Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing
Considering the success Nintendo have had farming their characters out across various games and genres over the past two decades and more, it’s surprising that it has taken Sega so long to follow suit. Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing is Sega’s own equivalent to Mario Kart; there is a fairly impressive amount of content, with 20 Sega characters and 24 tracks themed around classic Sega games, as well as a host of challenges and online multiplayer, and with very little direct competition as yet on the PlayStation 3 it certainly has an advantage being the first to fill this particular niche.
Players familiar with Sega’s OutRun games will quickly feel comfortable with Sega Racing – it employs the same drift mechanic of its Ferrari-themed cousin, which is no surprise seeing as developers Sumo Digital were also responsible for the last few OutRun instalments. In Sega Racing, boosting is very important – this can be achieved by drifting, hitting turbo pads, performing mid-air stunts or getting the timing right on the starting grid. Boosting soon becomes second nature, and the best players will learn where to drift on each track to get the crucial microsecond advantage.
The 24 race tracks take their cues from various Sega games, from Sonic the Hedgehog through lesser-known titles like the GameCube’s Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, as well as the likes of The House of the Dead and Samba Di Amigo. Stylistically Sumo have got the look and themes spot-on, and for longtime Sega fans, it raises a wry smile to race as Space Channel 5‘s Ulala, Alex Kidd or cult hero and Shenmue star Ryo Hazuki. Visually, it’s colourful, striking and one of the game’s strongest aspects. Each character and their vehicle comes with stats which specify their strengths, although in truth the difference between most racers seems so minimal that it doesn’t make a lot of difference.
The track design varies from inspired to middling, and the best ones being those which make use of their theme or their parent game’s quirks. Avoiding traffic while speeding around the Jet Set Radio courses is excellent and evokes memories of Mario Kart 64‘s Mushroom City, while the Samba tracks are brilliant fun and suitably psychadelic. Super Monkey Ball‘s courses tend to be a little cheap, relying on lots of sheer drops and obstacles to squash competitors, and Curien Mansion has a proliferation of obstacles around the course which can border on being annoying. On the whole though, while there may not be any stand-out classic tracks such as Mario Kart‘s Rainbow Road or Crash Team Racing‘s Polar Pass, the course design is pretty solid and the references to Sega games of yore help make up for any grumbles.
Once the six offline championships have been conquered, there are also a staggering sixty-four challenges to be attempted. These range from the typical likes of beating a certain course within the time limit to collecting all the gold coins, avoiding smashing vases and winning mini-championships. The reward for completing such challenges (aside from the obvious Trophies) is that for every event participated in the player earns points, and these points can be spent on additional drivers and music tracks from the main menu. Given the proliferation of Sonic characters, it’s nice to have the chance to purchase more obscure racers such as the Bonanza Bros., ChuChus or Virtua Fighter‘s Jacky and Akira.
Lastly, players can take the game online in both time trials and single races. In time trials all scores are posted to worldwide leaderboards, and Sumo Digital’s fastest time ghost appears on your track, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately when racing against others online you can only participate in single races which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for some custom championships, but races are for up to eight competitors and are generally lag-free. The host is able to customise the race track, number of AI racers, power-ups, and so on, so it’s a pretty flexible system and there’s almost certainly more value here than in the main game, and there are always plenty of games taking place at any time of day.
Technically speaking, Sega Racing is pretty tight. The frame rate sits at 30fps and while it does sometimes slip up when things get busy online or off, it’s never particularly serious or recurrent. The visuals are very nice, bright and colourful, and Sumo have done a really excellent job of capturing the look and art style of these characters and the themed levels. Loading times are frequent but not offensively long, and connecting online and finding games is generally quick and painless. All told, it’s a very competent game technically, and delivers one of the fastest and smoothest kart racers yet seen.
The weapons themselves suffer from a little unbalancing, and it’s something that only really becomes apparent after several hours’ play. Part of the problem is particularly noticeable online – if someone is racing out ahead of the pack, there’s only really one inaccurate weapon which can catch them, and the rest of the racers are too busy battling one another to have any hope of catching up. As such, it’s a bit of a shame that the weapons aren’t slightly altered to allow racers to catch up from a long distance back, or the rubber banding a little more generous to give those further back more of a chance. Some weapons border on being useless, and it has that uncomfortable quirk of only giving the racer good weapons if they’re doing poorly.
There’s a lot going for Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing, and fans of the Mario Kart ilk would be wise to check it out. It feels a little lightweight given that most of its content can be played within two or three hours, but the online modes are perpetually enjoyable and unlocking everything will require a moderate time investment. Sega Racing may never quite hit the heights enjoyed by the Mario Karts or Crash Team Racing, but it’s an enjoyable game which lays some solid foundations for future iterations. If Sega can plumb the depths of their extensive back-catalogue even more and Sumo can include a little more content and polish the online options, a sequel could very conceivably challenge the portly plumber’s throne at the pinnacle of karting games.