It's always the way, isn't it. You spend ages coming up with an idea - researching it, developing it, and testing every single part, only for someone to come along and do it a whole lot better on their very first try. While it may not have been the most original of concepts, Sonic & SEGA All Stars Racing hit the ground running (or at least, drifting), and stole the karting crown from Mario and co while they weren't even looking.
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Sticking a load of SEGA characters in their own themed karts to race around tracks based on SEGA games from years gone by, with power ups to collect, drifts that give you boosts, and four-player split-screen, this was Mario Kart in all but name - but somewhere under the surface, there was something about Sonic All Stars Racing that clicked in a way that Mario never did. Easy to pick up and play, yet almost perfectly balanced, with power-ups that had been tweaked to within an inch of their life to ensure multiplayer races always stayed close, and could go either way until the very end, the game quickly became one of the multiplayer staples at Everybody Plays HQ - and seemingly, it was a hit with everyone else, too. Retaining a £20+ price tag, even when pre-owned - always the sign of a hit - the game was a smash hit at retail, as people around the world discovered the Sonic could race just as well as Mario ever could. And now, there's a sequel on the way too.
So, it was with almost uncontrolled excitement that we turned up in London for a recent event put on by SEGA, where we'd finally be able to go hands-on with the new, even more awkwardly named game, Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed. If you've been following the site for a while, you'll know that we've been rather excitable when it comes to this one - and with good reason; after all, it's a sequel to one of our favourite games - but we were also a little bit concerned. The original game got the whole kart racing thing so utterly right, it was hard to imagine how a sequel could possibly better it - especially as the formula had been changed. Gone was the reliance on karts, replaced instead by a three pronged attack, where you'd race in a transforming vehicle, which could change into a boat, plane, or car on a whim! Not only that, but the levels would transform too! Had SEGA gone mad with power? Had Sonic set his sights too high? The answer, we're pleased to say, is a resounding no. Although we didn't think it was possible, Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed is looking even better than we'd dared dream.
However, rather than just letting us get our hands on the game and play to our heart's content, there was a bit of a twist here. Rather than taking us straight to a venue and shoving a pad in our hands (after all, that would be too easy), SEGA instead decided to make us earn our time with the game, by trying to scare the crap out of us/soak us first. Loading us into a number of "Rib boats" on the River Thames - essentially, a rather exposed dinghy with a massive engine - the plan was seemingly to show us exactly how Sonic would feel, while he's bouncing along the waves in his boat. Only a) Sonic isn't real, b) the water in the game is a lot cleaner than the Thames, and c) Sonic has a seat that's at least a little bit softer than concrete.
After just about managing to clamber into the boat without falling head-first into the Thames, and gingerly taking our seat, gripping the metal bar in front of us for dear life, we realised that somehow, we'd managed to end up in the same boat as the game's design director - a font of all knowledge who'd be able to answer our questions, and could surely put our mind at rest. But then, we set off. Fast. Funnily enough, speeding down the Thames, swerving manically, in a boat that seems to feel as though it'd somehow be more at home in the air isn't the best of places to attempt to conduct an interview, even if it was somewhat fitting. In between mouthfuls of water that were coming into the boat (it's surprisingly salty), we yelled off our questions in the hope of getting an answer. "WILL IT DO SPLIT-SCREEN MULTIPLAYER ONLINE"? "YES" came the reply. "HOW ABOUT THE POWER UPS? I HEARD YOU HAVE TO EARN THEM NOW, RATHER THAN GET GIVEN THEM IF YOU'RE DOING TERRIBLY. I WAS WORRIED THAT'D LEAVE RUBBISH PLAYERS STUCK AT THE BACK." "IT'S OK, WE'VE CHANGED IT BACK NOW, TO MAKE SURE IT'S BALANCED". "OOF!". The oof was us, leaving our seat as the boat lept out the water as it hit a particularly large wake, before returning to earth (or water) hard. It certainly didn't look this painful when James Bond did it. "DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO MAKE WATER WORK PROPERLY IN A GAME?" the design director offered. No, we didn't. But they seem to have done a pretty good job to us.
Having just about survived our ordeal (although our back's still aching a few days later - we had fun nonetheless), it was off to get some hands-on with Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed. First off, the Wii U. Having recently been confirmed as a Wii U launch title, we picked up the console's tablet-like GamePad with bated breath. Playing as Sonic (who else) on a track based around the GameCube/PS2/Xbox title Sonic Heroes, we were immediately in familiar territory. Bright colours, blue skies, and a host of SEGA characters vying for first place, with some well placed pick-ups just begging to be used. In fact, bar the transforming mechanic, the power-ups are one of the things that have changed the most from the first game. "We wanted to get as far away from green and red shells as possible", the design director told us - and got away they have, going with a far more unconventional list of weapons. As an example, instead of a shield, you now have a baseball glove, which catches anything people throw at you - and lets you chuck it back at them. Instead of mines, you have a puffer fish, which inflates as your rivals draw near, while along with a normal boost, there's also a hot rod engine, which straps itself to the back of your vehicle, and powers you forwards, before exploding. Drop it at the right time, and you can double it up as a weapon, as it explodes, takes out your rivals, and gives you an extra power boost.
On the Wii U, the game uses the GamePad's screen as you may imagine, turning it into a surprisingly crisp map - but far from being a spurious extra, it's actually incredibly useful here. With many of the weapons also able to fire backwards, the ability to see exactly where your enemies are at all times is a bonus that's not to be sniffed at, letting you chuck a snowball backwards just as your rival's trying to nip past. But that's not all. Instead of a homing rocket, one of your other weapons is an RC car, which zips along, chasing down the nearest opponent, and explodes, slowing them down - on the Wii U, you can watch your car hit its target thanks to a cool little picture-in-picture display that pops-up on the GamePad's screen. Lift the GamePad up, and you can even use it as a rear view mirror! Meanwhile, the controller's motion sensors let you use it exactly as you would a Wii Remote, tilting to steer round the bends like a virtual steering wheel. It's really rather cool.
As there was only a single course on display on the Wii U, the rest of our evening was spent in the company of the PS3, on the game's online multiplayer mode. As we'd managed to squeeze out of the design director during our time on the boat, one of the biggest announcements to come out of the event was that Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed will feature a split-screen online mode - a feature that we're incredibly keen to see in more games, but that disappointingly few seem to have. Letting you have up to four friends on a console at your house, and then take your game online, playing against up to six other people (for a maximum of ten), split-screen online brings the best of online and split-screen multiplayer together in a practically perfect way, letting groups of friends play together from across the globe. And it was this that we got to try out on the night.
On the PS3, a much more finished build, there were many, many more tracks available - and more characters too. While Sonic was well represented with Sonic, Tails, Amy, Dr Robotnik, Knuckles and Shadow showing their faces, other, less well known SEGA games got a look in too, with Gilius, from Golden Axe, Vyse, from the much-loved and desperately in need of a sequel Dreamcast role-playing game, Skies of Arcadia, and NiGHTS from, well, NiGHTS. Picking up a controller, ready to take on seven other people, we chose our character, and prepared for battle.
First up was a level based on Afterburner, an old, Top Gun influenced game that put you in the seat of an F-14 Tomcat. The race began on the deck of an aircraft carrier, with your vehicle in its car form, as you sped down the deck, over several rows of boost pads (to make it feel like you're taking off), before going through a giant, blue ring, which transformed you into a plane. Providing a visual cue that there's a change coming, you quickly learn to look out for the blue rings, as the controls are subtly different for each form. Again, though, it's not as different as you may imagine - even though the plane can fly in four directions rather than the car and boat's two, there's still enough similarity that the changeover doesn't grate as much as you'd expect. In the air, things take on a slightly different tone - with the way illustrated by boost gates that you can fly through, and collections of power ups, which left us feeling a little bit cautious. Whilst on the ground, figuring out where you have to go is fairly straight forward, in the air, there's a lot more freedom - and possibly too much so, as there's certainly plenty space to get lost, as our writer, Sarah, happily demonstrated, falling from first to seventh when the flying section began. Luckily, though, the team at Sumo Digital have a plan for that, too - searching through the menu, we came across a "Flight Assist" option, which not only draws a line on screen for you to follow, to ensure you don't get lost, but also helps you stick to it. As the design director told us, "We've spent a lot of time trying to make this as easy as possible for families and kids to play". And it shows.
Back to the game - having got the hang of the flight controls, swooped through a few boost gates, and skimmed the surface of the water, we shot back up into the sky again, before flying down towards the carrier's deck, through a blue hoop that turns us back into a car, ready for a race around the carrier's deck. Rounding the corner, and boosting forwards, we dropping down a step towards the water. Drop down another one, and through another blue hoop, and we transformed into a boat, ready to take on the ocean waves. Again, the controls are subtly different here, but with enough similarity that it doesn't feel awkward. While your boat takes slightly longer to steer, it's still responsive enough that you can take the split second decisions you need with ease, and bobbing along on the ocean wave is as much fun as either of the other two forms.
With lots of action going on - planes flying, carriers carving waves through the ocean, and lots of transformations that fitted in with the level perfectly, the After Burner level was arguably our favourite of the evening - but the Skies of Arcadia level showed us something we hadn't seen before. You see, it's not just the vehicles that transform here, but the whole stages themselves. Set on a collection of floating islands that appeared to be under attack, the first lap was mostly land based, as we whizzed through a small village, hopped over a bridge, and rounded the island. Heading into the second lap, we turned round a corner to see an island collapse, and passed through a hoop to transform to a plane, before landing again and continuing much as before, as bits of the island fell apart. On the third lap, so much of the island had fallen away that you had to spend the entire level as a plane - and not only that, it was an entirely different course. With tunnels to explore, branching paths asking you to make a split second decision, and new routes that opened up, the third level was like nothing that had come before it. As the levels change, they change in every way possible, making memorising the course that much more difficult, keeping your heart racing - and meaning you never really know what's lying around the next corner.
And even though we didn't get to play anything outside of the multiplayer mode, there was enough mentioned about the single player to whet our appetites almost as much as the time on the boat wet our face. The entire game will be playable in split-screen co-op, including the Grand Prix mode, and the World Tour, which sees the return of the popular challenges from the last game. Asking you to drift through a certain number of hoops, hit a character with a weapon a certain number of times, or squish enemies whilst rolling on top of a giant egg, the mission mode provided some much needed variety - and this time, it's playable entirely in co-op. And much to the relief of the less gaming able other halves out there, when racing in co-op mode, only the player who finishes highest counts. Better still, it's possible to trade weapons with your co-op partner, giving them a much needed boost, or baseball glove, just in the nick of time.
And there's so much more that we saw mere glimmers of at the event that we're dying to learn more about. There are 132 "Mods" to unlock, which tweak the handling of your vehicle to suit your racing style, and over 100 stickers - an in game form of achievements that unlock when you do certain things in the game - one we unlocked was for detonating the hot rod engine at the very last second. What's more, the Wii U version will be coming with all manner of exclusive minigames that we've yet to see - including the return in spiritual form of Bulldog from Project Gotham Racing 4. Effectively tag, with a load of cars, one player gets to play as Shinobi, chasing the other players down - if they catch you, you turn into a ninja, and help hunt down the last straggler. What's more, the Wii U version will allow for five player split-screen, with a fifth player using the Wii U GamePad!
On the way down to the event, we'd made a list of all the things we'd love to see from Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed - and when we left, we couldn't help but wonder if SEGA had been tracking us for all these years and taking notes of what we were thinking. Almost everything we could ever have hoped for is in the game - split-screen online multiplayer, full co-op throughout the entire game, and a whole load of new features, weapons, and characters that come together to make a game that feels every bit as accessible and well balanced as before. In fact, the only concern we've really got is how the various unlockable mods will affect the game, especially taking newcomers into account, who won't have access to any of the mods more experienced players will have earnt - but having seen how well the rest of the game's been handled, we're sure it'll all work out fine.
We thought karting games couldn't get much better than Sonic and SEGA All Stars Racing, but Transformed looks set to prove us wrong.