Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lugia Reviews Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

So the other day I got the chance to pick up a game I'd been waiting for a while to get. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. The Steam version, which you'll see why later on in this review. When it was first announced, I thought what everyone else did. "Wow, they're ripping off Mario Kart 7", as Mario Kart 7 came out not long before with a similar gimmick. But as I thought about it, the more it reminded me of Diddy Kong Racing's multi-vehicle gameplay, only more interesting. I LOVE the original Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, I can still sit down and intently play it for hours. So of course my first question was: how well does this live up to the original?

Okay I have a lot to say about this game so I'm gonna try to divide it up well. Try to stay with me if you can.

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing was originally a racing game where Sonic ran around on foot, like in Sonic R. Dr. Robotnik rode in his eggmobile with a pair of legs attached, Tails rode in a plane, Amy was in a car, and Gilius Thunderhead from Golden Axe rode on a large bird. The developers had problems with the sizes of everyone compared to Sonic, so they ended up dropping that, and instead opting to make a kart racer. So, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing was released as an arcade style racer with heavy focus on drifting, getting speed boosts from drifting, and silly items like the ones in Mario Kart.


All-Stars Racing differentiated itself from Mario Kart in that it was much more speed based. With the increased focus on drifting and speed you would find yourself going at incredible speeds constantly. Not only that but the items were toned down as well. Not place-destroying like in Mario Kart, All-Stars Racing's items didn't bring you to a complete halt, just bringing you to a low speed for getting hit. The game pulled its character roster from various points of SEGA's history, leading to a large and colorful cast. While the track themes were reused a lot and the soundtrack consisted solely of music ripped from other games, this racer cemented itself as very unique and fun.

And then they made a sequel.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed added quite a bit to the original game's formula, and if you've seen or heard anything about the game you probably know that one of the main gimmicks is that the vehicles can transform; into a boat or a plane. The transformation is seamless and uninterruptive, and the two new vehicles fit extremely well alongside the original cars, both boasting arcade style gameplay taking inspiration from games such as Wave Race and Afterburner, respectively. Basically when you encounter a large blue ring in the track, going through it means you're gonna transform, and you usually transform into several of the three vehicles during a track. It's a very interesting gimmick that provides a lot of variety.


Assuming you're playing the tracks in order, the boat is the first transformation you'll encounter. The boat's control is generally more slippery and requires effort to keep it in control. It's also heavily affected by the waves of the water, which can throw it up in the air, pausing your ability to change your momentum until you land. If you hit a big enough wave though, you can trick midair before you land in the water again for a boost. Basically, have you ever played Diddy Kong Racing? It's kinda like the hovercraft in that.

The plane is a bit more simple in the control area, but more complex in other areas. Taking off, you now have two axis to be mindful of. Plane segments consist of flying through obstacles, which is simple enough, but you have more to keep in mind when up and down is a factor in addition to left and right. The plane control is generally tighter, the drift in particular being incredibly tight, there's an emphasis on precision. It's also faster than the car, so look to transform into it whenever you can.


One of the most enjoyable parts of the tracks in the game are the fact that most of them change with every lap, creating new paths or destroying others. One lap you could be racing through using a car throughout, while on the next lap, flaming debris will have fallen, blocking that path and forcing you to use the boat. It's a nice change that they opted for something more interesting than "drive around here three times".

A minor thing to add is that there's now ten racers in each race instead of eight. I'm not going to go into detail about this right now, but I'll talk more about it later.


One of the biggest changes is an RPG style level up system. Most of the things you do in a race give you EXP, such as driving well, avoiding hazards and using items and weapons well. That EXP is given to the character you were playing as, and if they get enough they'll level up. Leveling up unlocks a mod for the characters, which are options to change the characters' stats slightly to fit your driving style better. It's a well executed way of letting you play as any character just how you want. Each character has seven mods, Standard (the default stats, every character starts with this), five other mods that boost specific vehicle stats, and a Console mod. Each SEGA character has the Console mod for the console that they debuted on (such as Sonic with the Genesis/Mega Drive mod, and Shadow has the Dreamcast mod). It's charming and a good source of nostalgia, and the mods are pretty good as well, although a few are a bit hard to unlock.

I want to talk about the characters for a second though. SEGA added a lot of newcomers to this game, such as Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, Gilius Thunderhead from Golden Axe, NiGHTS and Reala from NiGHTS, to name a few. However, they also removed several characters from the original game. The characters removed were Big the Cat, Billy Hatcher, Ryo Hazuki, Opa Opa, the ChuChus, Zobio and Zobiko, Jacky and Akira, Mobo and Robo, and Banjo & Kazooie (from the 360 version). You could say that these characters were too obscure to warrant being readded, but I for one loved several of these characters, and saw no reason for their removal.


The single player mode is referred to as Career mode. Therein you can find usual modes such as Time Trials and Single Race, and the Grand Prix. The GP has four difficulties: Easy, Normal, Hard and the unlockable Expert difficulty. I'll get into detail on the difficulties later. There's also the World Tour, a mission mode. You play events which you can choose the difficulty of from the options listed above. These events range from a simple race, to a drifting course, to all-out battle races or mini games. By completing missions you earn Stars and unlock more missions. And the more stars you get, the further you can progress in the mission trees. This is how you unlock new characters and Console Mods, which makes this the main mode of the game more or less.




For the record, my computer is severely out of date. To get this game to run well I had to turn all of the settings down to low and... the game still looked amazing.  The lighting, the models, it's all very good looking.

One of the things that first appealed to me before anything was the variety of gameplay. Turning from a car into a boat or a plane adds a lot of variation, in addition to the faster tricking and improved drifting, as drifting now allows you to switch directions mid-drift without using your drift boost, I really appreciate that. Those things come together and add much smoother gameplay to an already incredibly smooth racer. I also like how the tracks change up with each lap. One of the most interesting examples of this is on the track "Race of Ages", where the player in first gets to change the track after a certain point, turning it into a boat segment or a plane segment, depending of their choice.

The World Tour also serves as a great single player mode, full of creative missions for you to play. A lot of the missions are just basic races but there's other events such as a Boost Challenge, wher you have a limited time tio get to the finish but boosting makes the timer stop, a Versus mode where you race single opponents one after another in an elimination style, versus battles where the characters have three lives and have to eliminate everyone else with weapons and items, Traffic Attack where you have to dodge groups of commuting cars and get to the checkpoints in time, and Pursuit, a fun (if slightly situational and, at first, challenging) minigame where you have to use missiles to destroy a speeding tank that's dropping projectiles in your path. This is one of the strongest single player elements in a racer I've seen since the Nintendo 64 and one of the reasons that I've played it so intently, although 100%ing the game, or even getting all the characters from World Tour can be difficult due to some of the things I talk about later.

Some of the characters are also just so interesting, just the fact that they're there. Yeah sure there's NiGHTS and the like from SEGA, but they also have characters like Ralph from Wreck-it Ralph. That's something that still amazes me. Not only that, but remember how I said I picked up the Steam version? It comes with three exclusive characters: Shogun, representing the Total War series, Football Manager, and Team Fortress. Now... my opinions on Team Fortress 2 are incredibly mixed, but I cannot tell you how much fun it is playing as the Pyro, Heavy and Spy in a colorful racer like this. Although their voice-overs are terrible...

I do want to say for anyone questioning buying the PC version, it's AMAZING this time around. This is one of SEGA's best PC ports of a modern game to the PC and yes, it actually has online this time. The config tool is really nice as well, and gives you a lot of options for turning down the graphics quality if needed. Not only that but besides the Miis in the Wii U version and the 360 Avatars in the XBox 360 version, the Steam version is the only one to get exclusive characters.

But... more than anything this game is just fun, right? I can't really describe a list of things I really like about the game because so much of it comes together well. I enjoy it enough to keep coming back to it, but there are some things that I dislike. By 'some' I mean a lot, actually, one of them being the AI. The computer players are one of the biggest problems that the game has for me. You know how I listed the difficulty settings earlier? Well...

The computers on Easy aren't unskilled. They all drive pretty well and seem accurate with items. What makes them easy is their speed stat, which is abysmally low on Easy. The difficulty settings don't do much other than buff the computers' speed stats, which gets kinda bad on the later difficulties. On Normal the AI has about perfect driving ability, the most they'll ever mess up is that they'll not do a trick or drift, and by this point they're extremely accurate with the items. They'll give you a hard time if you're not used to the game, but they're good practice. On Hard they're buffed slightly, with another speed boost. The Hard computers have unnaturally good driving, and I've seen some crash straight into a wall only to pass me again going twice as fast as I am. At this point the AI already has an unfair advantage.

By Expert the AI becomes outright broken. They're given such speed buffs that they're automatically faster than you. As the fastest character I'm aware of, Sonic with the Super Speed Mod, I've been outsped on straightaways by Tails in Expert, a character with an average speed stat. Not only that but it's incredibly difficult for slow characters to keep up with these computers, I once tried playing as Knuckles in a GP on Expert and I never got past fourth just because of how fast the other racers were. It feels relatively cheap when my own racing ability is being undone by the characters just outspeeding me for no good reason. This isn't a big deal since you can play on easier difficulties, unless you want to unlock all of the characters, in which case you'll have to beat over half of the missions on Expert. To get all of the Console mods requires you to beat every mission on Expert as well.

Something odd though is that I've noticed on Hard and Expert, the AI can't quite handle the speed very well and they make a lot of mistakes on more complicated tracks like the Super Monkey Ball track.

Also, still on the AI, their skill with items can get ridiculous. They have ungodly awareness and can hit you easily from far away. I've been in 7th before and have been pelted directly by characters far ahead in 4th even though they could have used their item to get ahead. The AI seems to have it out for human players specifically. I end up getting combo'd by the AI frequently in positions where they could use their items better to get ahead, after which I get thrown into the pack of racers with more items to pelt me with. The whole ten racers thing leads to too much chaos.

And on the subject of items, they've changed a LOT from the original game. For one thing they're not as interesting this time around, at least in my opinion. But more importantly their balance is very iffy. Items in the original All-Stars Racing wouldn't hurt your speed too much, just enough to bring you down if you were getting too big of a lead. There's an entirely new set of items in Transformed, the weapons in particular are harder to land hits with and at the same time slow you down almost completely if you do get hit by one. Particularly, any weapon that homes in can be dodged by boosting, which can make entire All-Star moves do absolutely nothing because of repeated dodging, and sometimes homing projectiles just miss entirely for no reason. This not only makes it hard for racers to take a strong place in the pack, but makes it very easy for racers who get a lucky lead to stay there for the rest of the race, as nothing will usually hit them. There's a Swarm item, this game's equivalent to the Blue Shell from Mario Kart, but it doesn't tend to do much, especially against the AI. The items in this game have made it a lot more luck and item based, unlike the original All-Stars Racing.

As much as I've praised the track design there is one major flaw, and I'd like to use Mario Kart Wii as a comparison. Mario Kart Wii had twelve racers in each race, so the tracks were designed around that. The roads were extremely broad and spacious, and tracks were generally large, adapting to the larger pack of racers. In Transformed most of the roads in the game are extremely narrow, about three cars wide I'd say. This leads to a lot of instances of aggressive drivers colliding with you and shoving you into walls or off cliffs, halting your speed, and the AI has absolutely no qualms with pushing you around. All of these things with the AI and balance combine to give this game a pretty steep learning curve, it takes a while to get used to and it might turn off some players from making major progress in the World Tour.

The collisions are sort of messed up as well. I've been in situations where my car just slides over in a direction without giving me any control, my boat flying up in the air with little gravity, flipping and spazzing out as it slowly falls. I've even gotten my boat to sink, stuck underwater temporarily. Boats often go caeening in one direction as well, despite controller input. The tracks also have a tendency of sometimes throwing your car up into the air very slightly, making it so you can't steer. Once I was thrown skyrocketing into the air for no reason, going so far that I landed on the track's alternate path. And I can't even count how many times I've rammed into something, coming to a dead halt when absolutely nothing was in front of me.

Now this is just my personal opinion, but I don't care for the music that much. Where in All-Stars Racing all of the music was ripped from other games, in Transformed nearly every song is a techno remix, and they sound kind of good, but they all blend together and sound the same to me. Only a few songs stick out in my mind as memorable and enjoyable, two of them being from the Samba de Amigo tracks. All-Stars Racing may have blatantly reused songs, but at least they were songs I enjoyed. I mean... Transformed's versions of You Can Do Anything and Super Sonic Racing don't even have the lyrics! This is one of those games where I really wish that they had the option to choose your own music to play on each track off of an SD card or your hard drive. I've never heard of a game doing that after Excite Truck, and it's really a shame. They could have at least let you choose what song you want to play like in the original All-Stars Racing, but nope.

One minor problem I have is the sound design. I don't particularly like how anything sounds in this game, but especially the announcer. In All-Stars Racing the announcer was an active and spontaneous personality who would give color commentary throughout the race. In Transformed the announcer is a monotone voice with a bad electronic filter who doesn't say much but what item you just picked up and if someone has an All-Star. It got to the point where I grew SO tired of him that I just turned him off; and suddenly I noticed that I enjoyed the game a lot more.

Oh yes, the All-Stars. For those of you who don't know, an All-Star is an item in the All-Stars Racing series. In the first game these let your character use a special ability of theirs, such as Sonic and Shadow turning Super and rushing through opponents, B.D. Joe getting a passenger and then performing the Crazy Boost from Crazy Taxi, or Akira getting out of Jacky's car and -punching it- to make it go faster.

Now compare this:

To this:

In Transformed the All-Stars are no longer unique. Every All-Star consists of the character transforming into the plane, moving slightly faster and getting a projectile to use repeatedly. The All-Stars in Transformed are incredibly boring and uninteresting when compared to the first game's, not to mention hard to control. The plane glides across the ground if you use an All-Star as a car, and you can still fall into pits as a result.

Still, after all I've said about the AI, that's not what really matters, right? The multiplayer has always been the focus of racers like this. Now I can't really play the local split-screen multiplayer, but I've heard a LOT of bad things about it. Something about it just not working correctly. But what about online multiplayer? The Steam version of Transformed, unlike the Steam version of All-Stars Racing, actually has online multiplayer, and right from the menu it looks pretty nice. You can choose to enter matchmaking OR make a private room to race with friends. It's already much, much better than any online system Nintendo's come out with. But how well does it work?



Online is divided up into three categories: Races, Battles, and a third option where you could do one or the other depending on what's voted for. The matchmaker is actually extremely nice. Each race starts out with everyone voting for one of three randomly chosen tracks, which eliminates problems in Mario Kart of players picking the same tracks over and over and the randomizer picking them continually. After the voting period you're thrown into the lobby, where you can choose your character and mod. The lobby is EXTREMELY nice, you have around 60 seconds to make your decisions, and you can change characters at any time during that period. Two players can't select the same character, but you can change characters after EVERY race without leaving the lobby, something Mario Kart's online also fails to do. Changing characters after a race is also very useful as certain racers and mods aren't as good on some tracks.

The actual connection and workings of the online are pretty good. Nothing really messes up, although I've noticed a mass increase of items like Drones and All-Stars, to the point where I've seen the same racer get an All-Star three times. However there is a big problem: the collisions. I have absolutely no idea what causes this, but getting rammed by someone makes you launch off in the other direction. As bad as it was offline, it's gotten even worse here. I've seen people online get shot around by repeated collisions with other racers like a sugar-rushed pinball, and getting rammed like this can absolutely kill your place. Avoid touching other cars as if your life depended on it.

The ranking system is a bit odd as well. It works similarly to Mario Kart 7, you start with 1000 ranking points and as you play races you can either win more points or lose some. The thing is I can't figure out what point gain and loss is based on. When I see a player in first absolutely dominate a race they usually get close to 60 points, while sometimes I've finished in fourth and gotten more points than the two people ahead of me. Then there's times where I race decently well, but get continually pelted with items and I lose a LOT of points. Speaking of which, I've lost 99 points from losing, which is extreme for something like this where a single item can put you in last. I've lost an amazing amount of points from being in first for half of the race and then getting sent to last by all of three items. I've also spent entire races in second, driving excessively poorly, and gotten more points than the guy who never left first.

Oh, there's also a penalty for leaving an online race, which I discovered after the game crashed during a race. It seems like playing this game in windowed mode is kind of risky, as I've already had it crash on me a couple of times. The penalty involves your ranking points, but I have no idea what you lose, and I didn't notice it either way. There might be a banning system for repeated offenses, but with how crash-happy the Windows version can be I'd hope not.

In the end though, it depends on the kinds of opponents you face. So is there a system that matches you with players with similar ranking points like in Mario Kart 7? I'm actually not sure. When I played online I was against some other first-timers but also some people with up to 1500 points. It might be that ranking points are just that hard to keep, but it could've also been the matchmaker putting me with players of similar skill, which I sure hope it does.

I can't try out the with-friends online, because unfortunately I don't know anyone who has the Steam version of this game, although you can invite friends directly from Steam into a public lobby.

I've complained a lot up there, and I do view those complaints as legitimate, as they often do overshadow my enjoyment of the game. I still really like it all the same, and I doubt anything could change that. I give this game a 7 out of 10. The complaints I've had are enough for me to knock a few points off because of how annoying it can be dealing with the imbalanced and somewhat glitchy gameplay. But despite this, I do love the game as a whole and I suggest getting it completely.

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