When we received an invitation to come and see an 'unannounced AAA Sega game' with 'something on offer for everyone', we had a good idea of what it would be. Put it down to sharply-honed journalistic instincts, or the reliability of big publishers to iterate on big successes. But we certainly didn’t guess how the revamped follow-up to 2010's Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was going to work. The big surprise? Almost as soon as Sonic appears in the presentation trailer, his blue car hits a ramp, dives onto water and becomes a boat. Then it leaps over a waterfall and turns into a plane. You see this isn't Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing 2. This is Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
But wait, don't the above dynamic vehicular modifications sound just a little a bit familiar?
The concept is, of course, awkwardly similar to Mario Kart 7's hang gliding and sub-aquatic racing, though the execution is mercifully not quite as similar as you might fear. In boats you're on the water, not in it, and the planes have an impressive freedom of control compared to the limited 'falling with style' of Mario's gliding sections. The dev team swear they had the idea before Mario Kart 7 was shown off, and we do actually believe them as they relay their exasperation. Either way though, these elements do not play like tacked on me-too gimmicks. The game has been properly built around the titular 'Transformed' concept.
For starters, the game’s metamorphoses do not end with the vehicles. They also apply to the circuits themselves. The first one we saw was a Panzer Dragoon track. Yes, freakin' Panzer Dragoon! And on this track, no two of the race’s three laps are the same.
A little way into the second lap, the track gets broken by a dragon, leaving the karts hurtling towards the first boat section across the water below. At the same point on the third lap, a dragon swoops overhead and the karts follow it off the ramp created by the shattered boardwalk. Off the ramp, and right into the sky.
In a way, flight controls are simpler than the tarmac and water-based set-ups, in that you can't (currently) drift while airborne. That said, you need not fear any high-flying dumbing-down, as once in the air you'll be charged with flying through hoops in the air for extra boost and diving low through caves to navigate the harder short-cuts. And to allay the complaints of the world’s sore-losing control-moaners, you can also hit Select at any time to invert the Y axis controls. Good call.
A heavy consistency
An interesting point of note thrown up by this track, however, is that the game's visual style is intentionally consistent throughout the game, regardless of the individual titles being paid tribute to. Thus, the Panzer Dragoon track looks a little cartoonier than we expected. There are some Mechania styled pieces of machinery dotted around, along with several dragons and an entire cavern filled with that trademark veined white surface style, but it's a lot more rounded and friendly-looking than the Dragoon purist in us would perhaps like. That said, the bright, breezy art style is great on the whole. The way that Sonic's spines blow in the wind is brilliant, and we're all for blue-sky gaming whenever we can get it, after all.
However, while the flying is fun, the boats are the real high-point of the new vehicular additions. The new gameplay possibilities they bring were brilliantly shown off by the second track we saw, based on Super Monkey Ball. Set entirely downhill - with a magical gate at the end warping you back to the start for the next lap - it works superbly.
For instance, at one point we’re deep in lush jungle vegetation powering our way down a river, when gigantic Monkey Balls come bouncing down the side of a temple in the distance. As they hit the water, they create huge waves (dynamically rendered and reminiscent of N64 classic Wave Race 64) which act as giant aqueous ramps. You can do jumping barrel rolls off of these for added boost. It's breathless, on-the-fly stuff.