Thursday, 22 November 2012

Preview: Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed (WiiU)

This preview has also been released (in a slightly edited form) on Shadowlocked, here.

The Mario Vs. Sonic rivalry hasn't quite died yet. Sure, they get along just fine at the Olympics, but when it comes to Kart racing, Sonic is still looking to take the top spot.

Between Mario Kart and its long list of competitors across console generations, the genre has become incredibly refined. At this stage, in order to remain competitive, innovation and bold statements are definitely required. In the light of Mario Kart 7, All-Stars Racing Transformed has done both of those things; and it succeeds! Mostly.

What makes the All-Stars Racing series stand out is its use of Sega history. While Sonic's in the game title, it's not all about him. Characters and courses are sourced from all places, with surprising additions. Transformed features a Skies of Arcadia stage (and Vyse as a racer), and raceways born from Panzer Dragoon and Afterburner, of all things. For more contemporary cameos, the Starlight Carnival stage from Sonic Colours is included, which is just as mind-blowingly colourful as the original.

Transformed makes itself directly comparable to Mario Kart 7 by having the vehicles (you guessed it) transform. However, while the hang glider and submersible in Mario Kart handled in manners similar to the basic car, the planes and boats in Transformed handle noticeably differently.

On paper, this makes a lot of sense. In terms of... let's say 'gamefeel', having each vehicle type handle differently is logical; a plane controlling exactly like a car would feel terrible. At the same time, having the handling of your car change severely in the middle of a race can be very off-putting if you're not prepared for it.

The previously mentioned planes are egregious for this. Developers Sumo Digital realised that, in a game designed for all ages, having total free-flight would end in wayward chaos. As such, you can turn on a 'guiding path' that creates a friendly green guideline in the flying sections. It's also somewhat magnetic – flying too far away from the line will pull you back on track. You can turn this assist system off at any time, but after using it for a while, the full plane controls gave me the piloting skills of a drunken madman. I hastily turned the guides back on.

Like any self-respecting kart racer, All Stars Racing Transformed has weapons – but interestingly, they aren't the randomised game-changers that they are in Mario Kart. Equivalents to the Blue Shell and the Lightning are nowhere to be found. This, personally, is a glorious, well-judged addition. While, in close races, a well-timed firework will get you into the lead, the person at the back can no longer effortlessly ruin the person in first place.

What they have to challenge the leader instead are stage hazards. On some courses, like Starlight Carnival, enemies from the source material will hover ahead causing havoc. On all stages, there will be a sudden swarm of bees at set intervals during the race. The person in 1st place will have to deal with them, and poor driving at these moments can leave you fighting to hold position. While sudden, it never feels unfair – but having these obstacles be bees on every stage feels like a wasted opportunity for good theming. They could easily be ninjas on the Shinobi stage, or Rokkaku Police on the Jet Set Radio stage.

In terms of game modes, they've taken the time to go beyond the basic standards. There's the regular Grand Prix, versus modes, and battle modes – but there's also an extensive single player mode that acts as a sort of 'career', with race requirements, branching paths and challenge races. The challenge races are legitimately difficult, and are a great way to improve your skills in the game (don't know how to powerslide? Do the checkpoint challenge where you get bonus time for good drifts, and you'll learn fast). If you want to take things online, up to 10 racers can participate at once.

While there are additional functions that make use of the Wii U's assets, they're all rather incidental. That's no bad thing – labouring gimmicks into the control scheme would definitely hinder more than it would help. You can use the tablet controller as a steering wheel should you wish (you won't); the screen acts as a top-down map in single player, and your own personal screen in multiplayer.

It feels a little mean-spirited of me to continually mention Mario Kart while writing about a game that's legitimately solid and entertaining in its own right; but much of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed wouldn't exist (or at least wouldn't be so refined) without the context provided by Nintendo's racing series. That Transformed has managed to take that context and make it its own this is definitely commendable, though. Until Nintendo release Mario Kart WiiU (and trust me, they will), Transformed is looking to happily be your kart racer for the next generation.

N.B. After the article went up on Shadowlocked, I had an error corrected. Rather than butcher the paragraph to fix it, and addendum was placed:

Since writing this, I've been corrected about the weapons. There is actually an equivalent to the Blue Shell in All Stars Racing Transformed: the bee swarms. During my (short) time playing, I never found them in item rotation, so I took them as a stage hazard. That this isn't the case is actually a huge shame, though the reality makes a lot of sense. I'd still enjoy it if the bees were themed to to stage they appeared in, though.

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