It's very rare that a game so blatantly based on another turns out to be better than its inspiration. Especially when its inspiration is something as polished and classy as Mario Kart Wii. Unafraid, Sumo Digital have stepped up to the plate with this Sega-ified (is that a word? It is now) spin on Mario Kart, and have done very well to replicate the controls, visuals and feature set of Nintendo's chaotic kart racer.
The basic gameplay is near-identical, and as a result, it's good solid fun. A lot of the weapons are straight lifts from Mario Kart, sometimes brazenly so (even the colour-coding is the same - Green Shells are now Green Boxing Gloves, Red Shells are Red Rockets). The drifting mechanic is identical, rewarding you with a larger boost the longer you drift. There's a cast of characters and tracks all based on different themes, cups to be won and more tracks to be unlocked. There's online and local multiplayer, and you even get a plastic steering wheel to slot your Remote into (and just like Mario Kart, it'll be discarded pretty much immediately in favour of the Nunchuk and Remote or Classic Controller).
Let's be clear, though - we're not complaining about any of this. Mario Kart Wii is one of the all-time greats when it comes to multiplayer, so any excuse to revisit the formula with a fresh set of tracks and characters is a welcome one. The problem for Sega and Sumo is that everything it is trying to do has (very nearly) been perfected already. Where Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing's controls are very good, Mario Kart Wii's are great. Where the sense of speed and visual fidelity in All-Stars Racing is great, Nintendo has already done it so much better.
The difference is most apparent in the track design and how each race unfolds. It's more than a little strange that with so many playable characters (20 in all, based on 14 different game series, plus your Mii), we only see tracks based on six Sega franchises: Sonic, Super Monkey Ball, Samba De Amigo, House Of The Dead, Jet Set Radio and Billy Hatcher. Even with plenty of tracks to play through, they quickly feel samey and you start to wonder how great a Space Channel 5 or Fantasy Zone stage would have been.
The races themselves also struggle when compared to the sense of controlled chaos in Mario Kart Wii. Weapon use in All-Stars Racing feels less important and has a smaller influence on the eventual outcome, making each contest feel more like a straight race than a breathless battle to the front of the pack. As a result, races often feel a little empty and lacking in action, even with 12 racers on the track.
In games like these, multiplayer is really where it's at, but again All-Stars Racing falls a little short. Impressive solo visuals start to suffer and frame rates drop with more than two people playing. With a lack of on-track action, multiplayer doesn't quite capture the imagination as it should. It all feels a little empty. The bewildering choice not to support GameCube pads also grates, especially if you're getting people over for a four-player game and are struggling for Remotes.
On the up side, Sega and Sumo have put a little extra effort into offering a greater number of gameplay modes and a more substantial solo challenge. The Expert cups are genuinely tricky and will take a while to finish, and with 64 Missions to get through, there is plenty to keep you occupied.
There are a lot of multiplayer modes to try out over and above the usual races, too. The straight battle mode doesn't exactly set the world on fire, but there are some fun twists on the usual formula which include capturing emeralds and defending a certain area of the map. This game will never step out of the giant shadow cast by Mario Kart Wii but if you've somehow managed to get bored of the definitive article and want something new, there's some fun to be had here.