Racing games and buses seem to have a lot in common. Apart from being petrol powered, having four wheels and going brum - you wait for ages for a new one, and then three come along at once. We're not on about the serious F1s, Forzas and Gran Turismos here though, but the cute and colourful world of kart racers. We've had the creative conundrum that was Little Big Planet Karting, and the somewhat mediocre F1 Race Stars, but now its the turn of SEGA's sequel, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed to pull up to the grid, flashing its spangly neon lights. But can it live up to the lofty standards of its stellar forbearer, which is still one of our favourite games here at Everybody Plays.
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Much like the game that came before it, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a high-speed racing kart game, which sees you speeding round over-the-top tracks as a range of Sega characters from years gone by whilst pounding each other with crazy power-ups, from spiky Blowfish, to miniature cyclones that mess up your controls, to homing fireworks and more. The big difference this time is that the vehicles each character drives can transform if you pass through a certain gate, letting you soar through the skies as a plane, bounce over wakes as a boat and of course, speed along tarmac in a car. Comparisons to Mario Kart are pretty much inevitable in this genre, but with Sonic's heavier reliance on drifting - holding the left trigger down as you steer around a corner charges up a boost you can release to zoom past your opponents - means that it isn't just a carbon copy. And in our humble opinion, the first game was one of the best racing games ever to grace a console, so we had understandably high hopes for the sequel.
Rather than dividing things into a single-player or multiplayer mode, Sonic Transformed takes the somewhat brilliant step of blending the two together. Letting you and up to three friends play through any of the game's modes, whether it's the World Tour, Single Races, or one of the game's competitive multiplayer modes, the entire game can be played with a group of friends in tow. Of these, the World Tour mode is arguably the most substantial, and is where you'll likely spend most of your time, driving, flying and, er, boating your way through a set of five challenge islands. In each world you'll find a mixture of standard race events and more unusual missions to mix things up a bit - Drift Challenges, where you need to drift along red sections of track, earning bonus time as you go; Traffic Attack levels, where you'll be dodging maniac drivers as you zoom through checkpoints (much like a normal rush hour); and Sprint missions where you need to beat a certain character's best lap time - with plenty of others thrown in for good measure. Each level in World Tour can be played on one of three different difficulties - easy, medium and hard, which earn you one, two or three stars respectively. These stars are your key to opening up locked gates scattered throughout the worlds, with a certain number of stars being required to unlock each gate, letting you unlock new characters, stages, and progress to the next world - so it's just as well you can get most of the way on the easiest difficulty, earning a single star for each event you successfully complete.
But unfortunately, it's this stars system that's one of the game's biggest problems, as it limits what you can do in the game based on your ability. If you want to get all the way through the World Tour mode, and unlock all the characters, you'll need to collect an awful lot of stars - more, in fact, than you can collect by playing through on easy. Play through every stage on Medium, and you'll just about manage to unlock all the levels - but at least four characters will still be blocked off. Unfortunately, turning the difficulty up even further to earn more stars isn't really an option either, as when you turn the heat up Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed burns back. While Easy provides a firm challenge for newer players, and anyone bar seasoned kart game veterans will have their work cut out for them on Medium (although it's still likely do-able, especially as you only have to place in the top three in order to progress), on hard? Don't even go there. Seriously. Forget unlocking Gillius Thunderhead, Reala, Gum and the rather unusual AGES character - they're not worth it. Whereas you can scrape through Medium by coming third or higher in races, you need to be first on Hard - against opponents who rarely make mistakes - and all the other events have so strict a time limit, you can barely afford to make a single mistake before you're finished. And believe it or not, there's also a forth unlockable Expert difficulty beyond Hard...
Outside the World Tour mode, there's still plenty of things to see and do - although disappointingly, you won't earn extra stars for completing them. There's Grand Prix cups, which let you race through a series of four courses back to back, Time Attacks, where you try for the best lap time on a course, competing against some of the game's developers' ghosts, and Single Races, where you just race round a course of your choice. As with the World Tour mode, everything's playable in multiplayer co-op - but should you feel like settling the odd score, Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed has you covered too.
With five different competitive multiplayer options outside the World Tour mode, there's a decent selection of games on offer here, from standard races, to slightly more exotic affair. If you fancy something a little bit different, the last-man-standing Battle races, where you have a finite amount of health and each weapon that hits you deducts a chunk makes for some rather tense encounters, while Boost races, where power-ups are banned - meaning you'll have to make good use of the boost pads, drift round corners and perform tricks over jumps to speed into first place - offer another level of challenge. Last but not least, an old favourite from the previous game also returns in the form of the Capture the Chao mode, where you need to help some aliens kidnap an innocent little Chao by picking the smiley teardrop character up, and carrying him to the UFO to score a point - while your friends do their best to pinch him and take him to the UFO themselves.
Every time you or your friends finish a race as a character, the character you played as earns experience points, which will eventually cause them to level up - earning you a new 'mod' you can apply to that character. Being careful not to offer a specific advantage, the mods are instead used to tweak a car's performance, letting you favour speed, boosting or handling instead. So, if you're a big Crazy Taxi fan and want to play as BD Joe, but just can't handle his speed and comparatively poor handling, you can equip a handling mod to make him steer better, taking a small hit in speed to compensate, and balance the character to your whim.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed does so much right it's almost scary - four players in every mode imaginable, including online; oodles of stickers to work towards, and a pretty varied Career mode. Which makes it all the more upsetting that it does so much wrong too; it's just far, far too hard. What should have been a lengthy, absorbing and all encompassing career mode turns into an exercise in frustration when you start struggling for stars. As such, it's a very difficult game to recommend, unless you have plenty of friends to play in multiplayer with - although perhaps avoid the World Tour and make sure your opponents are on easy, lest you lose a friend or two.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360