Jan 042011

Title: Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing

Format: XBox 360

Reviewer: Remy77077

Approximate Time Spent playing at time of writing: 29 hours

Modes of play: Single Player, 2-4 Player Split-screen Offline Competitive, Online 2-8 player Competitive, Online Leaderboards

At some point playing Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing I realised exactly why I’ve never been able to get into most driving games. It’s because they are almost all about rote-learning of the perfect route through a course, and pure execution skills. There’s almost no room for any kind of strategy and very little in the way of tactics, and these are two skill tests that I really enjoy and pretty much have to have to some extent to become intrigued with a game or sometimes even a puzzle/challenge. As these two phrases are overused & misappropriated all the time, I’ll pause for a moment to explain how I define them (based on their actual popular dictionary definitions):

Strategy – a plan of action to achieve a specific goal, ie: the thought you do before a game begins. In a game your goal will usually be to win, so this is the planned method you decide to go about that.

Tactics – the implementation of a strategy and then developing variances from it; essentially, coming up with new strategies mid-game & making decisions to react to your opponents, or even your allies. Note these terms do crossover as a really good strategy may also have preconceived tactics built into it. Also in turn-based games, the lines become even more blurred as you are to some extent able to create new strategies as the situation changes as well, American football being an excellent example.

In a pure racing game, the strategy to win is always the same – be the fastest around the track – and there’s not really any alternative or detailed thought you can devolve from it. Tactically you may sometimes get an opportunity to take a corner badly but at the same time block an opponent who would otherwise get a chance to pass you (or the reverse situation when over-taking), but these things are clearly very limited.

So what most modern racing games have tended to do is break up this simple schema by adding more variations to the racing that allows for players to decide some different strategies and more likely, a lot more tactics. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing doesn’t do a bad job at this. For example many courses have alternative routes where there is some strategic and tactical choice in choosing to use them or not. Sadly most of them are simply “no brainer” shortcuts and so these don’t really add that much, once you discover them, they simply change the course for you. Of much more value are the powerup items and weapons that are available on the course. Here Sonic & Sega has borrowed from the classic Mario Kart formula offering a wide variety of such things that change the way you may want to drive. Also there’s more thought possibly involved because when you get the chance, you can even view what other drivers have collected, and this may also affect how you play. They have even made some oddities to the driving mechanics in the game which means that drifting gives you unnatural speed boosts, so, depending on your character and car, there are slightly different tactics and strategies you may want to employ to get the most out your vehicle, eg: drift as much as possible, or only on certain corners.

So far, so good, so let’s look at what the single player puzzle/challenge modes of Sonic & Sega All-Stars entail. You can either do standard races against CPU drivers, either single races or in sequence – the usual Grand Prix, a series of races with an overall placing at the end, and you can choose from the usual difficulty settings for these. You can also race around single courses in a time trial mode – against a “ghost CPU” driver initially, and then against your own ghost later on to see if you can improve your times. The time trial mode is also the used for the online Leaderboards so more on this later. As you complete races, you unlock more tracks, and also get money (Sega Miles) with which you can unlock cosmetic additions such as extra music tracks, and also more characters to choose from with different driving abilities. Whilst I’ve heavily criticised grinding in general, here it is very mild. You’ll quite easily unlock everything as you’re playing the game ‘normally’, at least if you’re having much fun with it at all, and when such unlocks are used in a pure single-player challenge mode, I don’t really mind it too much.

One flaw though with these modes of play was that, whilst there was a significant & fun learning curve for me (as I almost never play racing games), once I had got the hang of all the mechanics and courses, the general racing eventually became too easy for me even on Normal difficulty. You could either attempt to get out in front & stay there, or, surprisingly, there was a 2nd viable strategy on offer in Sonic & Sega Racing, which was to hang back and hope you got the “All Star” powerup, which was an utterly broken super power ‘come back’ move that was so potent (on Normal diffculty) it would even allow you to even get from last place into 1st! Luckily the designers appear to have realised how silly these moves could get in multiplayer competitive modes and so they don’t feature in the competitive online game modes. However despite what a good idea this was, my friend Benjamin Blank told me he’d discussed this with the devs and actually it may have only been due to programming issues, rather than necessarily a true design decision! In any case, either way, Normal mode was working out too easy for me, and whilst Hard offered a greater challenge, I could still usually win with drivers & tracks I was familiar with. Another problem though was that the game offered no kind of incentive to push yourself against the harder difficulties. There was no Achievements, no worthwhile leaderboards for this section of the game, nothing. This is pretty unusual these days; in fact many titles have the opposite problem of “top loading” their rewards systems so badly that the ‘average’ player gets far from an average score. It’s worth noting here that most of the Achievements in this title are very poorly designed, both as incentives for challenge modes of play and the game modes of play. Most of the challenge ones can be got by pure grinding and don’t demonstrate any real skill – there’s just very little interesting there to get. The online game ones are even worse, being entirely dependent on your opponents as to whether you can get them or not. Worse still, some of the Achievements are actually broken – as my own achievement score will show if you check it & read carefully which Achievements I don’t have!

Luckily for me there was another alternate mode of play for Sonic & Sega Racing as a puzzle/challenge – the mission mode. This was unaffected by difficulty level, or any of the grinding stuff either, because each level of it was a self-contained challenge. This was also the only mode with some interesting skill-based achievements. There were only about 15 different kinds of mission, all with variants though, repeated over a number of increasing difficulties the further you progressed. For example one such challenge would be a “knock out” race where the last person in the race would be KO’d every few seconds, so you had to keep overtaking or lose. This same kind of challenge would be repeated a few times over with different tracks and difficulties etc. Whilst some of these challenges were rather frustrating, as you can imagine, me, as an agoner, actually had the most fun with this mode, and I enjoyed it enough to work at getting a AAA rating on every one. I got particularly stuck on the infamous “Mission 42” as it was really difficult, being a ‘trick ramps’ style open area of a course with ramps and jumps with coins all over it, and you really had to attempt to work out a perfect route throughout the area to get every single coin in the time allowed to get the AAA. It was so randomly tough compared to all the other missions, I got concerned that it was bugged, or that I’d completely gotten the wrong idea, but luckily a quick check on the interwebz revealed that yes, this mission was just arbitrarily hard and everyone struggles with it, and my method was fine, I just needed to get my execution better. It’s this Mission mode that I enjoyed the most when it comes to the puzzle/challenge sides of this title and is the main reflection of it’s review score – as it was ungrindable, challenging for my skill level, and, a lot more interesting for me than actually just racing!

Onto the actual competitive game then. In this case the online competitive game as that’s all I’ve been able to play, so I cannot really comment on the offline splitscreen mode. First of all you have the chance to compete on the time trial mode’s leaderboards mentioned earlier. Unfortunately many of these have been completely ruined by exploits & glitches, with all the top scores posted being impossible times. Some tracks didn’t seem to be affected by that though, and you could also see a “friends list only” fastest times (this is always a great feature that many full price games miss out on even though it is standard practice on XBLA) so I could see times I knew were ‘legit’. However looking at the top times on most tracks, most of them you needed to drive with a specific character to get the best times – and unfortunately for most non-broken track leaderboards it turned out that extra DLC characters were required to compete. This is rather unfortunate and it means that if you want to “play” this part of the game properly, you actually need to spend more money than the title first appears to be on sale for (this is exactly the same thing that is occurring with fighting games like BlazBlue now I’m sad to say). Either way this method of competing, as I alluded to at the start of this article, is the furthest from my own taste that you can get within the game. It is pure rote-learning, efficiency and execution, and so it didn’t really interest me.

The main online competitive mode though is of course, actual races, and I will go into some detail here:

Game systems: Basic user-created & hosted lobbies for 2 to 8 players. This is, as always, an extremely disappointing method of doing things, given that many videogames have been beyond this weak method of setting up games for a long time now. You either search for a lobby to join or create one yourself and sit there and wait for people to join. You can choose whether you want free slots to be played by AI or not (and the level of that AI). I do not believe there is any host migration, but as there is no ranking system and nothing to be penalised by losing (or gained by winning really), I did not once see a host quit. I did see people quitting out frequently in the latter stages of races if they were doing badly, however I don’t really see that as a problem, as explained here. One critical difference in this game that made the lobby system far less frustrating than usual, especially with a reasonably small online playerbase, was that you were able to see lobbies with races in progress that had free slots that would come available later. Many games could learn from this if they have to use poor lobby systems for some reason.

Matchmaking: None whatsoever. However at least you can see the country of the lobbies hosts available before you enter them, and once in the lobby, the country of all the players in it, so this gives some modicum level of manual connection-based matchmaking. However the host would have to go to a fair amount of trouble kicking out players from far-afield countries to attempt to ensure a good connection for everyone. Playing from the UK with a good cable internet connection, I was able to experience the majority of games being relatively unaffected by lag, by choosing games with European hosts.

Netcode: The game sometimes had large amounts of rollback, and so appeared to be using GGPO-style rather than input lag at least. It was a shame there was no easy way to tell who would have a good connection to you until the game begins other than by their country flags, and I had a few really frustrating games with crazy rollback that would mean one moment I appeared to be taking a corner fine, the next I was restarting after coming right off the track. I did not see any problems with “host advantage”.

Despite all of this weak design, surprisingly the game at least seemed to be ok for online competitive races for me, at least when I had the patience to put up with the sometimes laborious lobby system. Luckily there were usually a few lobbies available, and when I hosted lobbies they would usually get a few people joining, so there’s clearly still some kind of community online for this game at the time of writing which is a good sign. As discussed earlier, there are no “All Star” moves available in competitive races, so there was only one best strategy to use – get in front and attempt to stay there, and actually, this demonstrated that there were some problems with the mechanics here that were exacerbated by playing it competitively. The way races would usually pan out was that there would be a huge scramble at the start with people attempting to get ‘speed starts’ and get the powerups – almost all of which would prove fairly useful at the start of the race if you could get them as there were lots of other racers around you; however after this initial bit of action, one player would naturally get out in front and the rest would tend to get spaced behind them, either by the luck of the powerups, or skill, or usually a combination of both. Now theoretically the weapons and powerups should allow for some more randomness and comeback mechanics for the players behind the leader, however due to how the powerups are distributed, it actually does not work out like that very often. The reason is that quality of the random powerups is weighted based on how well you are doing at the point you collect them. This means that the best place to be to be unaffected by these items is in 1st! Because you will probably only get weak items yourself, but at the same time, the people in 2nd and 3rd are also probably getting quite weak items that are less likely to be able to affect you, and they in turn are far more likely to be being affected by the items collected by players in 4th and 5th place. In this way, the game essentially has quite a slippery slope design. Whoever starts off winning, after the 1st lap at least, becomes increasingly likely that they will win as long as the race goes on. If you yourself manage to get out of the initial “mess” and get into 1st place, it’s pretty much a case that as long as you don’t screw up too badly or get very unlucky with regards to items, you will win the race. Some tracks did have random elements such as moving scenery and attacks that would affect all races randomly as well, which could enable comebacks almost at random as well, however there were generally ways to overcome these elements of the tracks by either not taking risks or by skillful play, which the person in 1st, less affected by other races on the track, was also best-placed to implement. Whether you like this design or not is a matter of taste. I’d have preferred it if more races ended up in closer struggles to the wire – which was extremely rare in my experience in Sonic & Sega Racing. However I find this preferable than say the more recent Mario Kart games’ extreme disadvantages for being in 1st place, that are so heavy, people actually fight to try to stay in 2nd place.

As the time trial mode showed, there were clearly characters that were better on certain courses than others as well – and whilst you could change as the lobby host changed the track, you could not choose the same character that someone else had already selected (other than your own XBL Avatar’s Avacar – which was always selectable by everyone, but did not seem to be the best at any particular track anyway), so you may not be able to make optimal decisions, even if you have grinded your way to all the characters (which can be done by playing online competition as well at least!) and bought every DLC character.

My best experience with the game was when I was in a lobby that varied between 5 and 8 players, most of whom stayed around for multiple races, and a few of whom were also voice chatting from time to time. I was surprised in fact, that even without any matchmaking at all, I was actually able to compete reasonably within only a short time playing the game online. I think this is because, whilst you really needed to learn a track well to have any chance to compete, the controls are relatively simple and the powerups and randomness of how things work out tended to even things out quite a lot. I think most of the players in the lobby that time at some point won a race, even me, when I got on a particularly good track for the racer I was using, and managed to get out in front, and didn’t make any mistakes. I also suspect that because of the nature of the game, the ‘average’ skill level online just isn’t that high. It just isn’t really designed to be an especially competitive game really, in that there’s no long-term incentive to compete – no visible ranking system or any record of your performance, beyond a few ill-conceived Achievements. I’m not aware of any tournaments or anything taking place for this game – if there were, it would likely be very difficult to organise and would need some house rules about how to determine character and track selection. Because of my own taste in games I feel I’m unlikely to ever really enjoy a competitive racing game a huge amount unless it was significantly different from a ‘standard’ race, and for everything it does differently, Sonic & Sega Racing still plays out very much like any other racing game. Despite the limited online features, it was certainly more enjoyable for me than a lot of online experiences though as a new player; however there seems to be little incentive for anyone to become an advanced elite player at the game, and it would likely be quite frustrating to even try to do so.

As for the ‘experience’ factor when it comes to the game, there wasn’t any intense feeling of speed especially, however the “Sega” flavour was very enjoyable for me. Without some of the Sega franchises in the game appealing to me, I probably wouldn’t even have been playing this game at all, so I’m exactly the sort of person who would get the most out of this as an ‘experience’ – in theory. In actuality they hardly make the most out of the various franchises, and so it mostly felt like a missed opportunity to me. Most of my favourite characters from games I loved in the past (or still love!) are reduced to racers or ‘scenery’ only (NiGHTS only appears as the ‘flag man’ for example), which all only amounts to bit-parts. The only themes that get any real “air time” in Sonic & Sega Racing are the ones that are used for the core race tracks & music – Sonic, Billy Hatcher, Jet Set Radio and Super Monkey Ball – and so no games I am a fan of (or have even played in the case of all but Sonic!) get much in this game. The sole exception is The House of the Dead, which has tracks devoted to it too. This was much more fun to race around Curien mansion themed tracks and spot bosses and unlock some memorable music from those games. However I was expecting a lot more from Space Channel 5, NiGHTS, Virtua Fighter, and other Sega titles I am personally much more familiar with & fond of. Perhaps the best touches for me were some music that I remember from Sega Saturn games such as ‘Super Sonic Racing’ from Sonic R. It was great to hear some really good, but lamentably relatively unknown game music re-used. However all in all, the decisions made on the flavour choices seemed to be very strange. Some are obscure fan-service, yet others seem to be pure attempts to market current games, and so the game seems to have a very confused flavour overall – it seems highly unlikely this would be anyone’s actual “All Star” Sega cast.

Challenge Review: – It’s mainly the mission mode that earns the game a positive score.

Competitive Gaming Design Review: Although this has assymetical & likely unbalanced vehicles (depending on the track), it essentially has a level playing field with every racer effectively available to anyone on any particular track over time. It has no effective ranking system or matchmaking. It’s not something you could take seriously at all, but it’s not an anti-competitive design either.

Competitive Game Review: – Nothing too great, nothing too bad. Despite awful online options on paper, somehow due to the nature of the game, it works out ok.

Interactive Story:  Neutral – None.

Toy/Experience:  Neutral.

Grind:  Whilst there’s a lot of stuff to grind at, the only thing that actively affects the gameplay is unlocking the different racers, and you will quickly unlock everything anyway. It’s so excessively mild that I can’t really complain about it’s implementation in this as a challenge or as a game.

Simulation:  None. Although I’m not really familiar with actual racing, I think I’m on pretty safe ground knowing that this is not anything like real driving!

Overall Score:

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