Imagine driving through a port that has airships docked. When the port ends, you drive off of a cliff only to have your car turn into a jet. After you come down and complete a lap expecting to see the same thing, a giant airship has crashed into the port. Forcing you to drive into a path unknown, the river below where your car morphs into a boat. Mines drop into the water, sending waves that you and your rivals then need to traverse the dynamic water. On your third lap around, the airships get engaged in battle and have completely destroyed the port, causing you to have to fly through burning airships and find your way around the crashing behemoths. As you're dominating the competition on the third lap, you can hear the fans chant your name.
This is Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed. Every race might be three laps with many paths, but the second and third laps usually deviate in a big way from the first. You won't just be driving cars around the 20+ courses (40+ with mirrored mode), but you'll be piloting ships and jets. The tracks are gorgeous. Themed and inspired from classic SEGA games like Sonic, Super Monkey Ball, Shinobi, Jet Set Radio, Golden Axe, Afterburner, Nights and many more. Even lesser known games like Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg get their own track. A lot of love and detail went into this game and it shows. Bright colors for some tracks, realistic lighting and texture for others. There is something here for everyone.
The controls are easy yet difficult to master. Left thumbstick to steer, a button to use items, a button to look back, right stick to do tricks in mid air, right trigger to speed up and left trigger to slide / drift. Drifting around corners will not only tighten your turn radius, but if you hold it for long enough, it will boost your speed when you come out. Every character has his or her own stats: Speed, acceleration, handling, boost and all star. These stats balance out drivers. The All-Star determines how frequently you will get it from the items. When you have it, you're temporarily turned into a jet.
Since this is a 'kart' style game, there are items that you'll pick up from floating red orbs. The fire crackers launch forward and bounce off of walls. There are ice balls that come in threes and will first stun opponents. Hitting them with more ice freezes them longer. A hot rod that will give you a temporary speed boost and you can detonate it, making a ring of fire around you. A drone that will follow the driver you've selected. You can even change the driver by pointing at a new one. A simple speed boost. A spiked blowfish that you can leave on the course. Finally, one of the most creative weapons, a swarm that will charge forward and will put giant wasps on the course. It will cause drivers to weave through them.
Each of these weapons can get fired ahead of you or behind you. Making everything valuable and useful. How do you defend against all these things? Well you can evade them, but there is also a glove that will catch projectiles. Not just that, but then you can throw them back.
With all these weapons, they don't feel like they'll cause a winner. The game still feels skill based. The last driver won't get an item that will drop them off at first place. There is no item that will seek out and rob whomever is in the lead. It is possible that you can take such a lead that no weapon can overtake you, only your own bad driving will lose you the lead. You can also fall so far behind that nothing will bring you to the others.
As you play through the game, the characters you play as will get experience. When a character levels up, he or she gets a modification. Simple things like handling or speed. They give you an extra point, but because the game feels balanced, they take away a point from something else. It is a nice system, especially when considering multi-player balance.
There are boosters marked with purple arrows in the air, water and the track to move you faster. That's not the only way though. When you are in the air, you can do a trick by using the right thumb stick. If you land the trick you get a boost. If you fail, you get slowed down. The game avoids crashes. Even if you fly off the track, the screen just wipes and puts you back in the game. The tricks have another purpose when you're in the air. Left and right do barrel rolls. Up and down do flips. This makes sure that you don't jump off the track.
Sega makes use of its rich history and there are plenty of drivers. Characters from Sonic's series, Crazy Taxi, Super Monkey Ball, Football Manager, Nights, Shinobi, Panzer Dragoon, Rome: Total War, Space Channel 5, Team Fortress 2 (three characters as one), an unlockable famous real life racecar driver and so many more. Wreck it Ralph is even here straight from the animated movie! Even if you've never heard of Sega or Sonic, there's always someone here to recognize. It is a huge roster of drivers and thankfully a lot of them are unlockable throughout the game's various modes.
There are career modes that have your typical Grand Prix with 5 cups that have 4 races each. Each race generally lasts around 5 minutes. Complete all 5 of the Grand Prix and earn mirrored track mode. The main game mode is the World Cup that has you participating in a lot of different events for stars. You will unlock events on a sort of map. When you take part in the event you set easy, medium or hard. Each new victory will give you a star. Easy gets you one star, hard gets you three. These stars are to progress and to unlock new drivers.
But with the World Cup, you don't just race. There is a whole slew of events. Drifting challenges, time challenges, battle challenges that have you destroying other racers, traffic attacks where you need to dodge other cars, vs races that pit you against another driver, ghost races that have you competing against game developer ghosts, ring races that have you flying through rings and even a perusing a tank boss to destroy it. There is a lot of variety here and I for one appreciate it.
On top of that, you have local co-op and online co-op that finds you matches based on what mode you want. There are typical races, battle arenas and a few others. The process is pretty streamlined. You vote on a track from three random tracks. Then select your driver, view their license to see how good your competition is. Then you race to see who is the best.
For every achievement you unlock, you get a sticker. You can place 3 stickers on your license as a flaunt or a personalization that tells other players about you at a glance. There is still in depth information to everyone, which is always nice. When you win, your online rating goes up, when you lose it goes down. It is all a nice system.
When you head into a race in Grand Prix and multiplayer, you can play a slot machine for buffs. These buffs are things like ice doesn't slow you as much. You get a glove every lap. Things that mix it up, but really doesn't make anyone overpowered. The slot machine is a diversion during the loading screen. How do you get coins for the machine? On the track there are coins every so often that you can pick up. Not just that, but when a driver is hit with a weapon or falls off the track, they leave a coin. This rewards aggressive players. Plus someone else can always sneak in to take the coin.
This game has a lot of content that puts it somewhere at the top of the heap when it comes to combat cart racing. While it has weapons, it is skill in the subtleties of the game that will win you races. Every track has its own flair and is a thing of sheer beauty. It is a lot of fun for anyone that needs something different yet similar to Mario Kart. It feels like a genre that was sorely missing from Steam and Sega didn't just fill that void, they hit a home run with it.