The same two questions seem to be asked over and over whenever Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing gets mentioned. “Why is Sonic in a car?” and “Is it going to be better than Mario Kart?”. If you read this site often enough you’ll know the answer to the first; it’s to keep things fair as out of a vehicle Sonic would easily win any race. Sumo Digital went the first step to answer the latter question by releasing the demo for Xbox 360. TSS has been putting the game through it’s paces for the past few hours so do we think it’s shaping up to be faster than the speed of light or slower than a plumber arriving on time for an appointment?
The demo offers up the chance to play as either Sonic in his sports car or Banjo & Kazooie in their dilapidated nuts and bolts mobile. The only track available for racing is called the Lost Temple and is set in Sonic Heroe’s Seaside Hill, music and all. In fact the race course is chock full of SEGA and Sonic related paraphernalia. NiGHTS is the man in charge of the checkered flag for example and the crowd is made up of a number Chao. Crabmeat Badniks roam the sands scurrying sideways to try and block your path while Choppers leap from the sea in between jumps. Power-ups are contained TV style capsules and springs are deviously placed to shunt you off the racing line should you get too close. Any SEGA fan will be happy to soak in the detail track-side and bask in the charm of it all but when you’ve finished sightseeing it’s time to race.
This is where things may start to feel a little familiar to anyone who has played that other kart racing series. The trick to getting boost is by drifting and if you hold the accelerator down at the right time during the start you can even gain a head start. Some weapons propelled forwards bounce along the side of the track a little suspiciously like shells might elsewhere and traffic cones dropped behind you have the chance of slipping up the competition, if you get the reference. But just when you start to feel a sense of Deja-Vu creep over you the excitable announcer will shout about someone having hold of an “All-Star” and your world is about to be rocked. Every character in the game has their own unique all-star move and rather than just being this games blue shell taking out the player up front they all differ which could be a huge factor in deciding which characters become your favourite.
Sonic for example is turned Super and is propelled down the track at an increased speed knocking other racers out of his way. Banjo and Kazooie make the sky rain “Jiggies”; Over-sized jigsaw pieces as deadly to front of the pack as to the back. Shadow turns super himself and dishes out a liberal dose of Chaos Spears and Ryo Hazuki swaps his motorbike with a fork lift truck to power down the track. On the games default difficulty setting you’ll see your rivals use these moves several times during a race. Sometimes they can be avoided while others will bring you to a standstill and potentially ruin your chances at victory.
All the All-Star moves in the world won’t get you very far until you master the basics though. As previously mentioned it’s still all about drifting which is done by holding down a drift button (The left bumper or trigger). After a few second you’ll see some boost spew out of the exhaust of your vehicle at which point you can let go of the drift button to be propelled forwards. The only other way to boost is by pressing the drift button while jumping which will trigger a trick in mid-air and a boost while on solid ground. The trick is to make sure you’re heading in the right direction for a boost as it’s all too easy to career into a wall or off a bridge by accident.
Once you have your brain around those concepts you’ll notice, on the default difficulty at least, that you’ll either just win races after a fierce battle or spend all race being every other drivers punching bag. For example, despite coming first quite in quite a few races and having the optimum driving technique more or less mastered there were still occasions where I would finish dead last or close to it thanks to a perfect storm of punishment. Being hit by missiles and boxing gloves is bad enough but getting up to speed for a ramp only to be hit by something and falling off the track is infuriating, especially as when you re-spawn you’re basically not moving forwards. Another time while taking the only short-cut on the track which involves taking a jump to a boost pad on an island, Knuckles landed on me squashing me cartoon style and sending me to a watery abyss. This re-spawned me back on dry land BEFORE the jump meaning I was last by a mile.
It’s this unpredictable nature of ‘kart’ racing games that could really sour the experience for some. The flip side is that all the damage you take you can deal out to your foes and hitting someone with a missile and watching them fall behind you is as sweet as it sounds. Lowering the difficulty to it’s easiest has everyone just wait behind you which is no fun at all while the hardest setting is the maddest of the bunch as you fight tooth and nail for every position, the bad luck visiting almost every driver in equal measure. The balancing of the games difficulty to make the punishment exciting but not unfair will be crucial.
The frame rate in the demo isn’t the most stable but as it’s taken from an older build of the game. Steve “S0l” Lycett has promised in the SSMB that such issues had yet to be fully addressed in it’s optimization stage so hopefully the proper game will be a smoother driving experience. The game will ultimately live or die by the variety of it’s characters and it’s racetracks though and how different Sumo Digital has been able to make them feel. Seaside Hill looks pretty enough but the textures of foliage leaves a lot to be desired. Then again it’s not something you notice while you’re attempting to avoid the chaos. Other levels would do well to be packed with more SEGA references but will need some neat tricks to stop from feeling the same despite the change of scenery.
At this stage Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing has just enough promise, madness and ideas of its own to carve a hedgehog shaped niche in the Kart racing genre. With Mario Kart Wii flirting with the mainstream; wide tracks, Wiimote control and all, ASR could actually find itself in first place as the hardcore Kart game of choice if everything comes together.
Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing is due for release February 23rd in the States and 26th in Europe for 360, Ps3, Wii and PC.