* Prices may differ from that shown
At the risk of provoking some form of legal action, it would probably be fair to say that Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing game is little more than a thinly veiled Mario Kart rip-off. For years, the fun of Mario Kart has been a major attraction for a range of Nintendo's machines; a title which never quite replicated. Sadly, in this iPhone incarnation, nothing is about to change.
The Pedigree is promising. It's produced by Sumo Digital (the studio behind a number of excellent Outrun conversions) and features a range of characters from the world of Sega racing against each other and using power-ups to help them come first. There are several different cups to compete for (effectively acting as difficulty levels), numerous tracks to race and even a multiplayer mode. Sadly, it all falls just a bit short of the mark.
There are several different reasons why All Stars Racing doesn't quite match up to the initial promise. The initial roster of characters is rather limited (true, more can be unlocked as you progress) and a little bit uninspired unless you're a real Sega fanboy. I've been gaming for around 30 years, but struggled to recognise a few of the characters or recall the games from which they were taken. This is either because they are quite niche characters or because they are rendered so small on the iPhone that it's tricky to recognise them.
At least the graphics on All Stars Racing are quite impressive. Tracks are well-rendered and well designed (although they don't quite have the same sense of fun or imagination as their Mario Kart counterparts). I've been disappointed by previous 3D racers on the iPhone, because the illusion of speed has been very poor.
This is one area All Stars racing needn't worry about. There is a real feeling of speed as you race along and the impressively rendered scenery whizzes past. It's obviously not as fast as on a full-blown console, but it's is nevertheless an impressive technical achievement and ensures the game has that critical illusion of speed. The different characters and karts are all well-designed and the track furniture imaginative, capturing the different Sega games that they come from (although, like the characters, some of these are from niche games that will not be instantly familiar to everyone).
Unfortunately, there is a price to be paid for this graphical excellence.
The demanding cartoon-like graphics and need to move objects around the screen at high speeds occasionally proves a little too much for the poor old iPhone, resulting in gamer frustration. You can be merrily racing along doing really well and the screen will suddenly freeze. It might only last for a fraction of a second, but it can still have a serious impact on the outcome of the race. Unfortunately, despite the graphical freeze, the game carries on behind these scenes and so calculates where you WOULD have been had the game not frozen and that's where you appear when it unlocks. You, of course, have reacted to where you WERE when the game froze. I've lost count of the times when I have been on a straight when the game froze and on a corner when it unlocked. This effectively means you will crash and lose precious seconds through no fault of your own. Indeed, on one game, I was in first place, but following a momentary freeze, found myself in last place once the game unlocked. Words cannot express how annoying that is.
"Annoying" is also a term that could be applied to the sound. As in Mario Kart, a tune plays throughout; but unlike Mario Kart these are insidious and annoying, rather than fun and quirky. Characters also offer occasional words of wisdom or shouts of excitement/frustration, but the voice acting (particularly on Sonic) grates on the ear. Sound effects are limited, but better (atmospheric engine sounds, appropriate whizzing noises as you drive over a go-faster strip); although it's still a game I tend to play with the sound turned off. This is in direct contrast to the PS3 version, which I also have, which I tend to play with the sound turned right up.
The difficulty level is a little imbalanced, too. In Mario Kart, even when you are in last place, you always feel like you have a realistic chance of winning the race because power-ups are cleverly distributed to give everyone a fighting chance. All Stars Racing doesn't strike that same balance and there are definitely times when you feel the game's computer controlled players are picking on you. You can be racing along doing really quite well when WHAM! a power up hits you. Just as you are getting going again... WHAM! another power-up takes you out, followed by another... and so on. It's not unusual to be hit by three or four power ups in as many seconds, effectively ending any chance of winning the race.
Sadly, these frustrating gameplay elements are compounded by the controls which, whilst simple to pick up, are not particularly helpful. Curiously, Sumo Digital have taken the decision not to include different control options (as far as I can see), so you are stuck with the default ones which rely on tilt controls to steer left or right. These are not responsive enough to give the fine degree of control a racing game demands and tilting the phone in this way can often make it difficult to see which way the track is bending up ahead The other curious thing is that you have almost no control over your speed, which is instead controlled by the game. You only input is the ability to slow yourself down using the brake button. The controls are just not up to scratch and the developers should have included a number of options (tilt controls, virtual joystick etc.) to allow gamers the choice.
It's not all bad news. If you haven't got access to a console and are in desperate need of a handheld racing fix, then I suppose All Stars would just about fit the bill. It's just that all the game's little imperfections add up, meaning the game is never as much fun as it should or could be. Certainly, it's not a patch on the PS3 version and is light years behind Mario Kart on either the Wii or the DS. Of course, at just £1.49 it's also a lot cheaper than other versions, but the low price is reflected in the low fun levels.
It's a brave attempt to squeeze a full blown console game to miniature proportions, but ultimately an unsuccessful one.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012