Sonic All-Star Racing Transformed: taking the lead, again

*This review contains a very minor spoiler of Bioshock Infinite.  Spoiler sensitive readers be warned.

SASRTBoxThere’s something about seeing something familiar in a totally new context.  Take Bioshock Infinite for example.  Seeing a very familiar Rapture out of context of how we know and love it was a special moment and one that simply punctuated what was an incredibly brilliant conclusion to an incredibly brilliant game.  As video game enthusiasts we love a bit of fanservice and any opportunity developers give us to stroke the old nostalgia bone is one that we tend to welcome with open arms.

Earlier this year I reviewed Sonic All Stars Racing in which I said it ‘manages to hit all of the bullet points one has come to expect from a Kart racer‘ and that it was ‘best in show’.  It also happened to do nostalgia brilliantly, a crutch it leaned on heavily in its inspiration from all things SEGA.  That’s not a criticism and I stand by the comments I made about the game.  In fact they apply in equal measure to its sequel, Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed.

Transformed is a kart racer.  That is probably the best descriptor one could give the game given its strict by-the-book adoption of a tried and true formula (with a few minor but meaty additions which I’ll get to below). The racing is as solid as it gets and combined with with creative track design, sliding around corners and boosting down straights is an exhilarating experience.  Like those that came before  it is excellent when things are going your way.  But when things are looking like the gods are out to get you, Transformed like every other kart racer on the planet,  can be a pube-pulling-ly frustrating experience with its hearty implementation of rubber banding.  If you’re well-versed in the kart racing experience you’ll brush it off as standard genre fare, but its strict adherence to said convention serves to show how little things have evolved in the kart-space over the past decade.

As mentioned there have been a few changes – the ability for vehicles to transform to land, sea and air vehicles is the biggest change-up with this game and it is most definitely a worthy addition.  One-minute you can be careening down a hill in a tricked-out kart and the next you’ve transformed into a fighter and are soaring through the air.  This titular feature doesn’t fundamentally change the gameplay, but is does spike the difficulty a little with the difference in handling between vehicles.  The transformation from a kart to a jet or boat can be jarring at first but after a while it’ll become second nature and you’ll be boosting in those vehicles as readily as you would the standard 4-wheel variety.  Perhaps the biggest flow on from this addiiton though is the freedom it gave developers in designing the tracks.  Simply put Transformed‘s tracks are excellent and the possibly the biggest draw card for the game outside of its theme.  Racing on the deck of an aircraft carrier is cool enough, but add to that sea and air sections, and you’ve got possibly the best kart track since DK Mountain in Mario Kart: Double Dash.

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The game is filled with content, some of it more compelling than others.   The meat of the game is in the World Tour Mode which has you competing in events to open up branching paths.  This is a new and improved version of the the scenario mode from the last game, interspersing standard racing with more novelty events like time attacks, eliminations and ring races.  Given most of the characters are unlocked through earning stars in this mode you’ll want to sink plenty of time into this mode before you head into the more standard karting fare the game has to offer in the form of the Grand Prix and time attack modes.  It’s not perfect, but the forced progression works well enough and has enough variety to keep it fresh and even if you only play this mode you’d still be getting your money’s worth.  

It’s a better game than its predecessor but the improvements have been made at the margin, and while cool and novel, don’t serve change-up the genre in any meaningful way.  If you like kart racers this is the best we’ve seen.  If you don’t this most likely won’t change your mind.  Unless you’re a SEGA tragic that is.  If that’s you this is the closest thing to a must by we’ve seen.  Nostalgia for the house that Sonic built runs deep with this little gem.  Transformed reminds you that SEGA is, was, such an incredible creative force in the industry that delivered some of the most defining experiences of our collective memories.  And it digs deep into that well, covering even some of the more obscure SEGA properties such as Skies of Arcadia, Space Channel 5 and Panzer Dragoon.  As a kart racer it is a solid, if conventional, racer.  But as an opportunity to race through beautiful environments inspired by some of the greatest games ever made, Transformed is simply a superb way to experience a trip down memory lane.

Transformed isn’t perfect but none of the criticisms I could come up with are unique to this game and could just as easily be levelled at its predecessor.  It’s not a revolution.  It’s barely even an evolution.  But it does just enough to mix up the gameplay to make it stand out from the crowd and maintain its place at the top of the kart racing podium.  But who cares about that when you’re racing through levels inspired by Golden Axe?  That should be why you’re really there.

This review was based on both the PS Vita and Wii U versions of the game.

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[penned in nostalgia by Sir Gaulian]

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