With relatively little fanfare leading up to its release, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is one of those games that could easily pass you by. But if you let that happen you'll be missing out on something awesome. Thrilling racing, detailed transformable tracks, and heaps of tribute paid to classic SEGA franchises combine to make this one of the best karting games of recent years.
Even if every other aspect is perfect – the graphics, the music, the story – a racing game can easily be ruined by poor controls and shoddy physics when you actually get behind the wheel. Luckily, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed has this down to form an incredibly strong core that supports everything else the game has to offer. The vehicles are an absolute joy to drive, with just the right levels of speed and responsiveness. As is traditional in karting games you can also collect various items to give each race an edge. You might stun the driver in front of you with a well-aimed snowball, and use a boost to soar ahead of them, only to find yourself derailed by a swarm of giant wasps that can be summoned by others to target the player in the lead. Thankfully, the items are balanced enough to nudge things closer to fun than frustration.
Even more variety, of course, comes from the vastly different tracks, each of which pays loving homage to one of SEGA's worlds. Aside from the occasional patch of repeating textures, the worlds through which you race are stunning; a great deal of effort has gone into faithfully creating animated environments despite the fact that you'll only glimpse them as you zip past. And these tracks change from lap to lap too, as roads collapse and you're forced to take to the sky or race through water instead, your car transforming as needed.
Vehicle transformation, the game's differentiating attribute and the reason for that long-winded title, is thankfully done so smoothly that it doesn't interrupt the flow of the race at all. In fact, you can even use the brief moment as your car is soaring through the air growing wings to pull off a quick stunt, which will give you a little speed boost. Racing in flight is incredibly fun, and supposedly faster than driving on the ground, though it doesn't feel it at times, probably because of the lack of relative motion from nearby objects. Things are clunkiest when your car becomes a boat and a little added effort is required to steer in the right direction. Some might find themselves resenting those stretches of water, but the variety does mean players have to build up skill at adapting to the change in vehicle, which is good to see in something as simple as a karting game.
Of course, not all of the tracks will be unlocked from the get-go, and you'll have to make your way through the World Tour in order to gain access to them all. But it's far from a chore. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed could have easily stuck to the standard formula of a Grand Prix, time attacks, and the option for single races, but the World Tour is a packed, well-rounded experience that really adds something to the game. You work through several locations, each of which is made up of branching paths and the occasional unlockable gate. Each stop on those paths is an event, and not necessarily a race. You might be competing to knock out your opponents with items to become the last one standing, or taking part in various challenges in which you have to perform certain skills to prevent the clock from counting down before you pass the final checkpoint. Events like the drift challenge are incredibly useful ways to practise the relevant skill for when you're back in a normal race. And those like the traffic dodge event, in which you have to swerve to avoid cars of varying levels of annoyance on a busy road, are just plain fun.
Placing highly enough in one of these events will win you stars, which you can then use to pass through gates that will only open once your total is high enough, or unlock characters that are unplayable when you start the game. It's a clever system that prevents you from just burning through the World Tour to get all the unlockables. If you get to a gate that demands more stars than you've been able to collect, you'll have to go back and play some of the events on one of the branching paths, or replay a race at a higher difficulty, which nets you a more generous reward.
With this career mode to work through, characters to unlock and level up, and achievement-style stickers to work towards and display proudly on your driver's licence, there's plenty of replayability here even in single player. But multiplayer - both local and online - is where you really want a racing game to shine, and this one doesn't disappoint. There’s a whole extra section of the game just for multiplayer, which can’t even be accessed if you’re playing alone. Here you’ll find standard races, as you’d expect, but also boost races (races with a load of extra boosts thrown in), battle races (in which you use items to attempt to knock the other players out before they can do the same to you), and a multiplayer game called “Capture the Chao”. This “capture the flag” style game requires players to race (and - with items - fight) to be the first to reach a spawned “Chao” and take it to a designated base; it’s a refreshing addition to the game.
Besides these extra, multiplayer-only modes, you can also play most of the rest of the game (apart from the time attack mode) with more than one player. Playing through the world tour with a friend or two (or three) along for the ride might mean you have to put up with a lower frame rate, but it also makes things even more fun. It’s nice that Sumo has made the effort to include the option for multiplayer in as many aspects of the game as possible, given that in a lot of other racing games the single player mode is strictly separate.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed has so much to offer, it's far more than just a casual karting game only to be played occasionally when you've got a friend over. There's hours and hours of fun in this easily-missed game, and it's all wrapped up in a colourful, arcade-styled yet high-definition package that’s easily up there with the likes of Mario Kart. Do yourself a favour and put it on your Christmas list today.