A Worthy Rival to the Plumber
I'm glad to say that the consistently low quality of the main series Sonic the Hedgehog games does not come through in the awkwardly-titled Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (or, as the boxart for the Xbox 360 version seems to imply, the even awkwarder Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing with Banjo-Kazooie). It's about as unsubtle at copying the Mario Kart franchise as Saints Row was at copying Grand Theft Auto, but this is no mere rip-off. It doesn't quite surpass the original, as Saints Row did, but Sega All-Stars manages to be, at the very least, a worthy rival to the Mario Kart series, easily equal to the quality of Mario Kart Wii, the latest entry in that franchise.
The game is what the majority of gamers would refer to as a 'kart racer'; incredibly simple controls (drifting is easier than it ever was in Mario Kart), wild and zany tracks, and power-ups that let the players fight amongst themselves to a degree. But Sega All-Stars has answered something that's always bugged me about these kinds of games: None of the characters drive actual go-karts, which are possibly the lamest vehicle ever built. Instead, each character has a unique vehicle that suits their personalities and, whenever possible, is an actual call-out to their games. Tails, for example, rides an airplane, something he does surprisingly often in the Sonic games, and Ulala rides the same "Astro Glider" that she used in Space Channel 5. Others are sort of made up to fit the 'theme' of the characters; AiAi, the monkey from Super Monkey Ball, rides in a car shaped like a bunch of bananas, and Sonic rides a sports car designed to resemble him.
These various cars aren't just cosmetic, every vehicle has its own set of stats. Tails' Tornado Racer has a very high acceleration but only a middling top speed, while 360-exclusive guest characters Banjo & Kazooie (who have never actually appeared in a Sega game, hence the awkward change to the title) have an impressive top speed in their Bolt Bucket, but a low acceleration rate to get them there. On a side note, I suspect that every single person who plays the game will comment, at some point, on the fact that Sonic the Hedgehog, famous mostly for his high speed, is driving a car instead of running, and that his car isn't even the fastest available!
In addition, each racer has a unique "All-Star Move" that gives them a massive boost of speed and a unique attack to strike out at their opponents with. These are always fun to see, but in practice, they mostly feel the same; you probably won't be picking one character over another solely because of their All-Star Move.
The other items, while I'm on the subject, are primarily incredibly blatant copies of nearly every item from Mario Kart; K.O. gloves are green shells, homing missiles are red shells, cone mines are bananas, and speed shoes are mushrooms. To be fair, there are a handful of items that aren't just direct analogues of Mario items, such as the confusion star, which turns its target's screen upside down, or rainbows, which similarly cover the poor sap's view with pretty colours. More importantly, there is no Sega version of the blue shell, the universally-loathed item which makes Mario Kart as much about luck as it is about skill.
The gameplay is solid; there's nothing wrong with the racing that you won't find in every other kart racer. The primary issue with Sega All-Stars is the All-Stars themselves. Many of the characters in this game are nowhere near as well-known as any given Mario character. They go back as far as Opa-Opa, the living spaceship from the 25-year-old Fantasy Zone games, and a pair of zombies named Zobio and Zobiko, who only appeared in The House of the Dead EX, which was never released outside of Japan. In addition, the fact that the inclusion of Ryo Hazuki doesn't actually mean that they're working on Shenmue 3 may rub salt in series fans' wounds.
Not to mention that they rely almost too heavily on the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. The game features twenty-two characters in total (though it should be noted that Banjo & Kazooie and the ability to play as your Avatar are only available on the 360 version, and while the Nintendo Wii version lets you play as your Mii, there are no Playstation 3-exclusive characters), and a whopping seven of them are from the Sonic franchise alone; Sonic, Tails, Knuckles the Echidna, Amy Rose, Shadow the Hedgehog, Dr. Robotnik, and even Big the Cat. In addition, there are still several Sega franchises that weren't even touched, ToeJam & Earl and Vectorman to name two. I don't know if there are complicated rights issues involved, but the fact that they skipped over cult favourites like ToeJam and Earl and went for obscure characters like the Bonanza Brothers instead is kind of mystifying. The problem wouldn't even be so bad if they included an in-game encyclopedia to explain who all these dudes are, or even racer profiles, but without them, I was left to stare blankly at the screen more than once and think "Who the hell is that?"
The problem is actually worse in terms of level selection. All the levels are inspired by only six franchises; Sonic, Super Monkey Ball, Samba de Amigo, Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, Jet Set Radio Future, and The House of the Dead (which, to avoid referring to blood-hungry zombies in an E-rated game, is referred to as "Curien Mansion" instead). Come on, Sega, Billy Hatcher had one game, and he gets three levels, but you don't give a single track to Alex Kidd? I mean, okay, it would be difficult to make up a level based on Virtua Fighter, for example, but B.D. Joe is present, and there's no Crazy Taxi level? Weird.
On a side note, I would think that if they went to the trouble to make a console-exclusive racer like Banjo & Kazooie, they would also have at least one console-exclusive track to go with them.
Other than that, there's not much to say. There's singleplayer modes including missions where you have to complete a variety of simple tasks, a grand prix mode which works the way you'd expect it to, and a wide variety of multiplayer game types, including modes you'll almost certainly never use, such as 'capture the Chao'. There's a voiceover commentator, and he tends to go back and forth between really annoying and kind of amusing. Although he tends to focus on the characters being controlled by human players, it's not at all unusual to hear him say something like "Oooh! Shadow's gonna feel that one tomorrow!" even if you have no idea who did what to Shadow because he's so far away from you. Also, I note that he has no specific dialogue whatsoever that refers to the Avatar character, which is disappointing, as it takes a little bit of the thrill of playing as myself out of the game. Apart from having a very limited selection of source materials, the tracks are nicely designed for the most part, and almost all of them are fun to play, so while you might not know all the characters, there's enough variety among them that you'll likely find yourself satisfied with this assortment of racers.
There's an online mode, which is probably the only place where Sega All-Stars definitively has the edge over Mario Kart, and that's due to the relative ease of use of Xbox Live and the Playstation Network over the Wii's needlessly complicated online system.
It has an especially awkward title, the choice of characters could use a little work, it would be nice to see little explanations for who these guys are, and I'd really like some more variety in the level design, but even as it stands, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a very nice game to play with your friends, and a worthy alternative to Nintendo's own kart racer.