When the Wii U was announced, the team at Everybody Plays spoke had many a discussion about what games they'd love to see on it. While other games came and went, though, two games were ever present in our wish list - a new LEGO game, and a new Sonic All Stars Racing. Seemingly, the gaming gods were listening to our wish list. While LEGO City Undercover may still be a fair way off, the busy bods over at Sheffield's Sumo Digital have been hard at work making sure their game was ready for Wii U launch day. But was it everything we expected?
Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed is, in the words of their game director, the most challenging game the developers have ever attempted. A arcade inspired racing game in the vein of Mario Kart, Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed looks to beat the moustachioed one at his own game by going one better in every area. With a much more robust single-player offering, dozens of characters to unlock, and, even more impressively, five player split-screen, thanks to the Wii U GamePad, Sonic Racing Transformed certainly pulls out all the stops.
As you'd expect from a Sonic game, the races here are fast and furious jaunts around courses based on famous games from SEGA's past, from the titular Sonic games, to the Dreamcast's Skies of Arcadia, and everything in between. Letting you race as Sonic the Hedgehog, Amy Rose, Beat from Jet Set Radio, or any one of a number of other characters from a wide selection of games, there's a huge range of choice in terms of both courses and tracks - although initially several are locked off.
Perhaps the biggest twist, though, comes in the races themselves. As you may have guessed from the title, transformation is a big deal here, with both tracks, and cars themselves that change in shape and form as you progress through the level. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the After Burner level, which is set on a series of aircraft carriers. Start off on a deck, in car form, you'll race round a corner, across a series of boost pads, accelerating you to near breakneck speed, before shooting through a blue hoop, which seamlessly transforms your car into a plane. Suddenly flying, you'll pass through a number of boost gates (if you're any good), before passing through a blue hoop, and coming into "land" on another aircraft carrier, changing back into car form. Skid round the corner, across the deck, down a few jumps and through another blue hoop, and you'll be into the water in boat form, jumping across the waves as you try to scoot past your opponents. It's worth keeping in mind that not all of the transformation gates are compulsory, either, and not all vehicles are created equal. Planes are faster than cars, and cars nippier than boats, so should you get a chance to change from boat to plane (which you actually do on the After Burner level), you'd be best off taking it.
Should the idea of flying a plane, and suddenly having control across two axis sound a bit nerve wracking, though, the developers have at least attempted to offer a helping hand, with the game's built in "flight assist" mode. Giving you a line of arrows to follow, the flight assist mode basically makes your plane stick to the route you're meant to follow - which is certainly better than letting you crash head first into buildings, but sadly comes at the cost of making you miss most of the boost gates, and the potential drop in rankings that comes with it...
As mentioned before, though, some of the stages themselves will actually transform, too, meaning no two laps of the track (at least in the space of a race) are the same. The Panzer Dragoon level, in particular, will gradually wear away with each lap, leading to more flying, and more sailing sections, which can often change the race quite dramatically. It's an impressive addition - and one that works rather well.
Most of your time with the game will be spent in the World Tour mode, a series of races and challenges that give you something to do when you're not racing against your friends in one of the competitive modes. In fact, every mode in the game, including World Tour is playable by up to five people, which is great news for those who want the whole family to join in. Better still is that the game support a wide range of control options - whether it's using the sticks or motion control on the GamePad, tilting the Wii Remote, a la Mario Kart, or using a Classic Controller or Nunchuck to get the full benefit of analogue controls (and, like every Wii U game, you can use all your old Wii controllers too!). With a full complement of five people playing, races should suddenly become a heck of a lot easier, as only one of you has to come within the top three in order to progress - which is bound to come in handy, as things actually get really, really hard.
And it's this that's the biggest disappointment with Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed. While almost everything it does, it does well, it's the difficulty level that's just too harsh. Each stage you attempt in World Tour mode has a selection of three difficulty levels, Easy, Medium, and Hard. And while Easy shouldn't pose too many problems if you're familiar with other games, Medium ramps the difficulty up considerably, while Hard... well, it's probably not worth even trying. And it wouldn't be a problem - but in order to complete the World Tour mode, and unlock all the characters, you'll need to play at least some of the stages on Hard...
Scattered throughout the World Tour mode are a number of locked gates, some of which you'll need to clear in order to progress, and others you can optionally unlock in order to unlock a new character. Finishing a stage will net you between one and three stars, depending on the difficulty you've played it on - but in order to even finish the World Tour mode, you'll need to have amassed more stars than you can actually unlock on Medium. In order to finish World Tour, you'll have to play on Hard - and that seems more than a little bit unfair to us. Worse still is that rather than locking off a single character (the odd "AGES" - we'll let you find out who/what it is), there are four characters you won't be able to unlock without playing on Hard - one of which is one we were looking forward to playing as the most - the dwarf, Gillius Thunderhead. We're not sure what it is we have for dwarfs (LEGO Lord of the Rings Gimli is another favourite), but it sucks that we'll never be able to play as him, because we simply aren't good enough. And while we're having a moan, it does seem a bit odd that the Wii U version has an odd motion blur (and we mean blur - things seem to just smear when you turn a corner at speed) that isn't present in the other games.
And that's kind of the biggest problem here. By making you feel like you're not good enough, by locking so much stuff off, Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed has created a kind of two tier rewards system, where those who are better will get the most from the game. Instead of using stars to unlock stuff, the previous game saw you amassing SEGA miles with each race you completed, which could then be spent in the shop on characters, tracks, and songs of your choosing. Letting you choose to unlock less desirable characters first, or save for one you really wanted, it was a lot fairer way of doing things, as everyone could unlock everything in the game, regardless of ability. It's such a shame they've changed it.
On the plus side, the Wii U version does feature some exclusive minigame modes to make up for the short, fortnight delay between the game's launch on the Wii U and the other formats - the Bulldog alike Ninja Tag, and the ominous sounding Banana Heist. Banana Heist is a mode based around another SEGA game, Monkey Ball, which sees the GamePad player rolling a giant ball around a course, trying to squish the other players before the time runs out, while Ninja Tag is based on an old favourite of ours from Project Gotham Racing 4, Bulldog. Pitting one player against the rest, it's basically a giant game of tag, with the twist being that when you get caught, you become a Ninja too, and have to chase down the last remaining player.
In the end, it's difficult to know what to score Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed, as despite its unwieldy name, it's a game that gets so much right. The original Sonic All Stars Racing was a game we could spend all evening on, and properly lose ourselves in, and so far Transformed has been exactly the same. With the right group of friends, it's still a game you'll start playing, then wonder where the past few hours went - but it's so, so frustrating that we can't unlock the characters we really want to play as. If you'll be OK with a dwarf shaped hole in your life, if it comes at the cost of five player multiplayer, it's well worth taking a look at Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed - but know that it's not just you who struggles with the hardest difficulty.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U