Sunday 1 December 2013

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

Because I feel like writing an essay.

How we doing? Are we well? I'm back to complain about Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, because there are points to prove and potentially more than one person to please. You may remember its predecessor - a lovable-if-often-underwhelming escapade lacking in scope. Well good news - the trend continues!

You can sum up the SaASRT experience with a few handy dandy phrases, such as "NiGHTS has a voice" and "you can play as Danica Patrick". Perhaps you can start the journey with that all important question - "why won't they call it 'The House of the Dead'?", or why is Sonic the Hedgehog, a fictitious mammal known for using his legs, behind the wheel of a car? How does he get insured? Is he at least wearing a seat belt this time?

SaASRT is a Sumo Digital production, and another western-based, internet inspired attempt at depicting Sega's greatest moments. Nobody on the development team appears to have lived through those moments (too busy programming PlayStation sports games I guess), but experience and knowledge is overrated anyway.

The plus side is that SaASRT far exceeds the team's previous mouthful, "Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing" (itself being a decent enough game), as despite the stupid change in title, the emphasis has moved away from Sonic and pals and into the realms of general Sega material, as it should have been from the start. Sadly it brings some stupids along for the ride (and the brightly coloured critters still get more weight than others), but now that we're acknowledging Panzer Dragoon's existence while making a conscious effort to distance ourselves from Sonic Heroes, life has certainly changed for the better. The graphics have improved, the music is... more consistent, and the introduction of water and flight-based mechanics bring a dimension to the experience not seen since the fabulous Diddy Kong Racing. Curiously there are more monkeys in this one.

But there are questionable design choices literally waiting at every turn, so it falls to insane people like me to really rip a game like this apart. Though by no means a broken release (disregarding the Wii U version of course), SaASRT is fundamentally dated in terms of presentation - an exceedingly terrible (but thankfully, mutable) commentator, a limited set of character voice clips, animations which would be deemed poor ten years ago and the occasionally whack-job track design. We have before us, once again, a game which needed more testing - another Mario Kart derivative that fails to meet the standards of Mario Kart. Standards Nintendo set more than a decade ago.

So riddle me this, why does a game reliant on a sense of speed hamper itself with a 30FPS frame rate on consoles? Processing power is instead devoted to blinding background elements, much of which is lost in transit thanks to that unique feature of driving games - the need to observe the road ahead. Some turns are too tight for some characters - even the expert AI slams itself into walls and off cliffs, and four tracks are lazily lifted from the previous game with minimal changes. But never let it be said that the game doesn't play homage to its source material - wonky collision detection and dodgy physics can lead to vehicles falling through geometry - it's just like Sonic Adventure!

Nevertheless SaASRT is more than strong enough to stand up from a gameplay perspective. Clearly it lacks the ambition to take on Mario Kart, but it's a pleasant second choice, and its art design does its job too. What matters in SaASRT is how it deals with the world of Sega - a company that is currently but a shadow of its former self, and owns a string of intellectual properties which have remained static for a decade or more.

To me, SaASRT (much like its predecessor) makes very little sense either on paper or on practise - with the exception of non-Sega properties (and PC exclusives not found in this version), the "newest" characters represented in this package date from 2001 - no Sega titles released in the last ten years are adequately celebrated at all, and much of the 1980s is equally sidelined. And while Skies of Arcadia is a perfectly fine RPG, one must question its relevance in 2012/13 - is it memorable outside of the Sega community? Does this really sum up Sega's greatness?

Before you ask, yes, it's the terrible form of NiGHTS from the terrible Journey of Dreams, who, alongside the less terrible depiction of Reala, stands as the sole representative of the Sega Saturn. Alex Kidd is a disgrace, and the likes of Amy, MeeMee, Pudding and Gum seem to exist solely to court the female vote, again neglecting the idea of influential characters in Sega history. Recolour extraordinaire Shadow the Hedgehog takes up a character slot while former mascot and living legend Opa-Opa has been dropped for undisclosed reasons. The justice is draw-dropping, but I suppose there's always Wreck-it-Ralph! Because he adds so much!

Of the characters that do remain, Ulala fails to receive new dialogue, but it's alright - she turns up in one of Pudding's voice clips instead, because ears are a nonsense as far as Sumo Digital are concerned. Truthfully the entire cast lack personality - Gilius Thunderhead spends his days referencing Golden Axe in a rather strange fashion (can you make light of Death Adder? I thought he killed your brother and hundreds of others), and everyone takes the form of an emotionless robot dropped from another planet. Perhaps most awkward, however, is the interpretation of Jet Set Radio's Gum - a mostly silent and troubled young lady from Japan is turned into an all American teenage... thing who attacks with deadly love hearts. Not only does it not make sense at all, there's not a spray paint can in sight - explain that one!

Sumo Digital could do with playing quite a few of these Dreamcast games, although a consultation with their own projects could prove beneficial too, as OutRun references are spread very thin (and unfortunately, onto extra DLC purchases). In fact, many big Sega franchises appear to be missing entirely, be it Virtua Fighter, Phantasy Star, Shining, Yakuza, Valkyria Chronicles, Sakura Taisen or Hatsune Miku, and predictably, despite proudly displaying Sonic's name on the box, very little is done to acknowledge the hedgehog's glorious past. Richard Jacques instead treats us to the tunes of Sonic R. Please don't.

But of course, there is at least one character willing to offset the troubles - an amalgamation of Sega concepts rolled into a creature known as AGES. Daytona USA Hornet by day, Dreamcast controller by night (complete with VMU squeals and blue PAL spiral), it's the best use of polygons in more than a decade, and is superior, hands down, to most of the remaining cast combined.

But Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed will also be but judged on its unwillingness to innovate and improve too. Despite the shiny coat of paint, this is much the same game I played ten years ago, yet curiously seems to be aimed at consumers with higher standards. What self-respecting Sega Dreamcast owner would accept a poor man's Mario Kart? It's a disastrous misunderstanding of the Sega mentality, and newcomers will be forever flummoxed by the selection of B-list gaming celebrities and scenery (something exacerbated on PC, I should add).

No doubt this game is faulty, but it's hardly an unexpected result. If you didn't embrace those key Sega years at the time you'll rightly struggle to make a game out of them - Sumo Digital have proved this point three times now, but their actions merely follow the modern trends of others - reaping the past while avoiding the future. It is a feeling of living on borrowed time - one day Sega will be forced to leave their Dreamcast and Mega Drive nostalgia behind in favour of new ventures, and that day might be glorious. But today is not that day.

Still, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is worth picking up if it's cheap. Might want to brush up on your Sega knowledge beforehand though.


  1. So you say that I think it is a good game only because I am not a die hard Sega fan who know about their past creations and games? I must say that even on B-list tracks and characters they made very good game for a racing game on it's own but as with many of their later games it is just not what Sega is meant to be. Right?

    I must say that I really enjoyed this game however, mostly when I quit the medicines to become more sharp thinking to get me some diamond cups!

  2. Hey Black Squirrel! Where has the tORP site gone?! Loved coming back to it to read your analysis of pirate games!


  3. Almost two years later I still miss tORP