Monday, 23 May 2011

Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing

Hurray big images

I saw Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing come and go and I didn't really pay all that much attention to it. Once upon a time I'd happily claim I was a big fan of both parties, but this release just struck me as some sort of uninspiring cash-in. The poor man's Mario Kart, which just happened to be priced higher. But opinions can change when you get 4.3GB worth of PC game for free.. right?

Let's get the basics out of the way with first. Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing, as a concept, is half baked. There are many odd decisions, possibly caused by the marketing department getting in the way of the qualified game designers, and plenty flat-out bad choices. But it's not a flat-out bad game. Much of today's rant will be focused solely on the design of this game, the ideas put into it and the concepts tossed around at Sumo Digital HQ before it went to market.

Conceptually, Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing is a bad idea. I personally would never have approved it in its current state. I certainly wouldn't have given it that name as it blatantly exists to drum up cash, and I can't stand Sonic cash-ins. That's why I avoid them.

The other example is "Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection". Nothing to do with Sonic aside from the odd Sonic game included in the collection. It's not right, and thankfully Sega of Europe understood this (though it didn't stop them from allowing the same set of games to be released AGAIN). Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing is different in that it has a lot to do with Sonic - too much, in fact, and the series, despite having probably more bad books in its library than good ones, overshadows... well... pretty much every other Sega franchise ever. Doesn't seem fair to me. What makes Sonic special?

So predictably it troubles me that we're happy to shove Big the Cat as a top-class representation of character brilliance while we're also happy to neglect thirty years of A-list non-Sonic games, many of which were groundbreaking racing games. No OutRun, no Daytona USA, no Sega Rally, no Virtua Racing - it's a very shallow pool of "Sega All Stars". Now granted, I suspect a Lancia Delta HF Integrale would be a little out of place racing against brightly coloured rodents, but don't sit there and tell me it wouldn't be amazing. It's a Lancia Delta HF Integrale. It won the World Rally Championship five times. What has Shadow the Hedgehog won apart from an extreme volume of dislike from people like me?

Of course, SaSASR is aimed at "kids", and even though Sumo Digital felt the need to stick in characters and franchises that kids can't really relate to, I will admit that the package isn't really classy enough for the grown-up racers we know and love. The Daytona USA Hornet deserves better than to be blotted out by Sonic and pals, whereas I coudln't care less about the fate of Billy Hatcher. It wouldn't have a similarly sized platform and it would just be embarrassing to Daytona USA fans. Had everything had equal footing (i.e. it was "Sega All Stars Racing" sans the Sonic) it might have been worthwhile. But that apparently wouldn't sell.

Once upon a time Sega were industry leaders of the racing genre, yet Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing opts for being a Mario Kart clone, a Nintendo invention. Not a huge crime, but maybe a better solution would have been to come up with a new style of racing. One that potentially bettered Nintendo like the good old days.

If Sonic Team were silenced and what's left of Sega AM2 were in charge, this could be the greatest thing since sliced bread. As it is, it's, for lack of a better word, cheesy and predictable, managing to be ever so slightly worse than Mario Kart in almost every way. There's nothing wrong with a Mario Kart clone if it's clever, but this one isn't all that clever, it is just a bog standard racer with few original ideas of its own.

The overwhelmingly tedious aspect about this game is that it's not balanced when it comes to the lineup of Sega All Stars. If it were up to me, it would be along the lines of "one character per series, one level per series", possibly not having franchises represented by levels AND characters (again, there's thirty years of history here so this shouldn't be an issue). That way at least they could have but Segata Sanshiro like originally planned and not have to struggle designing a stage aroumd him. They could import some stuff from Scud Race instead, whose "characters" include a Ferrari F40 - not really suitable for a game like this.

But Sumo Digital decided Sonic and pals should literally take up half the game, prompting the question as to whether this was originally intended to be a Sonic racer. Slightly well known games such as Samba de Amigo and Super Monkey Ball get some levels, as do games that really don't deserve them such as Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg (again remind me why we should care about this one) and Jet Set Radio Future (yes Future - the less popular one). Again, not an issue if there was only one level for each franchise, but there's three or four for each, with Sonic having about nine or ten in total.

Many of the series represented, whether it be Shenmue, Space Channel 5, Virtua Fighter, Chu Chu Rocket, Alex Kidd, Fantasy Zone, Crazy Taxi or Bonanza Bros. get nothing in terms of levels. Furthermore out of the nine-or-so Sonic stages, there are only three "themes" - the rest recycle content, from graphics to music, just like in the Mario Kart days of old. You can't blame a lack of ideas on this, just like you can't blame a lack of space when so much is devoted to the useless commentator (which can be turned off, just as a note).

However, on the gameplay front things are much better. In fact, Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing probably beats Mario Kart on the basis that it keeps things fair. There are no flying blue shell alternatives here, and the tracks are very solid and often well designed, if a little dull after a seeing their art packages a third time. As far as track design goes, it's a bit behind what Nintendo flush out, but to be fair they've had more practice. SaSASR is also an easier game to get the hang of and I prefer its drifting mechanism to Nintendo's.

Some of the powerups are questionable mind you. There's a weapon in which you fire green boxing gloves vaguely in the direction of players, bouncing off walls if they miss. They're essentially identical to the green shells in Mario Kart. Come on guys, try harder. There's probably a long-ish list of similar features between the two series and it's a matter of personal choice if you regard the act of blatent copying a good thing or a bad thing. They are, after all, copying from the best.

Each character has their own special power, usually triggered if near the back of the pack. Essentially these act as your bullet bill powerups, or ye olde wingless blue shells from Mario Kart 64. The only thing that bothers me about them is that they cause the music to change for everyone. Amy's theme from Sonic Adventure has always been horrible and I'd like to forget it. It otherwise makes sure to let the winners win and the losers lose, which although isn't good for players without skill is at least better than having games won by chance, and acts as an incentive to try harder than give up entirely.

Despite it being an "average" 2010 release running on what I would deem an above average 2010 computer, the PC SaSASR can't cope on this machine if the graphical settings are set past low, and thus backs up my opinion that PC gaming is a stupid idea. It's punishment for not building a PC from scratch, but the only thing that really suffers is the PC gaming industry as a whole because even though it's aimed at the average man, the average man would not be able to run it properly. This game is catering for an audience that does not exist.

In fact, that average man would be better off with the Xbox 360 version, not just to avoid 1024x768 shots of blurry textures, but because these sorts of games work better on a console anyway (and the 360 version has Banjo from Banjo-Kazooie fame). The PC port exists to drum up cash, and it annoys me because I know the game will be prettier and more stable for me elsewhere. Again, a game aimed at kids will prompt their parents to sort out computer specs, and unless said parents have had a life in computing, custom made PCs with high end specs for low end prices aren't going to happen. A console you can get off the shelf suits all parties.

You can hear the war sirens of the hardcore PC gamers as they travel to dispute this!

That being said if I wanted to I could easily bring the graphics up to "Wii level" so at least we're beating one of the three. It's still a pretty game even on the lowest of settings, though there's a good chance a lot of it was sped up by importing content from the GameCube/Xbox games of yesteryear. Mind you, the same applies to Mario Kart (it might actually be worse there - I'm not sure if the model for Mario has changed much in the last ten years). A highlight for me was the Samba de Amigo levels. Don't really care for the series but it's a great example of how it might transfer to a racing game.

Politics plays a dastardly role in this game, though don't worry, it doesn't have Nick Clegg for you to hate on for one reason last November. SaSASR decided to represent Sega's great The House of the Dead series. Problem is, it refuses to call the settings "The House of the Dead", opting instead for "Curien Mansion", the actual name of said house occupied by said dead.

This feels like an attempt to edge around stupid ESRB rating requirements or fear of "death", and if it's a franchise needs tweaking to survive, perhaps fewer levels and characters should be based on it. We'd have a higher chance of overlooking this flaw if it didn't play a pivotal role in the world, just like we'd be able to overlook Sonic and the fact he doesn't need to drive a car.

The majority of the "Sega" cast are unlockable, seemingly thrown in as an afterthought, which means you have to endure a bit more Amy, Shadow and Big than one might want. You also have to unlock music. Yes, you have to play through a large chunk of this game to curb some of the repetition. I kid you not. Many of the characters are needlessly cocky in the way they jump about on their cars and say stupid stuff, but it's a far quieter game than I expected if the commentator is turned off. Also less polished than average Mario Kart title. There's lots of problems but I expected worse.

I'd like to say I was a fan of the music but I can't say it's more than so-so. Samba de Amigo and Jet Set Radio Future have good tracks because both games were often centred around audio. But the rest is bland and forgettable, if not lifted from other games. Tails' voice is horrible. Shadow grows more intolerable every time he weeds his way back on screen, but at least AiAi doesn't spend the game screaming. I can't really fault this game for the faults of other games but somebody has to crush the idea of recycled content. It's lazy.

Overall this isn't a game to completely dislike, but it is a game to question. It's not so much "Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing" as it is "Sonic & Selected Sega Characters Based on the Sales Trends of the Last Ten Years and a Few to Please the Fans Racing", but even though many of us could claim to be able to do a better job designing it, it's not as bad you may think. In fact I'd welcome a sequel if they addressed the above points, and decided whether to go with Sonic or Sega (as opposed to Sonic AND Sega). It's also probably a very nice arcade game, just not a great PC one (though I should stress it's not a case where you can't play it on a keyboard).

So. Don't pay full price for it (though you'd be hard-pressed to these days) and avoid lesser versions. I suppose you could class it as a great "budget racer" but I'd always go for Mario Kart Wii if the option was there.

2 comments:

  1. SaSASR is a game I bought right at launch. It was fun. The game has a better sense of speed than Mario Kart once you get the hang on the controls. Also, the vehicle tiers are much more fair (albeit, they're there but not as bad).

    Try playing Mario Kart Wii online and you'll see the karts are vastly underpowered. Might as well rename the game Mario Bike Wii. SaSASR was much more fun online.

    You're right the game is derivative but you have to give Sumo Digital credit since they're probably the only studio that's trying to resurrect some Sega nostalgia. The game's childish, yes, but I'd rather play a colorful game than a depressing one.

    Sega would rather publish games like Captain America and Total War and take credit for them instead of reviving classics like Daytona USA. I'd rather have a new Daytona, but SaSASR was a good diversion.

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  2. FYI, it's called "Curien Mansion" because it would be banned from Germany otherwise.

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