People love to have something to compare it to, it happens everywhere and for a long time. How many times do we hear `The Next Leona Lewis' when talking about The X Factor? It's the same with the gaming industry; when Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing first came out, practically all reviews put it up against the long standing Mario Kart, due to its colourful characters and crossover of long time favourites. But is Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing the Mario Kart clone that everyone makes it out to be?
Starting with the visuals the game doesn't use the `fuzzy film' effect that plagued Mario Kart Wii, judging purely on the Playstation 3 version the visuals are crisp, colourful, bright and streams beautifully. There are no slowdowns or jumps in quality, all characters are designed nicely and there's a great amount of detail gone into each race track. Sure the PS3 version doesn't offer a spectacular HD experience and some human faces look a little too fake but the quality is still far above the average. Music also hits a high note; being very well composed, full of energy and cheery to keep with the spirit of the game. Although they do have tunes from previous Sega games, most of it is post-2000 (so no retro Sonic tunes I'm afraid). Voice acting is decent and give personality to the various racers where needed. The game also has a commentator that lets the player know what's going on in the race, admittedly at times he can be annoying but he does have some funny one-liners that will make you chuckle one you get into the light hearted nature of the title. Controls are also reliable, again using the PS3 as reference, all buttons work precisely as they should with no delay between analog stick turning and the character turning itself.
The game is divided into single and multiple player, and then provided are cup games, mission mode and shopping. The cups are formed of 4 races, 8 players must race against each other to come first and accumulate points at the end of each one, the player with the highest points gets the Gold Cup. But it's not just a case of turning corners and driving through waterfalls, not only do you need to master the `drift' technique to get around tough corners and accumulate the drift effect to gain a speed boost at the end, but you'll also need to make use of items scattered across the race in capsules to make the race difficult for the competition or help you regain you lead. This includes Sonic speed shoes to give your car a quick boost, bombs to litter the track and KO gloves to knock out other players. The more cynical readers will be groaning right now demanding to know what's the difference between this and the highly regarded Mario Kart. Yes, the KO gloves behave like green shells, the speed shoes are mushrooms and bombs are the more lethal fake question mark crystals. But Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing does have its own unique palette to work with, such as rainbows the obstruct the players view with bright colours (seriously, it's the most annoying during Samba De Amigo's races where everything is already vibrant) and the mega horn that obnoxiously blows in nearby player's ears to throw them off their game, it's great fun to do!
On top of this the game is equally balanced between skill and luck, something I cannot say to most of the Mario Kart series. Mario Kart Wii's increase of 8 racers to 12 and new items created a game that made the most skilled players questioned their abilities when they can avoid every pit stop and use every short cut, only to get hit by a banana coming out of nowhere and come last! Earlier entries (apart from, arguably, Double Dash!!) aren't much better with racers springing out of nowhere or being a full lap ahead of you before the first lap is finished. For Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing however, if you come last it's almost always due to your poor driving or lack of effectively using items. This makes the game fair, and therefore, fun! The progressive difficulty settings are set properly and computer controlled racers won't pull a `rubber band AI' on you. To tie it in the races are wacky with plenty of background animation going on to keep the players amused, the commentator pulls a one-liner every now and then to keep the atmosphere up-beat, and the game is just...enjoyable. There's little else you need from a mascot racing game that's meant to be played for a short period of time or with friends.
Another point to give to Sonic Racing is the flow of the game; you know in Mario Kart when you fall off the track it takes a good 5 - 10 seconds for you character to be put back on the track and get going again? All Stars Racing doesn't suffer from that, as soon as you fall off, blink and you're back in the race. This works much better with the fast flow of the racing genre and doesn't create a situation where you're fed up of seeing the same animation of the character being carried back to the race over and over again.
Outside of grand prix you can also do time trials, race single tracks if desired, play online and local for multiplayer, and missions. The mission section has 50 different trials for the player to take on, ok it's more like 7 tasks repeated over and over again just with different characters or tracks involved but that's still a fair amount to keep you busy. Missions include collecting items relevant to the racer, using items to defeat an opponent, drift challenges and knockout - where you must race against the clock and come first as every 20 seconds the person in last will be knocked out - challenging and quite tense at times! The missions get harder as you go on, you also get to play every character and race available in the game, so you'll be given a tour of the title whilst challenging your skills to the limits. In addition, unlike the missions in Superstars Tennis, they're actually relevant to the characters and use the racing control system, unlike one incident in Superstars Tennis where Sonic's ring collecting mini game didn't even use a tennis racket!
All Stars Racing features characters and multiple references across the majority of Sega games; from the ever popular Sonic to the lesser known Alex Kidd and Beat from Jet Set Radio. Like most racing games, all character have their strengths and weaknesses, some are easier to drive and others have heavy vehicles in tow. You'll also get a good variety of characters on bikes, hovercrafts as well as cars, although you can't unlock or purchase any alternative rides for them. On top of this, making a return from Sega Superstars Tennis, each character has an All-Star move; usually unleashed if the racer is doing badly in the game the character will suddenly activate their special ability that will knock opponents out, speed up considerably, slow others down - it varies from character to character, making races interesting and fun to try out all the characters to see who fits your driving style best.
The tracks themselves are modifications of popular levels from Sega games; you'll be leaving people in the dust at Curien Castle, marking tire tracks in Casino Park and so on. The variety in tracks though is a lot to be desired, come on Sega, do we REALLY need 3 varieties of Sonic's Casino tracks? They all contain bright lights, the money sign and Casino chips in, what's the difference? Couldn't you have us speeding down Scrap Brain Zone, or cruising by Lava Reef Zone? Considering how many Sonic games they have been it seems like a wasted opportunity here. The same goes for the character selection; I know `Sonic' is in the title of the game and he's Sega flagship series, but 7 Sonic characters? I would've been quite happy to replace Big the Cat with a much more appreciated and familiar face, such as Gilius from Golden Axe.
At the end of a long day of racing, you can then hit the shops. At the end of each race and mission you collect Sega Miles, you get these simply by completing a race but you can gather more if you perform tricks and other things in the game. Sega Miles are used to purchase new racers, tracks and music to play in the game, the maximum you've collect also goes on your `license', allowing you to compare your score with mates. On top of this, Xbox and Wii users have their own exclusive character to use (e.g. the Mii can be implemented into the Wii edition) and downloadable content is available, including Metal Sonic as a racer and Final Egg as a track. More is said to be on the way, so plenty to keep you coming back every now and then.
Whether it's trying to be a Mario Kart clone or not doesn't matter, the bottom line is that Sonic and Sega All Starts Racing is FUN. A factor that game programmers seem to forget nowadays. Sure it's not perfect but there's a lot of fun, mayhem and wackiness to go round, so take it for a spin if you gotten all you can from the racing games in your current collection