Sometimes itâ€™s nice to be proven wrong. When we first saw that this kart racing sequel featured vehicles that transform into boats and planes, we were quick to draw comparisons with Mario Kart 7, and thus assumed it would be a shameless clone. When we actually sat down and played it though, we were pleased to discover that thereâ€™s a fair amount of original elements under the hood.
The â€˜transformedâ€™ part of the gameâ€™s title doesnâ€™t just refer to the fact that the vehicles transform when going airborne or hitting the H2O, but also because the tracks themselves transform as races progress. The Skies of Arcadia track â€“ set on a sequence of floating islands â€“ falls apart as you race along the surfaces, ending with the final lap set in the sky. The Panzer Dragoon track meanwhile has a bridge thatâ€™s destroyed by a dragon (dragoon?), forcing racers to transform into boats. Then thereâ€™s the NiGHTS track which we are confident in saying will please fans immensely.
Thereâ€™s not one but two that bear similarities to Mario Kartâ€™s legendary Rainbow Road as well, with narrow strips of road and tight bends. Most courses give a choice of paths, some of which are well hidden. Itâ€™s quite hard to pick a favourite as more than a few are superbly designed, but easy to name a least favourite. The Burning Rangers effort is a vexing experience that very much feels like it has come from a lesser game. Thatâ€™s the only real duffer, although we were a little confused as to why the Outrun track was set mostly on water. Very odd given the source material, but not an entirely bad thing.
As always with kart racers, itâ€™s with friends that the game shines brightest. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty for solo players to get their teeth into. As well as the standard GPs, which have four races each, thereâ€™s a surprisingly varied World Tour Mode. In addition to standard races thereâ€™s a range of challenges, such as drift challenges, and elimination matches. Each challenge has three difficulty levels to choose from, and youâ€™re awarded up to three stars depending on difficulty. These stars are used to unlock additional characters, each of whom can be levelled up. It takes around two to three hours of use with one character to reach maximum rank, and every time you level up a new kart mod is unlocked that alters a racerâ€™s stats.
A few of the characters do feel shoehorned in due to licensing deals. Wreck-It Ralph feels a bit out of place and isnâ€™t a character we found ourselves using â€“ his physics-based wrecking ball is far too distracting. Real-life racer Danica Patrick also feels out of place. Why put a human character in a line-up of colourful fantasy characters? Thankfully the rest of the roster will please Sega fans.
With ex-Bizzare Creations staff partly responsible, itâ€™s no surprise that the vehicle handling feels faultless. The water sections have had Wave Race and Hydro Thunder cited as influences and even when in plane mode itâ€™s possible to drift. Drifting gives a temporary burst of speed as does performing stunts while launching off ramps and such, but only if the stunt is landed correctly. This adds a pleasing risk/reward element. Coins placed precariously on the tracks can be spent on a fruit machine during the loading screens that occasionally coughs up a power-up. Winning one and then unleashing it as soon as the race starts is a lot of fun, especially if itâ€™s something like a tornado â€“ which reverses controls for a few seconds â€“ or a swarm of giant bees that can be troublesome to avoid.
The power-up assortment is really well designed. The hot-rod boost not only propels your kart along the track at a fast rate but can be detonated with a well-timed button press to send out a wave of flames. Then thereâ€™s the baseball glove that can block attacks and also catch projectiles and add them to your own arsenal. Racers can still turn â€˜all-starâ€™ too â€“ speed and handling are improved for a few seconds and endless supplies of projectiles are at your disposal.
Online play – which includes battle races similar to Mario Kartâ€™s balloon popping battles â€“ feels functional rather than flashy, but still managed to hold our attention for a while. There are also Sumo Digital staff ghosts to beat in the time-trial mode once all other modes have been done and dusted.
Take the wonderful Richard Jacques soundtrack into account and youâ€™ve got yourself a game thatâ€™s not only a celebration of all things Sega, but a very fine kart racer. It managed to surprise us constantly with its level of creativity.