Let’s shorten Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed's unwieldy title to just Transformed from here on out. Transformed is the sequel to Sonic & SEGA All-Star Racing, a kart racer that critics didn’t seem to take much notice of. I don’t blame them for being wary. After all, non-Mario Kart mascot racers tend to turn out mediocre. But the first All-Star Racing was actually one of the best kart racers in recent memory, and Transformed is even better.
Besides its larger scope, the main innovation Transformed offers is the ability to race across land, sea, and air. Yes, this one single game combines kart, boat, and airplane racing. Many courses feature all three styles, in fact! Driving through the large transformation circles causes your vehicle to shift forms without slowing the game’s pace. The water racing plays like a slightly slower version of Hydro Thunder Hurricane, while the aerial racing really mixes things up with the added plane of movement. I found the aerial steering wonky at times, almost as if my plane was fighting wind resistance. Still, the variety of racing styles across a single track consistently thrills.
Beyond the fresh gameplay, much of this sequel’s appeal stems from its copious fan service. First, the characters. 10 are unlocked from the beginning, including several from the Sonic and Super Monkey Ball series, Crazy Taxi, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio, and even Disney’s Wreck It Ralph film. By playing the World Tour Mode, you can unlock racers from Golden Axe, Shinobi, NiGHTS, Skies of Arkadia, and many other titles. It’s truly an amazing lineup. Each character has his or her own unique vehicle, All-Star transformation (a powered up form), and voice samples, too.
No less impressive than the characters are the many tracks based around all those games. Remember how Crimson Dragon is basically an unofficial sequel to Panzer Dragoon? Well, Transformed has a lovely Panzer Dragoon stage, complete with distinctive dragon flying around. The Skies of Arkadia stage also looks quite stunning with its gigantic airships and caverns to race through. Let’s hope the rumors of an XBLA rerelease of that awesome RPG prove true. Naturally, each level plays music from its respective game – one of the Sonic tracks even plays a new instrumental mix of ‘Sonic – You Can Do Anything,’ the Japanese title track from Sonic CD.
Transformed has three single player modes, World Tour being the meatiest. Players will select events from a map, unlocking new events and pathways and they progress. On top of traditional races, you’ll encounter battle races in which you have to knock out other opponents, and various themed challenges. Early on, a Drift Challenge threatened to halt my progress. Nowhere in the game does it teach you to drift, as this sequel seems to assume we’ve all played the first game.
That’s pretty much my only complaint; the difficulty skews towards experienced players instead of normal ones. Make more than a single mistake and you’re almost guaranteed to lose a race. Did developer Sumo Digital forget that a huge part of Sonic’s fan base are kids? Still, if an event proves too challenging (as a couple of them have for me), you can always drop the difficulty down to Easy for that event. You won’t earn as many stars for it (used to unlock characters and events), but at least you can keep on racing.
While the single player portion of Transformed provides plenty of hours of fun (plus frustration if you go for the Expert Achievements/Trophies), the multiplayer should also give the game ample replay value. We had a blast with four-player split-screen, which sacrifices a bit of visual detail but none of the excitement. The online multiplayer will put your Xbox Live Gold subscription to good use too.
All told, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is easily one of the best kart racers of all time. The huge selection of characters and tracks will wow anyone who’s ever played a SEGA game, and educate the folks who haven’t. And every racing fan should appreciate the variety that land, air, and sea racing brings to the kart racing formula. If not for the sometimes annoying level of single-player challenge, Transformed would simply be the best kart racer ever. Still, at a retail price of $39.99, it remains a must-buy for anyone who cares for racing or SEGA in general.