as possible against a strict time limit, drifting around corners while staying inside markers or hitting as many boost pads as possible to stop the clock.

The number of stars you receive for a given World Tour event corresponds to the difficulty level you set for that particular challenge, with one star being awarded for completing the task on the easiest difficulty, and four for pulling off the seemingly near-impossible feat of clearing the hardest. You can unlock a decent amount of the game’s content by challenging the easy and normal difficulty settings, but eventually you’ll find yourself hitting a wall and having to revisit earlier events to take them on at higher difficulties. It’s the game’s way of encouraging you to use the skills you’ve learned in the more complex events and races that come later in the World Tour mode, and apply that knowledge for better performance in simpler situations.

This would be a solid enough structure by itself, but Sonic Racing Transformed also takes a leaf out of Blur’s book by incorporating an experience points and levelling system — which in turn was inspired by Call of Duty, of all things. Simply put, doing anything noteworthy and vaguely out of the ordinary — hitting an enemy with a powerup from long range, for example, or scoring a successful hit with a blind drop behind you — rewards the character you are playing as with a certain amount of experience points, as does simply performing well in the race. Earning enough experience points to level up unlocks a “mod” for that character and their vehicle, allowing you to adjust their base performance to favour things like handling, acceleration or top speed, or simply to give them a good balance between these aspects.

Locked behind certain gates in the World Tour mode are “console mods”, which apply to all characters that appeared in franchises primarily associated with a particular console and provide arguably their best possible loadout. The characters that put in an appearance from Space Channel 5 and Jet Set Radio can make use of the “Dreamcast mod”, for example.

Much as levelling up in Blur provided you with perks that allowed you to customise the way you played rather than giving you a tangible advantage, the mods in Sonic Racing Transformed don’t necessarily make the characters and their vehicles better as such, they simply allow you to tailor them a little more to your preferred way to play. In other words, a fully levelled character isn’t necessarily going to beat a level 1 character; the fully levelled character will just have more options to choose from. Even the “console mods” aren’t overpowered; they simply provide a solid, well-balanced lineup of abilities for that particular character — and these are unlocked independently of the levelling system, anyway.

Sonic Racing Transformed is such a joy to play because it’s a real love letter to Sega through the ages — with a pleasing emphasis on the underappreciated Saturn and Dreamcast eras. The roster of characters may not be as immediately recognisable to non-gamers as Mario Kart’s lineup, but “family-friendly fun” isn’t really the angle the game is going for. Instead, what we have is a game seemingly designed primarily for people who grew up with Sega, and have fond memories of the company’s golden age prior to its modern incarnation as a relatively faceless, monolithic publisher.

It’s a nostalgia trip from start to finish, and it’s an incredibly solid, substantial game in both solo and multiplayer modes to boot. So if you’ve been craving some cartoonish, arcadey racing action but find Mario Kart’s single-player offering somewhat wanting in terms of longevity, Sonic Racing Transformed is an eminently worthy investment of your time and money. It’s one of Sega’s best — and most underappreciated — games in recent years, and deserves a place in everyone’s collection.

More about Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

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