Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing
When it comes to cartoony videogame racing, a certain Nintendo franchise takes pole position on the gaming grid time and time again. Yet, despite that qualifying dominance, ambitious rivals never falter in their attempts to sweep out of the leader's slipstream in order to be first to the chequered flag and the waiting consumer plaudits. Many have tried and, up until now, all have failed.
But, if our weeklong stint at the GamesCom trade show in Koln taught us anything, it's that upcoming games you expect to disappoint are often the titles quickest to hit you with welcome surprises. Bearing that in mind, open your eyes to - but perhaps also shield them from - the unashamedly vivid action of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.
Shaking the enthusiastic hand of demo presenter and Sega Europe producer Gwllym Hughes, we settled into one of many surrounding Fat Boy beanbags in the Sega Business Center with expectations fairly low for what promised to be, for all intents and purposes, just another Mario Kart clone. "It's not just racing!" exclaimed Hughes as the massive LCD television blinked into life behind him and all eyes and minds in the room opened a little wider to the prospect of a genuine challenger to Nintendo's crown.
Given that All-Stars Racing is a Sega property, the inclusion of spiky speedster Sonic the Hedgehog is no great shock, but it's the character role call of those around him that's likely to bolster appeal for this particular slice of high-octane action. Specifically, budding racers can look forward to slipping behind the controls of cars, bike and planes as Sega stalwarts Dr. Eggman, Knuckles, and Tails, along with the likes of Alex Kid, Billy Hatcher, Amigo from Samba Di Amigo, AiAi from Super Monkey Ball, and even Beat from Jet Set Radio Future.
From a design and presentation point of view, players are asked to check believability at the door directly before the game hits them with all manner of sweeping, twisting, looping tracks spread across a selection of game worlds aligned with each of All Stars Racing's characters. For example, there's the lush foliage of Jumble Jungle from Super Monkey Ball, the gaudy excesses of Casino Park from Sonic Heroes, and the ominous scale of Buzzard Castle from Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg - all of which come complete with plenty of franchise-specific iconography and environmental eye candy.
Pushing fun at literally every turn, the tracks in All-Stars Racing are bordered by speed-depleting buffers that, while sapping vital momentum, prevent players from ever falling off the road. Yet, while this means accelerators can be pressed to the floor at all times - Hughes even offered that players "don't really need the brake" - being slowed to a crawl by the buffers doesn't exactly promote competitive racing. To counter this potential problem, each of the crazy character-specific vehicles is able to employ "acceleration friendly" drift for navigating tough bends and challenging corners, allowing skilled drivers to avoid buffer zones while maintaining optimum speeds.
Of course, no matter how well individual racers adapt to the core driving mechanics of All-Stars Racing, placement and momentum can be radically affected at any time thanks to track-based environmental obstacles, a vast array of multi-directional power-ups, and unique, character-specific hero attacks. And to help keep every player in contention, All-Stars Racing also grants trailing racers "a catch-up allowance" so that they can stay in touch with leading vehicles, meaning those at the front will never be able to blast clear of the chasing pack and will always need to watch for incoming ordnance.
Some of the power-ups and weapons shown during the demo ranged from conventional temporary assistance in the form of missiles and shields through to more devious and unusual items such as smoke bombs, a super horn and even massive boxing gloves. Beyond the formidable arsenal of weaponry littered across every track, players in All Stars Racing can also hoard up to three different power-ups, which can be fired off individually or simultaneously if large-scale impact is required. And, rounding out the game's character appeal, All-Stars Racing includes unique - and often ridiculous - signature attacks unleashed to franchise-specific musical accompaniment. For example, Billy Hatcher's attack sees him leap from his car onto a (surprise, surprise) Giant Egg before sprinting on it like a log-runner in order to target and crush rival racers. It's all very silly, but somehow irresistibly charming.
Sega & Sonic All-Stars Racing promises to be as bold as it is colourful and as crammed with variety as it is recognisable videogame characters, amusing power-ups, and smile-inducing racer takedowns. Factoring in the distinctly speed-friendly action of its core Solo campaign, often gravity-defying track designs, four-player splitscreen, eight-player online multiplayer, and more modes yet to be revealed (which Hughes was very excited about), and it's fair to say there may well be a beast of an engine purring beneath the game's vibrantly cute chassis.
Much like the genre leader it's so clearly striving to emulate, Sega's latest racing creation looks to build on the association of familiarity while offering instant access to genuinely fun racing, which, although favouring the young and those keen on party multiplayer, looks set to cross the finishing line wheel-to-wheel with the gaming world's very best cartoon karts.
Expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2010, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing will be burning rubber on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Games for Windows. Versions for Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS are also in the pipeline.