Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: "Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed"

If you had told me last year that one of my favourite games would be a Sonic game, I’d laugh. If you’d told me one of my favourite games would be a Sonic racing game, I’d laugh while dismissing every opinion you’d ever had as the ravings of an outright lunatic. And if you’d told me one of my favourite games would be a Sonic racing game on the PC, I’d stop laughing, slap you across the face and tell you to get the hell out of my house.
Oh, how time makes fools of us all.

It’s been a while since Sega’s upstart blue mascot was actually relevant. The first game I ever played in the Sonic series was 2011′s Sonic Generations – a masterful platformer recounting the twenty years of the character’s life, the ups and downs and downs and downs and… well. Mostly downs. But the ups, too. It’s hard not to feel like Sonic the Hedgehog – and Sega, at that – were once kings. Kings! …and it’s even harder not to feel like they squandered all of it.
With this in mind, one of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed’s greatest achievements lies in its reverence to Sega, its games, its characters and its consoles. It feels a lot like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, in that respect (going so far as to, like Brawl, include a console as a playable character), and the wide-eyed nostalgia to a time where Sonic games didn’t see major releases on Nintendo consoles is palpable.
It’s good, then, that I never owned any Sega consoles. Or played any Sega games. I had to consult Wikipedia every time I unlocked a new character! So you can rest assured that all the praise I give Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is praise that is blind to the blatant nostalgic appeal. Any attempts to get at me through my childhood memories were naught – and yet, I still love the game a whole bunch. That, I feel, is both an achievement in and of itself, and an indication of the industry at large’s inability to call back to the “good old days” while simultaneously crafting a product that is actually good. All-Stars Racing Transformed respects Sega’s heritage – but it does not forsake its own in the process.
If you’ve ever played a mascot-driven kart racer before, you’ll know what to expect from the core of All-Stars Racing Transformed. There are a bunch of recognizable characters driving stylized, miniature vehicles. There are bright, colourful and twisting tracks based off of series’ locations and stages. There are power-ups you collect on the track which you use to knock your opponents off the road. There are frustrating sneak attacks which rocket you from first to last just as you’re about to cross the finish line. Yep – all boxes ticked.
The driving physics are incredibly satisfying, and that’s not common for kart racers. The pace is break-neck – it’s hard not to see the influence of ex-Bizarre Creations’ staff – and the handling is pitch-perfect. The drifting mechanic returns from the original All-Stars Racing, in which you hold down the left trigger to drift, and release  to reap a short boost collected by drifting for periods of time. It’s not without skill, and the unique handling offered by different characters’ vehicles means that, much like a fighting game, you’ll come to find a way of playing you personally enjoy.
Sonic, for example, is the fastest (duh), while Tails steers easier at the expense of speed and acceleration. There are five stats attached to each character and their rides: speed, acceleration, handling, boost, and “all-star,” and as you play with each character, you can level them up to unlock different variations, or “mods.” Ergo, the game rarely gets stale to play, as you’re encouraged to mix up your play-style as you go.
It’s helped that the track designs are diverse and interesting. Roller coaster-esque loops and flips accompany stretches of road laced with stage hazards. There are courses from all sorts of Sega games, be it Sonic games or otherwise – a personal highlight for me is a level fashioned after the original House of the Dead – and they each have a distinct flavour, colour scheme, and gimmick attached. If you choose to play the campaign mode – and I recommend it – you’ll be greeted with each of the levels, in varying play styles; presented in an order which doles out new content to you at a consistent and satisfying pace.
There are three initial difficulties you can play at. By completing a track on Hard, you earn three stars (on Medium, two stars, and on Easy, one). These stars unlock level gates which block you from getting to later events, characters, bonus events, and more character mods. This, combined with each character’s individual leveling up, creates a game where you constantly feel like you’re making progress. It keeps you going, both to see what’s next, and to feel yourself getting better at the game. It’s a simple, yet neat, trick – one I feel Mario Kart has failed to learn. The act of playing this game makes you want to play more of it – and it’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that about a kart racer of all things!
Oh. I may have neglected to mention that this game features a transformation mechanic.
Yeah. So. Uh. The game features a transformation mechanic.
The titular “Transformed” – at points during tracks, you’ll pass through a transformation gate and your car will transform into a boat or plane and back. …it’s just enough like Diddy Kong Racing that the mechanic makes me giddily overjoyed (it’s not helping that Sonic’s car makes the Transformers “chk-chk-chk” noise when his vehicle transforms!), though such a comparison, while apt, is slightly misleading. The tracks play out linearly and you transform at set points – Diddy Kong Racing provided tracks where you could choose between car, hovercraft or aircraft, and enter into the fray with everyone made their own choice. In All-Stars Racing Transformed, it’s strictly when the game makes you transform that you transform – but it’s still a great gimmick.
There is something so blissful about driving off a cliff, transforming into a jet, and then rocketing over a body of water until passing another checkpoint and dropping into the water – as a boat – to continue the race. With every character equipped with a unique set of vehicles – Disney’s Wreck-it Ralph (who is tired of being in his own game, y’know) has a helicopter he flies around in, while Ulala from Space Channel Five has a space-pod, and so on, and so forth. It’s an experience rather different to Mario Kart – at least older ones – where everyone was handed basically the same vehicles. The result is a bombastic clash of art styles, designs and aesthetic sensibilities – an eclectic rainbow of unique characters and vehicles. It feels more like The Cannonball Run in places than a kart racing game – and it’s better for it.
It’s helped by the inclusion of “all-star mode”. Think of it like Smash Bros. Brawl’s smash ball – a rare power-up that gives its wielder super powers for a short time. Basically, they’re unique super moves, handed out maybe once or twice a race. And they’re awesome. With a boost of speed and often a more elaborate transformation, these all-star moves differ from character to character – from Vyse’s massive pirate ship that cannonballs all he chooses to pass, to NiGHTS flying through people and sending them hurtling backwards, to Football Manager kicking giant footballs directly at his enem- …wait, what? Football Manager?
Oh yes. What would this review of the PC port be without noting the PC exclusive features? The work on the technical side of the port is technically flawless – what was once a great-looking game on console is now superb-looking on PC, with all the options one could want, from screen resolution to AA to texture size to shadow resolutions to v-sync. With the exception of one crash-to-desktop bug (which has been acknowledged by the developers and is being worked on), this is a flawless port, running in high-def at 60 frames per second – it’s a vibrant, lively game and is all the best for running on PC. And the inclusion of four-player split-screen on PC is a blessing for myself, since I’ve only recently found the joys of an HDMI cable, an HDTV and Steam Big Picture. With four Xbox 360 controllers, this is a perfect party game – and it’s wonderful that PC gamers can throw the same parties console users can.
But screw that. We all know all that matters is exclusive characters! A Shogun warrior from Shogun: Total War, “Team Fortress” – the Pyro, the Heavy and the Spy from Team Fortress 2 – and the Football Manager from, um, Football Manager, greet PC players with open arms. My first reaction was to play as Team Fortress immediately… and, well, they’re good. The original actors aren’t on board, which will surprise some, but the imitators did a decent job and their look is consistent with Team Fortress 2′s aesthetics…
(Update: It turns out, the original actors are on board. I guess they were just having an off day, or they had colds, or they’d forgotten how to do the voices, or… somethin’.)
But I have to say. Without a pint of irony, Football Manager is the best character in the game. His stats are even across the board, but it is the writing that really makes him stand out. Ignoring that whoever did the fake English accent makes him sound a bit like Moss from The IT Crowd, his hilarious quips flow like wine from a bottle. “Ref! Ref!” he shouts when he’s bombarded with fireworks. “Red card!” he shrieks as he spins out of control. “That’s got to be a foul!” he complains when he gets knocked off the track. Do you see? Do you get the clever joke that he is using football lingo even though he is not playing football? …yes? What, you don’t think it’s clever? …oh, well, I like it! And I’m the one reviewing the game, so, hmmph. Football Manager’s Final Score: 10/10, yo.
The game has a few flaws holding it back from actually being the perfect kart racer. Crashes on PC are frequent, unfortunately – a fix is coming, but I don’t review hypothetical products, I can only review what I have in front of me, and what I have in front of me dumps me to the desktop when I try to load a map. So. That’s an issue. Also an issue is that this game reminds me everything I hate about kart racers. To be blunt, it is a game that does not reward exceptional play. It is possible to be a good enough driver to get a lead on the other players, but for the most part the playing field is appallingly even. It’s not quite as far along as Mario Kart’s punishing of genuine skill – there’s no blue turtle shell equivalent – but it’s awfully close. This is the risk one makes when creating a game where a major mechanic lies in randomly dropped weapons of differing usefulness and power, but it still results in many, many frustrating losses – and cheap wins. On Hard difficulty, you have to come first to win (there’s no second or third place), and often I scraped in first by sheer luck – or held first place for the whole race before being violently snubbed by a character wielding an unstoppable super move. The tropes of the genre are well in play here, and I want to blame the genre and move on… but it really is the game’s fault for employing them.
Also, the online. I would like to tell you how great the online is. I’d love to tell you how playing against real people is a game changer. I’d love to. Too bad the matchmaking is severely broken. …oh, I mean, there is a work-around – if you set your Steam download region to another country’s, you’ll be matched in with people in that country. But forgive me if I don’t want to have the latency attached to playing on American servers from Australia. I also discovered, while playing against a friend in a custom game, that there are a disturbing lack of customization options. I would have liked to play a one versus one game with the two of us, but there’s no choice in the matter – AI fills out the missing slots, online or off, and it’s not all I would have expected. Getting over it, the few times the matchmaking system gave me a game, they’ve been clean, lagless matches, but it’s little comfort when the system is broken 99% of the time. Oh, uh, small complaint, but the game being locked to 16:9 aspect ratio at 16:10 resolutions kind grinds my gears. Not a fan of black bars. But eh, that’s a minor quibble.
At the end of the day, there’s two ways a recommendation like this goes. If you’re a Sega fan, you need to own this game. If you’re a fan of flawlessly designed kart racers, you need to own this game. God help you if you’re a Sega fan who is also a fan of flawlessly designed kart racers, because I recommend you buy the game twice. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a gem – an adrenaline rush of a racing game, and a glorious, Smash Bros.-esque love letter to Sega’s past via the medium of kart racing. It’s not perfect, and the excellent PC port still has its share of problems, but it’s so easy to recommend this game regardless. With racing so fast you can cut your teeth on it, bright, appealing visuals, an unlock system that keeps you invested in the game, and the rich history of Sega’s consoles and games to draw from, this is an outstanding effort from Sumo Digital. Go and play it – you will not regret it. I promise. …Scout’s honor!
…wait. Real-life NASCAR driver Danica Patrick drives a Hot Wheels car. Real-life NASCAR driver, Danica Patrick – who provides her own voice for her cameo – drives a fake, toy Hot Wheels car in this game. And it’s called “the Danicar.” THIS GAME IS SOME STUPID-ASS SHIT I MEAN JESUS CHRIST WHAT-