Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Preview: Better Than A Blue Shell

How is this game different from Mario Kart? Besides starring Sonic and featuring a Billy Hatcher level. That was the key question during a recent hands-on with 2010's Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.

What Is It?
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a kart-racing game shaped by the mold of the Mario Kart series, with at least one twist. It stars a Sega pantheon that includes Ai Ai from Monkey Ball, Billy Hatcher from Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, as well as Sonic cast members such as Dr. Eggman, Tails, Amy Rose and... Sonic. The characters compete in races around tracks strewn with random speed and combat power-ups. The game is developed by Sumo Digital, the studio behind last year's Sega Superstars Tennis. It's set for a PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii and DS release.

What We Saw
I watched the game's producer perform one race. Then I took the wheel on the Billy Hatcher track. I drove through it, dodging giant rolling eggs, power-sliding and coming from behind to win.

How Far Along Is It?
The game is set for an early 2010 release but already looks polished graphically. Sega could release a demo of the track I played now and people would be satisfied with the quality already achieved by the development team.

What Needs Improvement?
The Announcer: If you're going to have all this fun with Sega's colorful cast of characters, why have a plain announcer? Get the guy who used to scream Sega in the old Genesis TV commercials. Or how about Ryo Hazuki, the lead character of Shenmue? Instead, it sounds like we're just getting a flat, regular voice to announce the races.

The Originality: Sega isn't showing much about this game that makes it feel like a necessary purchase for those who don't car about Sega characters and/or are satisfied by Mario Kart and its already-released imitators.

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Preview: Better Than A Blue Shell

What Should Stay The Same?
The Graphics: In the age of Unreal technology, it's still the bright colorful high-definition mascot games that can look the most spectacular. Blue skies, bright colors and more abstract — simpler — character and level design allow Banjo Kazooie and Sonic games to look magnificent on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. This game already looks great, as the screens released show.

The Mixed Vehicles: Tails gets a plane. Dr. Eggman gets a big-wheeled truck. Amy Rose gets a roadster. Each characters gets just one vehicle, which is disappointing compared to, say, Diddy Kong Racing on the Nintendo 64, which allowed each character to be in car, plane or hovercraft. But it was fun to see a race with characters all in vehicles that defined them. Hopefully the rest of the roster will commandeer even more exotic vehicles. (Unfortunately, I was told that Sega's relatively more realistic racing series won't cross over into this one. So no Daytona cars in this game, it seems.)

The Blue Shell Alternatives: And now for the answer to the question at the top of this post. I asked what was different from the Mario Kart formula, and I was told that the key new thing in this game is the All-Star move. Mario Kart's ultimate weapon may be the spiky blue shell that targets and tumbles whoever is racing in first place. This game's ultimate weapons are wilder. Each character in Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing has a super move that they can earn as a random power-up as they drive through the collectibles littered on the track. So, instead of collecting a speed boost or mine, a player controlling Sonic might gain the ability to race ahead as Super Sonic. The monkey from Samba de Amigo will start a conga line that nearby racers fall into. Amy Rose will start singing a love song while squashing other racers with a giant hammer. Ai Ai will summon fellow monkeys in balls to steamroll the track.

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing Preview: Better Than A Blue Shell

Final Thoughts
While I must confess ignorance of Sonic's own racing series, I can say that the new game feels derivative of what the kart-racing genre has long established. It would have been nice to see more of a gameplay tweak. But with such a crowd-pleasing formula already set and such a rich cast of characters committed to this race, there's probably enough here already that will excite gamers.

If you want more Sega in your Mario Kart, keep an eye on how this one develops.