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Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing PS3, Xbox 360 Review

Sonic has been spinning his way into unexpected places of late. After competing against Mario in the Olympics and having his own version of Mario Tennis, Sonic returns to the racetrack. He has dabbled with this in the past, with Sonic Drift on the Game Gear,  to the more recent Sonic Riders, but this latest effort is very much a mainstream kart game.

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing arrives at a time when in recent years Mario Kart has been immensely popular on Wii and DS. It continues to perform strongly long after release and Sega will be looking to emulate its success. By releasing a new kart game on Xbox 360 and PS3 (review copy), they stand to do quite well as Mario Kart is limited to Nintendo systems. Most importantly it’s about time this genre was shaken up a bit; the last serious competition Mario Kart had was Rare’s superb Diddy Kong Racing on the N64.

Many characters from Sonic’s universe are present. From our good old friend Tails, to newer ones like Big The Cat and Shadows. There’s also cameos from the likes Ryo from Shenmue, Ulala from Space Channel 5 and the mice from ChuChu Rocket. It’s a very strong line-up that will be a joy to play as for any Sega fan. Each character comes with their own ‘kart’ and there’s a variety of types on show. AiAi drives a banana car, Shadows drives a bike, Tails is in a plane that hovers just above ground, and the ChuChus have a spaceship.

The action takes place on 24 tracks from six Sega worlds: Sonic the Hedgehog, House of the Dead, Jet Set Radio, Super Monkey Ball, Samba de Amigo and Billy Hatcher. The Sonic ones are my favourite, but the track design as a whole is predominantly good. The action very fast paced and the handling is spot on, in particular the drifting which provides a three-tier boost system.

There’s no question Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing owes a lot to Mario Kart; there’s the wacky weapons, the four-race cups, drifting to boost, and many other similarities. Nevertheless developers Sumo Digital have succeeded in giving this a very Sega feel that drew me in from the start.

The weapons are distinctive and fun to use. From the Super Monkey Ball boxing glove rocket, to the special moves you’ll pick up when you’re struggling. These specials are similar to Bullet Bill in Mario Kart, allowing you to power through the pack with ease. The difference here is each character has their own animated special, most of which are very entertaining, like Tales’ tornado. Some of the rarer weapons include a star which turns your target’s screen upside down, to a rainbow that self-inflicts rainbow colours over your view of the action. Many Mario Kart players tend to complain about the Blue Shell weapon that always takes out the first place driver, so is there an equivalent here? Well yes, there is a huge rocket that makes its way along the track towards the front, but its remotely detonated so although it can be used like a Blue Shell, it thankfully requires some skill.

Split-screen mode is also present, a relief given some recent cases of games deciding to omit this. Unfortunately you can’t compete through the cup competitions in co-op, but there’s otherwise a lot of multiplayer content including the online mode, which when I tried was lag-free and a lot of fun.

The game isn’t without its faults. My biggest complaint is actually with the graphics. They do look very nice when running smoothly, but can suffer from a disappointing frame rate. My preference is always for a smooth 60fps over detailed textures, particularly when the game is reaction based and so fast-moving. While it doesn’t stop me enjoying the game, it takes the edge off the experience, and I’m surprised this got though QA without further optimisation as it is quite apparent in each race.

There’s no slipstream feature you may become accustomed to, and collision detection is less refined than in Mario Kart; when you’re learning to play you’ll probably get stuck on trackside obstacles a few times, sometimes without the kart touching them – in either case your only option here is to reverse, but this is painfully slow. After getting hit by a weapon, your character flickers and is essentially invincible for a few seconds without any physicality. I’m not too keen on this visually. Likewise, when you stray too far from the road a white screen with the game’s logo appears, unnecessarily removing you from the action without any recovery animation. This screen can also rears its head when overshooting some of the game’s biggest jumps or when trying to find a shortcut.

Loading times are also overly apparent between races, and while Sonic’s on-screen tips are useful here, it only benefits newcomers; some added views of the track would have been a nice addition. The minor quibbles are mostly forgivable as much of the game is so well presented.

Every race earns you Sega Miles which you can spend in the shop to unlock new characters, tracks and music. On the pre-race fly by you can select a music track from that world’s selection. The music is fun and vibrant but there’s not the deep back-catalogue I’d have hoped for. This doesn’t stop the audio work standing out; the theme tune from Bentley Jones has a superb part used in the podium scene. It reminded me of some of the great audio work in Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast.

Taking on Mario Kart is a daunting challenge but Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing is a faster alternative that stands up well. A decent kart game on PS3 and Xbox 360 has been long overdue so it’s easy to recommend this.

There is definitely scope to see more Sega worlds explored in a sequel, and a few points for improvement, but it’s an otherwise exhilarating and fun game.

8 out of 10