Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed recommendation for PC

"You Should Try" is a series of articles where I'll showcase you a game I really enjoy while explaining what exactly makes it fun. This can be any game, new or old, indie or AAA, the only requirement is that it has to be something I've found myself greatly enjoying and in need of sharing with the world.

Today I think you should try Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, which besides having quite possibly the worst name ever conceived by mortal man, is an exceptionally good kart racer, and in my humble opinion the very best one. It features a charming and unique cast of characters, a bunch of well-designed levels and power-ups, memorable music, complex gameplay mechanics, and most importantly, AI opponents that actually manage to offer up a real challenge without resorting to cheating or rubber-banding!

Video version of this article (13 minutes)

Before we go on, allow me to briefly explain what a kart racer is. Unlike classic racing games such as Need for Speed or Gran Turismo, a kart racer focuses less on realism and more on combining the thrill of player vs player combat with breakneck speeds. They tend to include a wide variety of characters, each of which handle slightly differently, an entire assortment of weaponry you can pick up from loot boxes scattered across the map, and a set of gameplay mechanics that are easy to understand for new players, while also offering a surprising amount of depth for those that are willing to take their game to the next level.

All of this is true for Sonic as well, but there is one crucial difference that makes it stand far above the rest - its not unfair! In games such as Mario Party your AI opponents will constantly rubber-band around you, ensuring in theory that you will always be adequately challenged and that no match will ever feel unwinnable or too easy. In reality, however, this just makes the whole game infuriating to play alone as no matter how well or poorly you do, you're always going to be in the exact same spot until the very end. What should be a climactic battle between equals instead often devolves in to a boring slog where only the final few minutes matter, as any advantage before that can quickly be erased through a single mistake and the AI being a bunch of cheating little bastards.

Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed Battlefleet screenshot

Stranded in the middle of a war zone? Better build a racing track!

Sonic on the other hand doesn't baby you. Instead it offers you an even playing field and expects you to win through your racing skills alone, and not by introducing a handicap to your opponents. Since not everyone is prepared, or even willing to play at the highest skill level, Sonic offers the usual variety of difficulty modes, but unlike the usual suspects, these are actually well done. Playing on normal will give casual players an opportunity to dance around colorful maps and in general just have a jolly good time, while the fourth and final difficulty level will transform all of the AI players into seasoned veterans and offer an adequate challenge to even the best of players.

While the normal difficulty opponents will just race around and throw their items at random, the ones at the final difficulty level will utilize every single mechanical trick available to them, some of which are obscure enough that I doubt casual players even know about them. These tricks alone would make them nasty opponents, but Sonic takes things a bit further by making the AI players well aware of all map-shortcuts and insanely aggressive with their items, especially against the leading player.

Even after playing the game for well over 50 hours I will still occasionally lose to the AI opponents because a single mistake can sometimes cost you the entire match as the competition is outright ruthless. While this might sounds aggravating at first, its actually the best feature of Sonic and the reason I've stuck around with it for so long. There is nothing quite like having a guarantee that your opponents will offer up not just a worthy challenge, but a completely fair fight as well. I understand this sort of thing might not be for everyone, and as such I am glad there are multiple difficulty levels designed to accommodate various types of players, but to me this competitive touch makes Sonic one of the most enjoyable racers I've ever played. Mind you, the AI will never be as good as the truly skilled players you might come upon online, but its good enough that playing in singleplayer is a completely valid choice, and that is something I appreciate greatly.

Sonic driving without hands

"Look mom, no hands!" - Sonic the Hedgehog 07/04/2016

With the more abstract aspects of Sonic out of the way, let's focus on the actual gameplay and what makes it enjoyable enough for me to recommend. The first thing I'd like to mention here is the colorful cast of characters, the majority of which hail from Sega's catalog of games, though there are some... oddballs in there as well. As you can probably guess, you've got Sonic and his crew, a samurai from Total War, the manager from Football Manager, the Dwarf from Golden Axe, but also a couple of mercenaries from Team Fortress 2, Ralph from Wreck-it Ralph, and bizarrely enough, a real-life NASCAR racer...

Each character plays slightly differently, and with numerous side-grades to equip on each one you are almost guaranteed to find the exact type of vehicle you're looking for, whether that be one that focuses on speed, handling, acceleration, or perhaps even a little bit of everything. Best of all, each of them has their own specific theme song that plays when they use the All-Star, a slightly weaker variant of the Super Star you might know from Mario Kart, with some of the tunes being so catchy you might just ignore the fact that they bounced you off the road and into the gutter. None of this sounds very important, but the insane amalgamation of characters and their unique vehicles adds so much charm to each race that I find it difficult to imagine Sonic & All-Stars existing in any other way.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed character Danica Patrick

Your guess is as good as mine

While this isn't anything new to the karting genre, most of the maps in Sonic have certain parts of the stage where your vehicle will transform into either an airplane or a boat in order to continue. The moment this happens you will have the option to do a couple of stunts before you hit the track again, and the more complex the trick you do the bigger the speed boost you will get. This is by no means a massive addition that will totally revolutionize the genre, but its a fun little mechanic that makes each race a bit more exciting to watch, especially when the player in front of you overdoes it and ends up smashing head-first into a wall instead.

That tangent aside, each of the three vehicle types controls similarly enough to always feel comfortable, but differently enough to require a certain amount of finesse to control properly. The boat operates on slightly floaty physics and will require of you take corners with much more care than you would usually, but it does also allow you to use large waves as a platform to perform various stuns and gain speed boosts, so while its not as easy to control as the land variant, it has its own advantages. Flying on the other hand is actually quite simple to do, but immensely hard to master. Moving in the cardinal directions is easy enough, but it isn't very efficient or very quick. If you truly want to emulate Sonic and go fast, you will need to spend a fair chunk of time learning how to drift while in the air, because even though the mechanics are the same as in the ground-based vehicles, trying to accurately gouge your position in 3D while flying at top-speed is not an easy thing to do. Its rather satisfying when you master it, however, as you will glide through the air with the grace of a kite, so if you ever get annoyed with this portion of Sonic, I would suggest simply sticking with it until it finally "clicks".

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed features some difficult flying mechanics

*click*

Different types of vehicles are most commonly used as a small gimmick to spice up the otherwise static maps, but Sonic once again takes things further by making nearly every level dynamic! You don't just race along a single straight track throughout all three of your laps, instead you get to see the track slightly (or even significantly) altered each time you go through. The best example of this is a map that takes place during a giant battle between airships. Your first lap will mostly revolve around driving on a set track, flying through debris, and in general just having a normal racing experience. However, during the second lap the airships will start crashing onto the track, setting certain portions of it ablaze and even outright destroying entire sections, thus forcing a change of vehicles and routes.

The final, third lap is usually a culmination of all the events you could witness in the background of the stage. In this example, the bombardment becomes so heavy that there is almost no track left, and the only way you can even finish the race is by flying between various bits and pieces of the track that still hover in the air, and the numerous airships that are either currently fleeing or chasing down their opponents. Besides being fun from a purely racing perspective, its also a gorgeous spectacle backed with some kick-ass music, so the maps and races never feel boring or stale. It is because of this that I have managed to spend well over 50 hours with Sonic, and I don't consider even a single minute wasted.

Wreck-It Ralph from Sonic racing

Ralph is about to get wrecked

All of these interesting maps and colorful characters would be completely insignificant, however, if the racing itself wasn't fun, and I'm delighted to say that its, well... delightful! The controls are responsive, the maps are cleanly designed and easy to understand, and there is plenty of mechanical depth to each character to help stave off any boredom that might set in. Perhaps the best example of this mechanical complexity is the drifting system, that while simple enough on first glance, is actually so complex that it will take you a good chunk of playtime before you come to grips with it.

Much like most other kart games, drifting in Sonic for a second or two will result in a slight speed boost, but if you somehow manage to find enough space to drift for 10 seconds you will find yourself with such a massive boost in speed you might just slam in to a wall straight after. The speed boost is so powerful you clearly want to use it as often as you can, which means you want to drift around as often as you can, but this is where things get tricky.

While drifting you are actually slightly slower than when simply driving forward, and any sort of impact you make during the drift will send you spiraling out of control, or at the very least slow you down enough to ruin the whole point of the exercise. You can even use this against your opponents by slamming them with an item, or even just your face, in an effort to mess up their drift and hopefully take the lead. Naturally, they can do the same to you, and thus the question arises: Do you drift as often as possible in order to achieve a nearly constant speed boost, fully aware of the risks that come with it, or do you play it safe and only drift around corners to make the transition easier? If you're looking for a concrete answer, I'm afraid I don't have one, because despite spending far too much time Sonic I'm still often finding myself in trouble due to my overbearing wish to constantly get that sweet, sweet boost.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed drifting mechanics

Drifting straight into a wall - The Ash story

The final thing I wanted to touch upon are the item pick-ups you can find throughout the level and then employ against your enemies with extreme blowfish prejudice. Much like the difficulty argument I brought up early on, the items in Sonic compared to most other kart games aren't designed with the intent to award the weakest player and punish the strongest, but rather to offer an equal playing field where upsets can happen, but aren't guaranteed.

Not only do you have items that can help protect you from homing attacks, but you can also use offensive items in a defensive fashion! For example, if someone throws a homing drone after you, you can either use the environment in a clever way in order to get it to blow itself up, or just use an offensive item and hopefully snipe it before it gets close enough to you for its explosion to impede your progress. Its such a simple addition, but it makes the gameplay feel a lot more fair and cutthroat at the same time, and thus a lot more exciting as well. Nothing feels better than winning purely on your skills alone, as that is a victory you can truly be proud of.

Closing Thoughts

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, despite being an absolutely stupid title, represents one of the finest kart games I've ever played. The character roster is colorful and varied, the maps are astonishingly well designed and dynamic enough to make each lap feel unique, the music manages to be both nostalgic and modern, and there is enough mechanical depth to the racing itself to keep the whole experience fun for a long period of time. 

All of that alone would make for an excellent kart game, but Sonic also offers an actually balanced set of items, and most importantly, AI opponents designed to be a challenge no matter your skill level. If you're up for a kart racer with an absurd amount of content and replayability, then I do believe you should try Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Its one of my favorite games to relax to, and hopefully it'll bring the same joy to you as well.

Looking for more interesting games to play? How about Darkest Dungeon, a brutally difficult turn-based RPG that features numerous roguelike elements, a gorgeous art style filled with Lovecraftian horrors, and a story that manages to stick to the back-lines, yet still draw you ever-forward in an effort to plunder its secrets.

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