360 review: Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed

Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed has problems.

Hit detection against walls is spotty, causing players to collide with objects they should’ve soared past. The graphics are too busy during splitscreen play, obscuring obvious paths. The opening hours are tedious, with a brutal difficulty curve. There are numerous glitches, both visual and mechanical.

But if All-Star Transformed’s weaknesses are formidable, its strengths are incredible.

Players take to skies and sea in their transforming karts, with wildly different handling for each. Water and aerial sections are masterfully integrated into each track, displaying a depth lacking in Mario Kart 7 and a variety lacking in Diddy Kong Racing. Motorboats require drift-boosts on any sharp turn lest they become stranded in last place, while aircraft demand shrewd course-charting in the open skies and focus more on optimal race lines than drifts.

Throughout the races, tracks change and new paths open up. The Delphinus battles air pirates above Vyse’s hometown, their dueling cannon fire breaking off chunks of floating island. Players drift in and out of dreams in Nights’ course, flying through serene sheep-puff valleys before entering an ominous netherworld nightmare. Curien mansion transitions from a carnival-style house of horrors into some sort of zombie rock concert, which makes zero sense but earns thousands of style points.

The character list earns points as well. Vyse zips around Beat who powerslides past Aiai, while Gilius Thunderhead crushes them all in a metal bull that can and will transform into a turtle and an eagle. Danica Patrick brings up the rear, and nobody even notices when she maims herself with a blowfish.

The item roster is filled with fantastic refinements of genre staples. The glove catches incoming items, saving you from a hit and giving you ammunition for a quick punish. The twister is a devious nuisance item, homing in on enemies and reversing their controls. The snowball gives you three weak shots that freeze an enemy solid if you land every hit.

These are all in addition to your standard shooters, droppers, and boosters, forming perhaps the best item set in kart racer history. Kart racers typically have that one item that feels cheap or useless, but there’s no such thing here. The developers have even figured out a solution for the much maligned blue shell: instead of automatically hitting the person in first, the swarm item merely places a formidable cluster of bees in their path. It doesn’t feel like a punishment for being ahead, and it can hit those behind first place, too.

The announcer chimes in whenever you wreck somebody, making you feel like you’ve scored a headshot. He has something to say about everything: drift hit, reverse hit, freeze, long shot, nice recovery, nice combo. I suspect he’s the announcer from Super Monkey Ball, and I love him. When you recover from the twister without hitting a wall, he shouts “survived flippy!”, which delights me.

When you finish a race, your character gains experience which unlocks mods. The mods aren’t necessarily advantages, they simply take points out of one stat and put them in another. They add variety to the roster, allowing you to tweak your favorite characters so they handle how your favorite characters should. Sumo smartly avoided making a level-up system that rewards grinding, and instead implemented one that rewards playing. If you like a character, you can fully level him within an hour or two.

The drift system has been laboured over, and it feels just right. Longer drifts provide better boosts, and it can be a struggle to earn a powerful level three boost. Being able to switch directions mid-drift is a small but crucial addition, and one which thankfully prohibits players from gaining boosts by snaking left and right. My favorite tweak is that homing items can be disengaged by a well-timed boost, causing them to zoom ahead and target the next racer.

There’s a dedicated World Tour mode, which is more engaging than Diddy Kong Racing’s hub world, even if it isn’t as memorable. It has a wider variety of challenges, all of which can be tackled with a friend or three. There are races, versus races, battle races, ring races, boost races, traffic attacks, pursuits, and sprints.

Some aren’t as interesting as others, with Pursuit being the clear weak link. But most are fun, keeping players happily occupied while they unlock characters. Expert class races are faster than almost any racer I can name, and they’re a ton of fun if you can handle the difficulty. I really can’t, but I enjoy the exhilarating sense of speed. Gotta go fast, right.

The drop-in system deserves accolades for simplicity. When friends want to join in, they just press start on one of the menu screens. To drop out, they press start on the menu again. The developers also implemented a feature called the swap slot, which lets you store a weapon for the other players to use. It’s a great co-op feature with potential for great competitive misuse.

Everything’s been so smartly considered that the Time Attack mode feels completely out of place. Even considering the glitches and steep difficulty curve, this is the game’s biggest letdown. It focuses on only one lap, preventing you from racing on the course’s different permutations. It records only your top time, saving the other slots for staff ghost times. Why? I don’t care about them once they’re beaten.

And every staff ghost is Sonic. I’d love to race Joe Musashi on Seasonal Shrines, or Aiai on Temple Trouble. It’s a botched opportunity to add extra flavor to the mode and show off the skills of different characters and team members. Time Attack feels tacked on just in time for release. A shame, considering Sumo’s arcade pedigree.

Still, All-Stars Transformed is one of the best kart racers around. It trumps Nintendo’s recent Mario Kart 7 and even genre classics like Diddy Kong and (don’t quote me here, it’s close) Crash Team Racing. There’s an eye for skill that’s beaten only by Super Mario Kart, a feel for fun that’s only surpassed by Mario Kart Wii. Despite its numerous shortcomings, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is a classic, and placing third still earns it a spot on the winner’s podium.

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One Response to “360 review: Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed”

  1. Gems of this generation: part 3 | Catstronaut Loves Games Says:

    […] other kart racer has come as close to dethroning Mario Kart as Sumo’s incredible Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed. It nails genre fundamentals before innovating on them with a flair of its own, lending a harder, […]

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