It's not just a temporary replacement for Mario Kart, it is a very worthy competitor
The first noticeable feature that makes Sonic Racing Transformed stay away from being just another kart game is exposed right on its title. The game does not focus solely on wacky automobile competitions. Instead, the races take place on the water, in the sky and on the land. It would not have been such a refreshing concept but for one detail: tracks are not based on a single vehicle; each one of them presents segments that demand different racing approaches, forcing characters to magically go from one vehicle to the other on the fly. With the exception of a few rare instances when the vehicles behave oddly in the milliseconds following a transformation, the transitions are mostly smoothly done and add a lot of excitement to the race. Aside from the fantastic visual value of, for instance, going up a ramp with a boat and watching as it turns into an airplane in the midst of a battle for a position, the transformations also have strategic value, because as flying is considerably faster than the other two options of movement, the racing tracks will offer opportunities to transform into a plane earlier, rewarding those who find ramps and taking off spots.
Speaking of the tracks, they are yet another point that heavily benefits from the blending of vehicles, and are the clear highlights of the game. Courses take advantage of that opportunity in two distinct ways: they are either built so that three vehicles are used during the same lap, or they present environmental elements that alter the path in between laps. Therefore, even though the game contains sixteen original tracks, plus four extracted for its predecessor - all of which are kart-only – it feels like much more, because as they mutate, tracks often become different to the point of not being recognizable. As if all that work was not enough, the game's tracks are also packed with alternative paths and shortcuts, which add a lot to both their already high replayability and to the element of surprise waiting within each race.
In a genre usually dominated by multiplayer-focused games, Sonic Racing Transformed brings forth a whole lot of single-player value. There are two main modes where the solo fun resides: Grand Prix and Career. The first one is nearly self-explanatory, players compete against nine other characters in four-race cups to see who ends up with the biggest amount of points. In total, there are ten cups, equally divided between regular and mirrored ones, and the difficulty of each can be chosen among four distinct options. Meanwhile, in the Career mode, through which most of the characters are unlocked, presents individual challenges that include regular races where players must finish in a certain position, time trials, boost challenges and racing duels against a series of characters. According to the difficulty chosen for each challenge, players will earn stars, which can then be used to unlock gates that are either protecting new characters or more challenges.
For a game as colorful and seemingly kid-friendly as this one, it packs an immensely surprising amount of challenge. While the high level of difficulty is extremely welcome, for it considerably boosts the time that can be spent playing solo, some of its implementation is questionable. Facing at least a portion of the game in the hard difficulty is key if players want to unlock certain characters, and open a few gates hiding some of the more advanced challenges. It is all fine and good if the player in question is experienced; youngsters, however, will most likely be overwhelmed by the many hours of practice one must go through if he wants to clear a good part of the game.
The core problem here is that practice is not the only thing required to go through the entirety of the game; patience is also extremely important. Like all games of its kind, Sonic Transformed presents an assortment of items that can be used during the race. Unlike Mario Kart, however, the items you get are not heavily dependent on the position you find yourself in. Meaning that while leaders are boosting their way through the tracks with powerful items, people in the middle of the pack might be struggling with simple powers. As a consequence, a big part of the game's result, especially on the hardest levels, relies on luck. Though those occurrences are annoying on Career mode, they can be even more frustrating during a Grand Prix, where three straight good races can be destroyed by a bad race where players - which always start at the back of the grid - are unable to reach the leaders because they are too busy being hit by an army of items. Regardless of how good a player is at speeding through the tracks, finishing 1st will usually demand many tries, and an eventual victory is most likely to come due to sheer luck of getting the right item at the right time.
In general, though, Sonic Racing Transformed is a very pleasant game to play. Not only is the game bursting with the personality extracted directly from fantastic Sega properties - including a vast selection of characters, each with very a very unique trio of vehicles - it is also a software that can be enjoyed with friends. The multiplayer gameplay is not restricted to especially designed modes. It is, instead, available in any mode of choice - with the exception of Time Trials - and, by taking advantage of the Wii U gamepad, the game allows for up to five players to battle each other on any of game's many Grand Prix tournaments, Career Mode challenges, or online matches. Whoever holds the Wii U gamepad - which on single-player works as a map display and a rear view mirror - will play on the controller's screen, which despite its average size produces very nice visuals, while those who hold the Wiimotes will share the TV. Though it is not used in any asymmetric and creative way, which is totally understandable given the nature of a racing title, it is nice to be able to avoid split-screen when playing in pairs.
While its predecessor suffered from constant frame rate problems, this is a game mostly free from that issue, and that is no small feat. The tracks are full of activity. Aside from ten racers throwing items and shoving each other, there are plenty of traps going around, scenario details to be processed at the game's relatively fast speed, and that all goes without mentioning how some of the courses suffer mutations in-between laps as a result of explosions, and other kinds of physical destruction. Throw into the bag the fact that the game looks really great, and holding it all together through the entirety of the race becomes quite a technical achievement. Besides being exciting by their fast and frantic nature, races are boosted by a nice soundtrack which is highlighted by some tunes that have been selected from games that present a very powerful soundtrack.
Often, when a good game of the kart racing genre hits a Nintendo platform early on, it tends to be labeled as a title that exists for the purpose of temporarily satisfying any racing needs that players might have until Mario Kart comes around. This time, though, the Nintendo Wii U has received a game that will not simply be thrown away once Nintendo unleashes a new installment on its longstanding racing series, but one that will be able to compete side-by-side with it regardless of how great the next Mario Kart will be. Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed has tons of content, which aside from simply racing include over 100 collectible stickers that serve as awards for the completion of achievements, a nice degree of vehicle customization, and a huge load of the undeniable charm of the Sega franchises. Put some good level of challenge in there, which is sometimes unfortunately done cheaply, and you have a lasting, fun and rewarding title.