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. 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 headfirst 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.