In a moment of weakness yesterday, I went out and bought a Wii U. To be fair, I kind of always knew that this was going to happen at some point or another, and as it happened my local game store was doing some pleasant deals whereby I could pick up one of the black Premium console packages and an additional game for what appeared to be a good price. The game I chose was Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, for several reasons: one, it was a game I’d be able to play with my girlfriend; two, it would be a game I’d be able to play with friends when they came over; three, a lot of people I know, like and trust had been saying lots of very nice things about it on social media. So I took the plunge.
And so far, I am not at all disappointed.
I didn’t play a lot of the previous Sonic racing game, but I understand it was pretty good. In fact, I haven’t been big on kart racers at all recently — I’d kind of gone off Mario Kart a bit with the Wii incarnation and was finding myself enjoying the more realistic-looking (but still self-consciously “silly”) arcade racers like Blur and Split/Second rather than more cartoony affairs.
With Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (hereafter Sonic Transformed to save my sanity), though, I am well and truly back on the kart racing train, not least because members of both the Blur and Split/Second teams worked on it. Not only that, though, it also reminds me of one of my favorite examples of the genre ever — Rare’s Diddy Kong Racing. While Sonic Transformed lacks the “adventure” mode of Rare’s classic, it does follow suit in a couple of other ways — largely through allowing players the opportunity to not only race on roads in karts, but also on the water in hovercrafts and through the sky in aircraft. Unlike Diddy Kong Racing, which themed whole races around a single vehicle, however, Sonic Transformed sees you switching between vehicles in mid-race every time you pass through a special blue “transform” gate.
This mechanic, as you may expect, leads to some wonderfully chaotic circuits, with probably the most memorable one I’ve seen so far being the one themed around After Burner. Starting by racing along an aircraft carrier deck in your karts, you’re quickly flung into the sky and into a warzone, F-14 Tomcats screaming past either side of you as you jostle for position. Pass through the next gate and you’re powersliding around the end of another carrier before taking to the skies once again.
The courses aren’t static, either — many of them adapt and change with each lap, forcing you to keep a careful eye out for what is different and what’s still the same. Sometimes the differences are simply the addition of a few extra obstacles; at other times you’ll find yourself heading off in a completely different direction to the previous lap, perhaps in a different vehicle. This keeps things constantly interesting and makes every track feel like an exciting theme park ride — a feeling helped by the frankly ridiculous amount of Sega fanservice that oozes from every one of the game’s orifices.
Yes, this is a title for people who have been playing games for years first and foremost. If you fall into that category, I defy you not to make some sort of appreciative sound the first time you take on levels inspired by Golden Axe, Panzer Dragoon and Jet Set Radio, or the first time you hear the wonderful remixes of the various games’ iconic soundtracks that play as an accompaniment to your racing action. Your mileage may vary when you unlock Danica Patrick as a playable character, however. (I had no idea who she was, I must confess, but then I am an ignorant Brit.)
I’ve mostly been playing the game solo so far, and this is an area where kart racers are often lacking, but not so in Sonic Transformed. No, single players are well catered to thanks to a non-linear “World Tour” campaign mode, a more traditional “Grand Prix” mode, online matchmaking and time trials against several levels of staff ghosts. There are a ton of characters to unlock, and each one can be levelled up to allow the use of “mods” to provide several different variations on their base stats. There’s an achievements-style “stickers” system for you to challenge, and extensive stat-tracking.
I am yet to try the multiplayer modes, but there are several different styles of play on offer, including a couple of Wii U-exclusive ones that make special use of the Gamepad’s extra screen, which is otherwise used as either an additional game screen (allowing five-player local multiplayer) or as a map screen for whoever is using it as their controller.
There are a couple of little niggles — drifting seems to handle a little strangely and the corresponding “drift challenge” levels in the World Tour mode are unfeasibly difficult to complete if you don’t figure out how to do it properly. There are also a number of old-school Sega borderline-unfair difficulty spikes at several points in the campaign, where you will spend several attempts floating across the finish line at the exact moment your time expires and thus fail the mission, but what fun is a game if it doesn’t challenge you at least a little bit? These moments are frustrating, sure, but they aren’t enough to detract from what is a hugely comprehensive, immensely entertaining racing game that is most certainly worth your time if you’re looking for something that is just plain fun.
Remember that? Fun? You will after ten minutes with this.
Our occasional “What I’ve Been Playing” articles provide brief, completely subjective, personal impressions on the subject of titles our contributors have been playing recently and found interesting or worthy of note.