It's true that Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing is incredibly similar in terms of game design to a certain other kart racing series. While Mario Kart rules the racing roost, with sales to back it up, SEGA's been making arcade-style racing games since the dawn of time (well, the 1980s). So, while there's no denying that this Sumo Digital developed kart racer has been "inspired" by Nintendo's mega franchise, it's got a tinge of OutRun about it too, and production values that far exceed anything we've seen from the Italian Plumber's karting antics. But yeah, it's still essentially Mario Kart with Sonic.
Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing is a SEGA fan love-in. Although not all available from the start, the game features 20 famous (although some more than others) SEGA characters and 24 tracks. While the characters are spread amongst many SEGA titles, the tracks are based in the worlds of Sonic the Hedgehog, House of the Dead, Super Monkey Ball, Jet Set Radio, Samba de Amigo and Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg - yes, the game that was released exclusively on the GameCube to little fanfare back in 2003. Billy Hatcher is an odd choice given the other licences SEGA and Sumo had to play with, but presumably they thought the fun world would appeal to a younger audience.
From the get-go you'll have eight racers to choose from, including the maraca shaking Amigo from Samba de Amigo, Aiai from Super Monkey Ball and five characters from the Sonic series (Sonic, Tails, Amy Rose, Dr. Eggman and Shadow the Hedgehog). Bizarrely, the eighth start character is the aforementioned Billy Hatcher, and not a more iconic character. Sadly none of the unlockable characters include any anthropomorphic cars from SEGA's brilliant racing games (no Daytona or SEGA Rally car here), but you do get characters from Virtua Fighter, Space Channel 5, House of the Dead, Shenmue and more.
Core to All-Stars racing is the Grand Prix, a series of six championships each consisting of four races. Finish in third place or higher after the four races and you'll unlock the next championship. Your performances also earn you SEGA dollars, which can be spent to unlock the extra content detailed above. In total the SEGA store has 12 racers, 16 courses and 32 music tracks to spend hard-earned cash on.
None of this would count for toffee if the actual racing wasn't up to scratch, but coming from Sumo (the studio behind the excellent home console versions of OutRun 2) there really wasn't anything to worry about. On the track, whether you're playing as a character who drives a car or rides a bike, the handling is very arcadey, with a big emphasis on powersliding - making it feel somewhere in-between Mario Kart and OutRun. Powerslide for a certain length of time and you'll earn a boost, propelling you forward when you release the drift button - the longer you hold the slide the bigger the boost you receive. As in Nintendo's Mario Kart Wii, simple one-button tricks performed in the air will also grant you a boost on landing.
More than a match for the excellent handling are the exceedingly well designed tracks. Aside from some irritating Monkey Ball courses, most of the 24 included on the disc are excellent, and get increasingly more difficult and complex as you work through the Grand Prix championships. Again, more of a mixture of SEGA titles wouldn't have gone amiss, with a high percentage coming from Sonic, but Sonic is the publisher's mascot after all. Newcomers to the genre should be able to compete fairly well when playing on Beginner difficulty, but advanced and expert settings will push more experienced gamers quite hard.
Maintaining a tight line around corners is only one part of the race experience. No kart racer is complete unless a bevy of weapons are at your disposal. Sadly, this is one area in which Sonic and co don't perform as well. For the most part the weapons are fairly generic, with new designs simply covering up the fact that we've seen them all before in Mario Kart. One that stands out, mainly due to its flashy nature, is the All-Star pick-up. As is the way in these kind of games, you'll only get it should you be performing badly, but once activated your character will perform a special move for a short period of time. Sonic uses the chaos emeralds to become a super fast gold Super Sonic, while Shenmue's Ryo hops into a forklift and zooms through the pack.
Outside of the Grand Prix mode there's a substantial Missions mode, in which you'll need to complete various challenges as you try to earn the coveted AAA ratings. Sumo Digital is following in the footsteps of its home console versions of OutRun 2 here, with a variety of challenges ranging from going head to head against another character, to drifting as much as possible. You're forced to use certain characters, too, which mixes things up a bit. With 64 missions to complete there's enough here to keep you playing for hours.
As expected, multiplayer racing is great fun in All-Stars, but it's not nearly as feature-rich as I'd have liked. For one, the eight-player online mode is limited to racing only - there's no battle mode support. To fight against friends over a handful of combative game modes you'll have to stick to the four-player split-screen option. In truth, the battle modes aren't great, with the most fun with friends coming from the standard racing, but even this isn't handled brilliantly. You can't compete in an online Grand Prix, so you're essentially just racing in single one-off races. There are options to set up private games, whether you want AI racers to join in and if power-ups and rubber-banding are on, but the whole mode seems painfully lacking.
While the multiplayer options are disappointing, the presentation is anything but. On all three consoles the visuals are excellent, jammed full of charm and character. The PS3 and 360 games clearly look sharper and more detailed than the Wii version, but the Nintendo console still pumps out an impressive looking game. There's some awesome music too, with new versions of many classic SEGA tracks, and even the in-game announcer isn't annoying. If it weren't for the erratic frame rate, which stumbles too much in all versions of the game, there'd practically be nothing to complain about.
Aside from visual differences the three versions have a few minor things to set them apart. The Wii game lets you use tilt to drive and has Mii integration, the 360 game features a Banjo and Kazooie car and Avatar integration, and the PS3 version uses the Sixaxis tilt sensor for driving. None of these are especially noteworthy and do little to elevate one title above another. More significant is the downloadable ghost data for use in the Time Trial mode. On PS3 and 360 you can use these ghosts to help improve your racing, but on Wii you can simply view the fastest times.
Whichever version of Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing you choose you're going to get a well produced, fun arcade racer, with enough tracks and unlockables to keep you playing for a long time. Yes, it has taken more than a bit from Nintendo's karting series, but it has enough of its own style to make it worth a look even if you're a die-hard Nintendo gamer. Dare I say it, SEGA has finally given us another good Sonic game.