In a year in which I reviewed demanding motorsports simulations like F1 2012, and NASCAR The Game: Inside Line, with Forza Horizon thrown in for good measure, I can guarantee the toughest racing game I'll play is Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed.
That is no joke. It's simply one of the least-accessible cart racers I have ever played which, for a cart racer, is saying a ton. Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed pours on the fan service in the callbacks made by its character roster and the courses it offers, but it forgot that a video game, especially a racing game, is actually fun when it offers a challenge that accommodates a user's creativity and skill.
Plainly meant for existing fans, either of this racing series, or the games to which it pays tribute, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed acts like it can't be bothered to include any newcomers. I dead-ended well short of the stars necessary to unlock the final race of the career mode, which I'll assume involves Eggman. The game is simply undone by a breathtaking difficulty spike from babying C-class racing to a brutal B-class.I have no idea what it takes to make the podium in A-class.
My guess is it involves hitting every boost pad and sliding through every drift with perfect precision and turning perfectly in every corner, and sticking every jump with a flip or a barrel roll to pick up the boosts they deliver. This may be the law of the jungle in cart racing. But Transformed dictating perfection at intermediate difficulty makes it less of a racing game and more of a note-highway puzzle. It also incites controller-throwing frustration in all the events where you engaged your drift a microsecond too late and understeered into the wall.
The Sonic cart racing series has battled nonstop against the impression it copies Mario Kart After a year in which the much better Mario Kart 7 offered airborne and underwater portions of its course, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed gives you ... a car that turns into a plane and a boat. And at no point did I ever think to myself "alright, I'm in the plane now." As for the boat, I actively dreaded turning into that thing.
Cart racers are driven at top speed all the time, requiring minute adjustments to steering. The drift mechanism on the left trigger helps somewhat with this but I am no fan of manually engaging something that should be innate to racing physics. Drift is there in the water and air portions of Transformed but it is of no help, and the handling on these parts of the track is ultimately what makes this game so tough. There's a Nights Into Dreams track that is mostly flying; I think ninth was my best finish there in multiplayer.
For power-ups, you get the usual randomized selection of speed boosts and offensive blackjacks that demand use upon acquisition. There's a perceptible imbalance in the number of times All-Star, the invulnerable, super-speed mode, is awarded to AI racers (more often) than to you (rarely). You'll go two laps without any power-up interference from the bot racers. Then on the third, trying to salt away a podium finish, they will hunt your ass down and destroy it.
What surrounds the events in Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed is actually quite good and well considered. There's a leveling system for each of the 27 characters on the roster that, if the actual racing was more enjoyable, strongly supports replay value overall. Leveling up unlocks additional vehicle setups, though you'll get the slower ones first. More characters are acquired with stars in the career mode (and in completing all of the grand prix events offered.) Characters will acquire experience in any mode in which you race them, which allows you to grind in single races or grands prix at tougher difficulties to make yourself more competitive in the career modes.
Visually, the game is very well done, and Sega fans will enjoy all of the tributes these tracks and characters make to their favorite games. (Though I'm still wondering what the hell Danica Patrick is doing in this game. And I have to call this out: in certain events the game's voice mispronounces her name.) I didn't pick up on the game's claim that the vehicles actually handle differently—that is, a balanced racing setup for Metal Sonic behaves differently from the same setup for Wreck-It Ralph. But they are well conceived creations.
Despite so much information on the screen, thanks to dynamic terrain and multiple drivers, the framerate remains is rock solid throughout (this was reviewed on the Xbox 360). Online multiplayer likewise saw no lag or skips. The racing environment itself is very strongly illustrated, and how the course races on lap one is different from two and three. These changes are themed well, too. A Panzer Dragoon track featured dragons drifting across the course, destroying portions of it or setting obstacles for you to swerve around. Afterburner's course saw you zooming off a carrier deck and dodging smoldering wreckage in the water.
I still come back to the basic gameplay, though, in why I have to pan this game, and for all the variety of the courses they come up short in an important area: Shortcuts. The course layouts do not give you any meaningful shortcuts to get back in contention when you make a mistake. They function largely as alternate views of the course.
Furthermore, the shortcuts will also change just as the main course changes lap-to-lap. This is necessary for consistency's sake but it, combined with the shortcuts' lack of advantage, removes a key feature of arcade racing: winning with course knowledge. I felt forced to play Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed according to the way it wanted me to play, and it wasn't going to give me much help in figuring that out, either.
Ultimately, that makes the entire experience so exclusive that I just no longer want to play the game. It's a sweet love letter to those nostalgic for Sega's greatest hits from its Dreamcast days and before. For those who figured out how to race with the drift control in 2010's Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, fine, get a second opinion, play it. But for newcomers, especially to the gameplay of Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, I don't see any reward, nor any compelling reason for its existence.