Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing Review (PS3)

It's been a long time coming, but when SEGA announced they would plunge Sonic and his peers into the karting world, you would have been hard-pressed to find as much as an eyebrow raised across the gaming scene. After the continued success of Mario Kart, SEGA could hardly be forgiven for capitalising on the lucrative market- especially as their racer isn't limited to Nintendo consoles only. With the prowess of the Xbox 360, and a host of SEGA favourites strapping themselves in for the ride, this title has all the ingredients needed to compete alongside the plump plumber's much-loved formula.

After a brief tutorial, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing throws you into the action without much hesitation. You're quickly introduced to the simple controls and launched onto track with little more than a push start. Not that you will need an in-depth analysis of the game, as it's mightily easy to pick up and play, even for those who are new to the genre. The real test comes from putting all the game's simple mechanics together to form a winning solution.

Sonic is back, and this time, there's no werehog involved!
Obscure Japanese character's or not, this game is a lot of fun.

As with Outrun, drifting plays a huge part in Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. A successful drift provides a momentum-shifting burst of speed that will allow you to overtake distant opponents, or make up ground if you're trailing behind. The best players will initiate into a drift at every conceivable moment, release when the power-up is ready, and then repeat. Drifting is also an effective way of getting out of trouble at the last second, as you dodge giant boxing gloves or evade irritating robots by shifting your weight into a different direction. Of course, there are many ways to play depending on your racing style, as it will take an hour or so of experimenting before you find the character who bests suits your technique.

While there is a roster of twenty two characters (many of whom are unlockable), SEGA have included a number of faces that most players will never have stumbled upon before. If you've never played Chu Chu Rocket, or haven't witnessed Billy Hatcher's chicken outfit previously, you'll quickly become accustomed to them, as they send missiles into your spoiler and drop mines for you to roll over. Shenmue veterans will feel ecstatic that Ryo Hazuki has made it into the game, alongside other favourites such as Samba de Amigo and AiAi from the Super Monkey Ball series.

Of course, the Sonic franchise has a strong showing, with Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Big Cat all making it into the game. For those wanting to add a sense of customisation to proceedings, you can also incorporate your Xbox Live Avatar into the race, albeit in a generic, and slightly boring vehicle. It's worth noting that Banjo and Kazooie are an exclusive team only available in the 360 version, and are amongst the fastest characters in the entire game.

As the Mario Kart series has so many memorable tracks, Sonic and co had their work cut out for them. Taking inspiration from a number of games, you'll quickly get used to speeding round familiar locations with a recognisable soundtrack playing in the background. Entering Sonic's Roulette Road or Pinball Highway for the first time is an amazing thrill ride, as you compete on locations which fans of the series will recognise in an instant. The casino based levels are also tremendously clever, as you dive into a giant bingo machine, travel across slots and round the edge of a roulette table at incredible speed. Other tracks are also influenced by titles such as Jet Set Radio Future, House of the Dead and Samba de Amigo- the latter of which features the insistently annoying carnival song that has plagued the series for far too long. Although the actual route of each track is hardly revolutionary, there's more than enough going on around you to keep things feeling fun, and certainly entertaining.

On your journey through the circuits of Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, it's easy to sport the title's main influences and inspirations. The game's power-ups couldn't be more similar to Mario Kart if they tried, and even follow the same colour-coding of green and red shells to ensure players know which boost they have got in tow. Each character also has a special ability (or an “All-Star” power-up), that relates to their own franchise. Ryo Hazuki will jump into his fork lift truck, ready to bash flip opponents off track at a formidable speed, and Sonic will turn gold, ready to sprint his way past the competition. As the announcer makes it clear, these boosts can often change the tide of the race, and should be utilised at the correct time for maximum impact. Getting to know each character's All-Star power-up is certainly vital for success when the race is balanced on a knife-edge.

Expect the usual fast-paced, mind-boggling action of any Sonic game.
Samba looks so happy, he obviously hasn't played his own game...

At this stage, it's difficult not to feel a little short changed by Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing. Grand Prix mode is only a challenge on the toughest difficulty, which means many players will take this online quicker than they probably should. There are missions and time trails to work through, but they aren't the most compelling way to play the game. The real miscalculation on SEGA's part is that there isn't a Grand Prix multiplayer mode, meaning your race results and scores aren't carried over, apart from a system which acknowledges how many wins each player has. With downloaded content on the way, there's massive opportunity to make this game feel more complete than it does right now. We'd love to see a Streets of Rage circuit, or recent heroine Bayonetta taking to the track in all her curvaceous glory. Luckily, the demo's stuttering frame-rate has been ironed out somewhat, and only slows down during split-screen multiplayer, which is understandable when you consider the fast-paced and beautifully rendered action that is taking place.

As Sonic enters a critical stage in his gaming career, this karting spin-off should be deemed a success. It's a lot of fun, visually pleasing and nods towards players who've been with SEGA since the dreaded Dreamcast days. Hopefully, the DLC will flesh this out even more, and will provide a host of equally exciting new characters and circuits to blast through. Right now, Mario won't be looking over his shoulder, but if this title (and indeed the franchise) continues to grow, we could see a much needed competitive side to the genre that has been severely lacking for a decade now.

Top Game Moment: Experiencing the Sonic tracks for the first time.