Sega’s Ostensible Nostalgia Induction Contraption
Sega may be far removed from its creative heyday, but man are they good at celebrating it. From the Sega AGES releases over the last decade to 2011's Sonic Generations to the recent announcement that they’re porting some Model 2 titles, it's clear Sega understands how to gracefully wave the wand of nostalgia. Sumo Digital's 2010 release, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, used the cart-racer model as a vector for inducing said nostalgia, but the idea of a sequel seemed puzzling. Even with sufficient growth as a concept and a wealth of legacy properties to appreciate, cart racers are homogeneous genre. There's no way plugging Sonic and friends into that formula would work twice.
Guys, it worked twice.
First and foremost, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed works because of that colorful adjective at the end of its title. You get the feeling that Sumo Digital got a whiff of what Nintendo was doing with part of Mario Kart 7 and founded their new game on the concept of multi-surface travel. Throughout every race your cart will transform once or twice as terrain shifts from land to sea to air. Each vehicle transforms in real time, complete with a familiar and satisfying electronic crunch noise.
This is awesome. This is especially awesome if you're playing the game for the first time and, ahem, have no idea this is a feature. It happened to me on my second race, the Panzer Dragoon course, when, on the third lap, a dragon casually obliterated the track. My expression went from genuine bewilderment to shock and awe as my car sprouted wings, took off, and accepted the z-axis in its potential range of movement. It had me recalling the better parts of Diddy Kong Racing and wondering why in the world there aren't more aircraft-based cart racing games. The novelty wore off eventually, of course, but a pretty good game remained too.
Transformed's kinetic hook is its drift mechanic. Holding down the left trigger is sort of a brake but mainly initiates drifting. A slight flourish is added by letting go of the trigger and switching directions in a fraction of a second and thus shifting the drift through an opposite turn. Keep the drift going long enough and you're granted a turbo boost when it's released. This is hardly an original concept, but it's applied to all three facets of Transformed's racing. It's especially interesting for the air sections where there's quite a bit more freedom to either really nail a turn or set yourself up for a colossal failure. It's a solid risk/reward all around.
I wasn't too crazy about the watercraft portions. The development team might have been going for Hydro Thunder but the floaty controls, slower speed, and lack of precision (especially on ramps) usually had me dreading water sections of races. In some cases, like the Afterburner course, it's actually a reward to find a ramp that initiates an air transformation and allows you to take to the skies in a better, quicker, and more fun version of your vehicle.
Being a cart racer you'd expect all sorts of zany power-ups littered throughout the course, and Transformed obliges with a bit of hesitation. Standard rockets (rockets), land mines (blow fish), homing rockets (exploding RC cars), and a blue shell (a plague of bees?) are accounted for. The only interesting power is a neat turbo idea (hot rod) that gives your cart an increasing speed boost that explodes if you keep it going for too long. As a counter measure you have the option of detonating it yourself, causing an area-of-effect attack on whomever's near.
Mechanically the power-ups are fine, but they feel disconnected from the Sega party that's waiting around every corner. These power-ups have nothing to do with Sega, and while that's not a problem it's noticeably inconsistent with the rest of Transformed's design (a notable exception goes to the All-Star power-up, which, in addition to empowering the player with a temporary god-mode, usually references one or two character specific tropes).
Transformed's roster is a give and take. On one hand we've lost such insane classics like Opa-Opa and Jackie and Akira driving the Outrun car, but on the other it's picked up obscure favorites like NiGHTS' Reala, Skies of Arcadia's Vyse, Space Channel 5's Pudding, and Golden Axe's Gilius Thunderhead. The final unlockable character is also one hell of a surprise, and Wreck-It Ralph is a smart inclusion, though Danica Patrick may get the award for weirdest cameo of the year. In any case every car earns its own experience from every race, and gaining levels opens up several avenues for controlled customization. You can eventually push your cars stats to favor handling, speed, or boost, but, aside from the character-specific all-star moves, they all kind of felt the same.
Transformed's courses are easily some of the best to ever grace a racing game. Kind of. You see, I am bound to viewing these courses through rose-tinted glasses because my intense appreciation for Sega's 90's and early 00's output. References from Panzer Dragoon, Nights, Burning Rangers, and Jet Set Radio are served in generous helpings. Squeals of joy from seeing Burning Rangers, which was dead-on-arrival in 1998, represented under the lens of 2012 visuals produces a sense of unparalleled joy, one in which I'm prone to such hyperbole at declaring these courses some of the best ever made.
The Nights course not only features potent callbacks to Spring Valley and Splash Garden, but also runs the player through Gillwing and (a nearly identical) Puffy boss fight. Puffy, in particular, fits perfectly into Transformed's brand of aerial racing. Likewise, hearing Chris from Burning Rangers referencing directions and events from that game while I race through hallowed ground was awesome. Seeing what I can only assume was Mel Kava from Panzer Dragoon Saga off in a tiny corner of the track speaks to my soul. Transformed is packed with references like these through its seventeen tracks, and for a Sega fan there's value in vicariously living in these worlds again. The only problem, and this isn't the fault of Transformed, is that it leaves me with the sick feeling that we'll never experience a proper entry from most of these games ever again.
Admittedly all of these things I've been gushing over are window dressing, but once that wears off, once you've raced every course ten or so times, tracks design holds its own. Most of this is due to the way the actual courses transform throughout every race. Each lap is prone to some sort of design change, like the aforementioned dragon-wrecking-track sequence in Dragon Canyon, insuring races don't lose their flavor before they're over.
Transformed's assumed campaign, Career, plots events on a sometimes-branching path. Standard races are joined elimination-friendly battle races, time attacks, and a progressive series of opponents you need to beat. There are also a couple of more creative, little used modes. One plots traffic all over the courses and challenges the player with reaching a series of checkpoints while hitting as little traffic as possible. Another event drops a huge damn tank on the course and requires you to pound it with bullets while racing and avoiding obstacles. These are infrequent, experimental, and harmless, which is a shame because they're also Transformed's sole innovations in event format.
A larger problem resides in how Transformed handles difficulty levels. Each event has the potential for three (and later, four) medals. Medals are earned by completing the event on each difficulty, and the Career mode gates its challenges and unlocks with medal totals. Easy is a guaranteed fist place almost every time, and medium feels like the sweet spot between player skill and the inherent randomness of weaponized cart racers. Hard and expert, on the other hand, are Pandora’s Box. You can run a perfect race and still get horribly screwed by a grossly aggressive AI onslaught of bees or twisters that conveniently reverse your controls for no reason. Just one occurrence can cost you a first place finish, and in the end, despite a considerable skill set, I was winning about 15-20% of the time on Expert races. It seemed random.
This meant that after eight hours I had piqued with what I was willing to take from Career. I topped out with 125 medals, well short of a at least one gate and four or so hidden characters. I'll probably never have the tolerance to get those, though I can see how persistence and patience could pay off for those who wish to invest a significant amount of time in the game. Transformed's campaign length is fine for a casual play, an, depending on your tolerance or luck, oppressive or tuned for a long-term investment.
Visually, Transformed is across the map. Each level is packed with incredible detail, and the accompanying music is either lifted directly from its influence or rearranged to fit the tone of the game. It's wonderfully colorful, and never misuses its source material. In motion Transformed, even at its highest difficulty, never really feels fast and doesn't generate that sensation of speed found in other racers. It's also ripe with weird oversights, like sometimes my controller vibrated for ten minutes (until I unplugged it) and then there’s curious oddity of the word "license" being spelled wrong on every menu page. These don’t really affect the play experience, but build toward the suspicion that Transformed could have used a little more time in the oven.