Sunday, 7 March 2010

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing

Developer: Sumo Digital
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 8.1

Over the years Mario Kart has had to endure a seemingly endless succession of imitations. It has stoically observed the gimmicky (Street Racer with eight player split-screen, anyone?), the soulless (Rare’s blandly efficient Diddy Kong Racing) and -looking ahead - the potentially innovative (that’ll be ModNation Racers and its real-time track creator), whilst itself undergoing revision after revision with each new iteration. However in amongst the controversy that surrounds each of these updates – a blue shell here, a sidecar there – is the consistency of the gameplay. This legion of imitators may often be technically superior, but nothing has really been able to match the controlled anarchy, pure joy and – important bit this – the strong sense of identification that lies at the core of Nintendo’s most important franchise. Nothing that is – cut for dramatic pause – until now.

Admittedly we’re tending a bit to close to hyperbole; Sega All-Stars is great fun to play and the first few hours, which I spent in a state of perma-grin excitement, give the impression that this is indeed a fabled equal to Mario Kart. Though that initial spark is eventually blunted – it’s all a little simplistic to leave any genuine impact - the overall impression is that this is as close as people who don’t own a Nintendo console will get to the experience.

It’s no surprise that this review only took three words before the first mention of Mario Kart. For Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing With Banjo-Kazooie, to give the Xbox 360 version of the game its full title for the first and last time, isn’t so much another imitation as it is a full-blown HD Xerox; the manner with which the developers have gone about lifting, er, inspiration from Mario and co is so brazen as to be endearing. It’s fair to say that, in this respect, Dante’s Inferno and it’s love for God Of War didn’t have quite the same effect. Tellingly the two best Mario Kart clones in my memory – Crash Team Racing and now this – are the two games that have stuck closest to Nintendo’s blueprint. Sumo Digital of course have a huge part in Sega All-Star’s success, but their role is one that has been built on this fifteen-year old foundation. What they’ve done is proven that Mario Kart’s key mechanics are pretty much timeless.

Sumo Digital certainly has pedigree in this area. Not only were they the developers behind Sega Superstars Tennis, the previous attempt at marrying Sega’s glittered past to a standard sports genre, but it’s their recent work on console conversions of OutRun that acts as the basis for the handling model in All-Stars Racing. Both areas are significantly more successful here than they were in Superstars Tennis, which lacked both the engagement of Virtua Tennis and the wealth of Sega references that permeate every track, choice of music and even mission briefing here.

Drifts can be triggered to slide around corners by using the brake trigger whilst driving; the longer this drift is maintained the bigger the boost you get once the brake has been released. It’s a basic version of the system of drifting used in OutRun – here you hold down the left trigger as opposed to applying deft touches to skilfully manoeuvre – but suits the accessible approach that ensures even newcomers to the karting genre will be able to slide around in no time. It’s also no less an enjoyable experience for being so streamlined, as some of the closely-fought races I’ve had online will attest to. This emphasis on accessibility also extends to the track design itself, the majority of which are wide and full of eye-catching loops and jumps, with little or no emphasis on tricky turns; the only course that had me confused at first was a later Super Monkey Ball-themed level, and that’s probably more in keeping with the disorientation of Monkey Ball itself than any fault on Sumo Digital’s part.

Also commendable is the license structure. Everything you do in the game, be it a single race online, a grand prix or one of the many missions, rewards you with Sega Miles, which are then added to a cumulative total that slowly sees your ranking rise. Having the reward of ever-higher licenses framing everything you do in the game creates an excellent sense of progression. The aforementioned missions are also a well-considered addition to the other standard modes on offer. Ranging from mini-tournaments to races in which the main task isn’t always to come first (in one mission you’re given an infinite supply of boxing gloves with which to attack Billy Hatcher until he submits) they work best as quick diversions from the action elsewhere, whilst completists also have the chance to get an AAA ranking in each one (there are 64 in total).

Added to the racing mix are the inevitable weapons. Aside from the brilliant character specific All-Star moves (another feature from Superstars Tennis), there isn’t anything remotely as unfair as that dreaded blue shell. Missiles, bouncing bombs and mines are only fleeting annoyances, while the items that briefly affect your playing experience (for example, the rainbow covers your screen in waves of colour) are actually more pleasing than disorientating. In general if your basic driving skills are good enough then even the Advanced Grand Prix won’t pose too much of a challenge. The All-Star moves are only handed out to those languishing at the back of the pack, but it’s worth being a bit rubbish to see them all. In fact the sight of Ryo Suzuki’s bike suddenly turning into the iconic forklift truck from Shenmue, before ramming aside the likes of AiAi and Space Channel 5’s Ulala to the front of a race set in House Of The Dead’s Curien Mansion is already one of our gaming highlights of 2010. Such an episode, and the All-Star moves in general, also highlight what is the key strength of All-Stars Racing: it’s unconditional love for all things Sega.

It’s everywhere: the use of Nights in the Lakitu/race-starter role, the courses set in such locations as a Monkey Target course, or the city streets of Jet Set Radio, the classic Sega themes on the soundtrack. It even extends to the name of the Achievements, our favourite of which is Dreamarena (“Play a friend over Xbox LIVE”). Chances are if you’ve been gaming for a number of years then a lot of Sega All-Stars Racing’s appeal will be in the various memories tied to many of the games referenced here. If you’re a Sega super-fan then you’ll be in heaven (even at $32,500 the chance to purchase Alex Kidd from the in-game store as a playable character is Primark-like value). Sega Superstars Tennis made clever use of Sega’s history, but not to the extent evidenced here. Mario Kart may still hold the crown overall but All-Stars Racing is certainly the closest Sega has come to its own Smash Bros, and in its own little way suggests that, putting aside the welcome updates of classic franchises like After Burner, the still-mighty company has finally learnt to accept – and even revel – in its status outside of the hardware race.

Previously published by D+PAD Magazine.

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