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Could have been great if not for unbalanced difficulty and glitches galore
on 5 January 2014
Mario Kart's success over the years has spawned a number of copycat karting games. LittleBigPlanet has one, Crash Bandicoot has one, hell, even the F1 franchise has a karting title these days. It was only a matter of time before SEGA got in on the act and made their own karting title. Transformed is their second kart game release.
Transformed is a typical kart racer game, requiring you to drift, boost and fight your way round various tracks in an attempt to take top spot on the podium. Similar to Mario Kart 7, SEGA have incorporated water- and air-based segments to the game where your kart will transform into a boat or a plane. Collectible boxes at certain points on the stage allow your character to acquire an unusual array of weapons that can be fired at your opponents in an attempt to slow them down or helpful items (boosts, weapon deflectors, etc) that offer an opportunity to overtake them. Whereas in Mario Kart all weapons are easily identifiable to the franchise - for example, red and green koopa shells, POW blocks, mushrooms, etc - in Transformed we get a baffling assortment of random weapons including snowballs, blowfish and hornet attacks. Yes, hornet attacks.
You start the game with a limited number of recognisable SEGA characters including Sonic, Tails, AiAi from Monkeyball and BD Joe from Crazy Taxi. As you progress through the game you will earn stars from each successful race that allows you to unlock new characters. Mostly these will be male/female variations (you can unlock a female Monkeyball character and male/female NiGHTS character variations) with the odd original character thrown in like Joe Musashi from Shinobi. Some of the included non-SEGA characters had me scratching my head (Wreck It Ralph and especially Danica Patrick, who I had to look up on Google for any idea of who she was) as did the omission of some very famous SEGA characters at their expense (Ryu Hazuki from Shenmue and Axel from Streets of Rage, for example, even ESWAT for us old-schoolers). While it appears that some of these characters have been patched into the PC release of the game it is unlikely that handheld or console players will ever get the chance to play as them, which is a shame.
Unlocking those hidden characters is easier said than done. You are awarded stars for each race victory - one for easy, two for medium, three for hard and four for extreme - which can be used to purchase additional characters and kart mods (these mods allow you to tweak karts to give them more balanced attributes or to get more speed at the expense of handling or boost). This is where problems with the game start to become apparent. The difference in difficulties is hugely unbalanced. Races are far too easy on the 1 star rating, yet the increase to 2 star is massive. Jump straight to three star and you'll likely find yourself struggling badly. 4 star racing is one of the most punishing experiences I have had in video gaming (and I've been playing for almost 20 years now!). Certain races consist of boost challenges where you must hit boost pads or drift boost regularly in order to pause the timer or drift challenges where you must drift around a track without leaving a drift track indicator in order to earn time extensions. These challenges are fine on 1 and 2 star ratings, 3 and 4 star demand perfection at all times. One small slip up and you might as well restart. I'm all for challenge in video games - I always start at the highest difficulty setting - but Sonic Transformed really takes the biscuit. I struggled badly on numerous occasions and I would class myself as a competent to well-skilled kart racing gamer. These titles are often aimed at a younger audience and I imagine a lot of younger players have been left frustrated by the crushing difficulty of the game as well as the requirements for unlocking new characters. I have played for over 20 hours and I'm still abut 30 stars away from unlocking the final character (who is a big SEGA favourite, by the way).
When you are not pulling your hair out at being punished on hard or extreme, the game can have its fun moments. Most of the levels are well designed and any SEGA fans will have a ball revisiting locales of old. There are levels here from Afterburner, Golden Axe, House of the Dead, Skies of Arcadia and many more. There is a great sense of satisfaction when you blast a firework into the back of your nearest rival and send them spinning off the course or pip an opponent to the finish line at the very last second.
Unfortunately, even on 2 star you'll find this happening to your own character far more than to opponents. Kart games always have moments where it feels like you are being ganged up on and the frustration almost becomes overwhelming, but none more so than Sonic Transformed. From my observations, weapon hits seem to spin you out more violently and for longer than AI controlled characters and enemies in second place will seemingly aim backwards for you in third as opposed to the character in first even if a hit on the leader will win them the race. The hornet attack, which is equivalent to the blue koopa shell in Mario Kart, has to be one of the most ill-conceived weapon designs in any kart game. Often you will fire it at first place and find that they will navigate through the swarm unhindered while you, the person it was supposed to benefit, get battered to pieces by your own weapon.
There are also certain stages where there are poorly designed areas - there are, for example, too many right-angled corners that act as traps to your character and take an age to escape from. Some stages also suffer from horrendous glitches, most commonly the Jet Set Radio level where you can often find yourself falling through the track or, as has happened to me a few times, floating upwards into the sky and being reset from 1st to 8th. Additionally, on many tracks, firing projectile weapons when riding an upward curving track will often have the weapon explode into the curve instead of following the opponent as intended.
Sonic Tranformed is worth checking out if you are a die-hard fan of SEGA's back catalogue or a hardcore gamer who is a sucker for a punishing challenge. Although kart games are often suitable for younger audiences I cannot recommend this game for very young or casual players owing to the very steep difficulty. Should you persevere with the game, every first placed finish feels like an achievement, but at times you might find yourself about to hurl your Vita across the room against the nearest wall. If the challenge was a little more balanced and the rough edges of the game and glitches had been smoothed out I would have definitely rated it higher than three stars. Unfortunately, I found myself too often frustrated and this was a big contributing factor in my three star score.
If you pick up a copy of Sonic Transformed be prepared!