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Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed review: Morphenomenal

Heidi Kemps

Kart racing games rank perhaps a notch above licensed cartoon platformers in the category of "assumed quality at first glance" – which is to say they don't rank highly at all. The only kart racer that a "serious" gamer will even give the time of day is the stalwart Mario Kart, and even that series has offered up some recent disappointments: Mario Kart Wii was utterly blasé, and Mario Kart 7, as fun as it is, squandered promising chances to deliver some much-needed retooling to the formula.

With such low expectations, it's much too easy to write off Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed as a cynical cash-in featuring a past-his-prime mascot. But I'm here to deliver an important message: if you do that, you will be depriving yourselves of what might be the best racer of its kind to come along in years, and that's no exaggeration.

Gallery: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (Gamescom 2012) | 22 Photos

That statement might not be as surprising to those who played the original Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing game – or really, anyone who knows of developer Sumo Digital's history with Sega in general and Sega racing games in particular. Many a blue-blooded Sega fan would gladly have Sumo Digital inducted as an unofficial Sega studio for their hard work in propagating the gospel of blue, blue skies through various modern incarnations of OutRun, Virtua Tennis, and Sega Superstars Tennis. Yes, they've done plenty of work outside Sega, but when you play Sumo's Sega-published titles, you can feel the love they have for the company and its legacy reflected in the games themselves.

And that's certainly one of the elements that makes Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed so good – the developers clearly had as much fun making the game as I did playing it. A company as storied as Sega has a lot of material to work with for a crossover, and Sumo has gleefully mined fanservice from almost every corner of Sega history for its latest racer. While some of the more obscure references from the previous game have been removed or replaced, it's hard to miss them too much when you see the new ways other classic Sega franchises have been represented. There are full courses based on fan favorites Panzer Dragoon, Burning Rangers, and Skies of Arcadia, racers from beloved action classics Shinobi, Golden Axe, and Alex Kidd, all manner of slick new remixes of classic themes from Sega music maestro Richard Jacques, and even a special original course and racer made specifically as representations of Sega's hardware history.

But here's the thing: even if you removed all the Sega references and made this a standard-issue kart racer, it would still hold up based on the strength of its gameplay and course design alone. The titular mechanic of transforming vehicles – something Mario Kart 7 hyped up as a big feature, but which ultimately contributed little to its formula – adds extra dimensions to the racing, often in ways you might not expect. Each vehicle mode – the standard road racer, the flying machine, and the speedboat – feels distinct in its controls and handling, and the courses are designed to make you learn how to get the most out of all of them. For example, vehicles in flight mode are slightly faster than they are on wheels, and certain routes might enable you to switch to flight earlier in the course than usual. However, unless you grasp how boosting works in flight mode (you have to dodge obstacles at the last second rather than trying to drift-boost), you won't really see the benefit play out.

The courses, too, are designed in such a way that the capabilities of each vehicle are well-utilized. Laps tend to be fairly lengthy, which has given the track designers freedom to implement lots of interesting, challenging gimmicks and themed elements that might not play as well in a shorter course. There are also some very clever hidden shortcuts and other benefits that you'll only find if you explore off the beaten path. Each lap is rarely the same experience, either, as dynamic events significantly alter courses from one lap to the next – pathways break apart and drop you into unseen corridors, dimensional rifts suck you in to face giant bosses, and aerial warfare erupts, blanketing the skies with dangerous minefields.

The Golden Axe themed-track, Golden Gauntlet, is a personal favorite, and it showcases the dynamism of the courses to its fullest. Parts of the course burn down as the race goes on, beasts rampage in the background, and your vehicle continually shifts forms as you glide across searing hot lava pits, soar through wide, rocky caverns and the mouths of monsters, and speed across castle pathways that become increasingly unstable.

All of this plays into a very important point: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a kart racer that rewards genuine skill to a degree most other games in the genre don't even approach. Yes, items can give you the upper hand (and it's disappointing that they aren't really Sega-themed this time around), but it's not so much the items themselves that make a break a victory – it's how they are used.

For example, there's and item called the Swarm that functions similarly to Mario Kart's much-loathed Blue Shell. Unlike the Blue Shell, however, the Swarm isn't completely unavoidable. Rather than simply taking out the lead player, it sets up a series of obstacles in their immediate path, which they can attempt to avoid (or destroy with their own item). A skilled player can pass a Swarm with little hindrance, though clever use of the item – like when the lead player is in a narrow throughway – makes evasion much more difficult. Other items behave in a similar fashion, and very little in Transformed feels unfair.

The racing mechanics also reward those who take the time to master them. Knowing how to use boosts, tricks, dodges, and advanced combinations thereof will grant you many more victories than any lucky item draws. You'll definitely need to learn these mechanics, too, should you want to complete the single-player modes, as things start to toughen up considerably on even the second highest difficulty level.

The racing alone is enough to carry Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, but there's also a surprising amount of content in this budget-priced package. There's the standard Grand Prix, single-race, and Time Trial modes, along with an array of unlockable racers and courses (including reversed courses). Each character even has their own unlockable vehicle modifications. The lengthy World Tour mode offers numerous types of races, as well as cleverly designed missions that teach some of the more advanced racing techniques. Multiplayer allows up to four players to compete locally in split-screen play (five in the Wii U version, which I wasn't able to test), but the real joy is hopping online with a gaggle of your racing pals and going to town.

The package isn't perfect, though. The 30 frames-per-second racing is kind of a bummer, though the elaborate visuals and character models no doubt necessitated the lower framerate. More annoying is the way your racer can get tripped up on the tracks. With such elaborate course designs, it can sometimes be easy to lose track of which way to go, or to get caught against an object that takes some effort to maneuver around (particularly in the planes). These hang-ups are a lot easier to avoid once you've run through the tracks several times and know what to expect, but those planning to scope out secrets can expect a few dead stops along the way.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed may not be on your must-play list, but it deserves to be. It offers a sizable amount of content all wrapped up and trimmed in excellent game design and lovingly rendered fanservice. By the time you've soared through an After Burner volley in Tails' flyer, speeded through the flaming pits of Golden Axe's fantasy realm as Wreck-It Ralph, or narrowly dodged a watery vortex on Vyse the Determined's steampunk jet ski, you'll likely find yourself won over. In short, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed should not be missed by anyone who truly values a fun, exceptionally well crafted racing game.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, provided by Sega.

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City. Her work has been seen on G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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