Kart!? Sonic the Hedgehog don’t need no stinking kart!!!
The Sonic brand has been struggling to gain relevance since… well, pretty much since the original trilogy of games. Sonic has seen himself in RPGs, 3D platformers, sports mini-game combos, and all sorts of other titles that have been generally dismissed by critics and gamers alike. I really enjoyed Sonic 4: Episode 1 for the iPhone, and it received a solid 4 out of 5 in Torbjorn’s review, despite mixed reviews from other critics. So yes, Sonic has had a tough time starring in modern games on modern consoles. I feel like our poor little blue friend has found something to be proud of in SEGA’s great “new” kart-racing game for iDevices. I say “new”, because Sonic & SEGA All-Stars racing was already released for all major platforms last year. I haven’t played any of these versions, but after playing it on my iPhone and iPad, I think I may have to check them out.
iOS devices have seen their fair share of kart racing games over the years. Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart, Cro-Mag Rally, and Shrek Kart are some of the better titles I can remember off the top of my head. All of these were good games, but I never felt like any of these games quite “had it”. You know, that special something that makes Mario Kart 64, and even most of the subsequent sequels, some of the best kart racing games in existence. When I play Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing, I can feel it. Not all of it, but it’s there. Is it the variety of colorful tracks? Is it the wide selection of classic SEGA characters? Perhaps it’s the excellent powerup rubber-banding system that keeps everyone in the race until the very end. I don’t know what it is, but I like it.
The vast amount of features and options in Sonic & SEGA All-Stars is almost overwhelming at first. As a solo player you have access to four-race Grand Prix challenges, a variety of mission races, time trials, and single races. There are three different sets of Grand Prix races, and each features tracks of increasing difficulty. Once you complete all three Grand Prix sets on easy, you unlock the medium difficulty, which really ramps up the challenge. So far I haven’t been able to beat all the sets on hard, but I’m sure I’ll get there with practice. There are a ton of “mission” races that require you to complete certain tasks to collect 10 stars on a track. In one of the easier missions, you have to collect a certain amount of coins before the lap is over. Other missions involve making it through circular gates or dodging crabs that are scattered around the track. One of the more difficult missions has you trying to drift as long and frequently as possible before you reach the end of the lap. The missions get extremely difficult as you progress, and will keep you coming back for a long time if you’re someone who feels the need to get 10-stars on each one.
As you complete races and missions you earn “miles”, which are used to purchase new characters and racetracks in an in-game “shop”. No, there are no micro-transactions to be found (hurray!). As you increase the amount of “miles” you gather, your license (player card) “levels up” and changes colors. I don’t know the purpose of this, other than it unlocking an achievement for each new level gained. However, viewing your license card gives you access to an impressive stats page that lists data for everything from your longest drift distance to your favorite character. Speaking of tracking things, the game supports both OpenFeint and Game Center leaderboards at the same time, and you don’t even have to leave the game interface to view them. It’s the little things that count.
By now you’re probably sitting there thinking, “What about the @%#$ing RACING!?!” Ok, fine. It’s good. No, it’s really good. When Pat and I played this game at GDC five months ago, we were impressed with how well both the tilt and on-screen control options worked. I have never been one to enjoy playing games that force tilt controls, and while Sonic & SEGA All-Stars provides a separate on-screen method for steering, I actually prefer to use tilt. This is one of the few times I have ever preferred tilt over on-screen buttons in a game, and it’s purely due to the fantastic sensitivity adjustment option that is included. On the other hand, the on-screen controls include a left/right slider for steering. While this works well, I found that my thumb would often slide off the controls, causing me to run into walls or off cliffs. This was probably just me, as other friends had no trouble using this control scheme.
The racing itself feels very polished, and reminds me of Mario Kart in more than a few respects. First off, drifting is a huge factor in edging your way to first place. When you start drifting, you will see a little flame on the back of your kart start changing colors. For each color you will get a specific boost, with red being the fastest/longest boost. Secondly, to crush and humiliate your opponents, a vast arsenal of clever items are at your disposal. The standard “green and red shell” missiles are there, along with “mushroom” boosts to boot. Mario Kart analogies aside, there are a few clever items, such as a star that turns your opponents screen upside down, or a rainbow drop that fills your opponents screen with a rainbow for a short period of time.
One of the more unique aspects of Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing is each character’s last-place special ability. If you are tailing behind everyone, you have a chance to pick up an ability that is specific to the character you are racing with. These abilities are very powerful, and will help you get in front of a couple opponents who are ahead of you, but generally won’t get you all the way to the front of the pack. Chuih, a cute mouse character from a Dreamcast puzzle title, turns into an orange monster that chomps his way to the front. Ryo Hazuki, of Shenmue fame, plows through opponents with a forklift, which is a fun reference to the infamous forklift races in the original game. It should also be mentioned that each character comes with his or her own speed, acceleration, handling, and boost stats. While these can’t be modified, it’s nice to know the strengths and weaknesses when preparing for different race tracks.
Writing about the unique character abilities has got me thinking about why some of the characters from the console release of the game didn’t make it in to this version. By this, I pretty much just mean: where the hell is Shadow?! Argh, I was really hoping to kick some ass as Shadow- or at least Knuckles. The awesome CG intro video to the game – obviously pulled from the console versions – shows multiple characters that aren’t in the iOS version at all, such as Ulala (Space Channel 5) and Jacky Bryant (Virtua Fighter). The console version has a whopping 23 characters available, while there are less than half available to you on your iDevice. It would be nice to see some of these characters released in future, but at this time I haven’t heard anything regarding downloadable content.
Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing employs an excellent “rubber-banding” system with it’s powerups. Much like Mario Kart, the player who is in first place generally gets “lesser” items, while those behind him get better items. While not everyone likes this aspect of classic kart racers, I found that it made for some really fun and close races when I tried out multiplayer with three friends. If all the items were randomized, the person in first place could get a good item, then just horde it to blast the first player who happens to pass him. Regulating items and providing last-place special abilities allows everyone to feel like they’re still in the game, even if they’re trailing by quite a bit.
After an incredibly polished and entertaining single-player experience, I couldn’t wait to go online and see what the multiplayer modes had to offer. I knew that SEGA was taking it’s racing online with four players (or two players via Bluetooth), but I was especially excited to hear that they were including a Battle mode option at launch. Some of my fondest memories of Mario Kart games have come from battles that have lasted much longer than they needed to… or that were over in mere minutes! Unfortunately, Battle Mode is by far the most broken part of Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. We weren’t able to start even one battle due to the game always putting one or two players in a normal racing track instance, while the other two or three were in the battle arena instance of the session. Basically, even though players were on completely different tracks, the game thought everyone was together. The player(s) that got stuck on a race track would see a 30 second countdown, then the race would end, putting the players that actually got into a battle arena into last place. This happened every single time we attempted to create an online Battle Mode game with 3-4 players.
After about 45-minutes of frustration, we decided to try a one-on-one Bluetooth match. Fortunately, we got the game to start very easily, but were never able to finish a game. Since you are always accelerating, it proved very difficult to accurately maneuver around a the small, contained battle arenas. This made it hard to find my opponent, much less shoot and hit him with any weapons. Neither of us found any sort of heat-seeking weapons, so we were stuck trying to toss bombs or shoot “green shell” missiles at each other for around ten minutes before we gave up. I think I got hit once, and it was from my own missile after it bounced off a wall. We also noticed that Bluetooth had some pretty serious lag issues in Battle Mode, which made targeting even more impossible.
Normal racing online was a little bit better, but still came with some annoying bugs. When the multiplayer lobby wasn’t crashing on us, the game would randomly take away track-selection control from the person who hosted the game. For instance, I would host the game, invite my friends, then find that one of the friends I invited was able to choose the track and number of laps instead of me. This happened constantly, and essentially means that we were always racing on the same first track due to the other players not realizing they were able to change it. The races themselves felt solid, with only a little bit of lag. Bluetooth felt about the same, if you prefer the on-one-one approach. If you don’t mind joining up with random racers, the “quick race” option works really well. Just expect to play a lot of races on that damn first “Studio Amigo” level. Sigh.
On a side note, I would really like to see an option to race in Grand Prix mode online in the future. The races are much more intense when you’re playing against seven other drivers. If not that, I would love to see the max number of players bumped up from four to six or eight. Sure, four players was the multiplayer standard back before there was an online option, but I feel like modern games should be able to handle a bit more.
Before writing this review I contacted SEGA, and they informed me that they are aware of the multiplayer bugs and are working on fixes for them as we speak. That’s all well and good, but for such a big launch title from such a highly popular franchise, I expected things to work out of the box. Multiplayer is a big part of what makes kart racing titles great, and in it’s current state, hosting and setting up races and battles online with friends is acceptable at most, but frustrating and unplayable at its worst (which happens more often than not). SEGA may be able to fix bugs in an upcoming update, but can they fix a Battle Mode that’s nearly impossible to finish? I sure hope so, because Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing’s single player modes offer robust and enjoyable kart racing experience. I feel that the online experience could certainly match it’s solo counterpart with some online fixes and interface tweaks.
With smooth controls, impressive visuals, a huge variety of race modes to choose from, a good number of characters and tracks to unlock, and challenging AI in later levels, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing provides the best kart racing experience on the App Store. Is it the “Mario Kart” of the iOS age? No, not quite, but it still has the look, feel, and charm of a classic console title in an iOS shell. It’s a shame that numerous multiplayer bugs and an almost unplayable Battle Mode add skid marks to what is otherwise an incredibly polished and well-made racing title. Assuming that the multiplayer wrinkles will be smoothed out in the future, I wouldn’t let them deter you from enjoying what is otherwise a damn fun kart racing game for kids and adults alike.*
*Just to clarify: we don’t rate games based on what will be fixed or added in the future. I feel that Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing has more than enough single player content to make up for a sometimes-buggy multiplayer experience, and is a game that any fan of kart racers shouldn’t be without.