How do you make a character-led racing game so characterless? That was the thought that slammed its way around our brains like a pesky firework as we played Sumo Digital's sequel to its 2010 racer. We raked perfect drifts around corners, dive-bombed rivals to beat them to the finish and dodged various swarms of irritating bee-stacles. And very rarely did we care.
That's a problem in itself, but when you've got ex-members of Bizarre Creations helping in the design process it moves from inexcusable towards inexplicable. This is the team that made Blur and Project Gotham Racing. It knows how to make racing games that grip, push and make you love a single car like you're one of those creepy men from satellite-channel documentaries.
We don't know if it's working with unfamiliar faces, constrictive licenses or simply the malaise of having its studio canned, but none of that comes across here. So what's the problem? It's not too simple - there are numerous characters, each with up to five mods to tweak their chosen vehicles' not-so-vital statistics. Neither is it too complex - the racing itself is stripped back to the bare bones of 'go fast, slide round corners and shoot fictional doctors' kart standard.
Nor, even, is it as simple as it being a bad game. The concept is sound and executed competently. Ploughing the land, sea and air furrow of Mario Kart 7 and pushing it to its limit, SAA-SRT (which has the accolade of least keyboard-friendly acronym for a game we've ever seen) sees tracks scattered with Transform Gates, towering blue rings that stretch your character's automobile into new, terrain-specific shapes. None of that gliding or driving-a bit-slower-underwater nonsense for Sonic: roadless sections see you flying (excellent) or powerboating (the worst of the three states, but no doubt well-realised).
A Fleeting Pleasure
At first, it's a joy. When you first scream over the boost pads in the Afterburner-themed Carrier Zone track and take off alongside a squadron of F-14 Tomcats into a raging air-sea battle, you'll squeal in delight. Jet Set Radio's Graffiti City pitches your race over the roofs and construction sites of a city skyline, turning your driving into vehicular parkour (karpour?). These are brilliant moments, but the interest wanes quickly.
This is mainly down to the interminable career mode in which the majority of characters are unlocked. You'll play almost every level at least three times along the way, often augmented with challenges that range from 'interesting' (a countdown challenge where the timer's only stopped by boosting) to 'oh god, let it stop' (shooting a ponderous tank in the rear until it explodes). That you have to play through much of this on the hardest difficulty to unlock the better-hidden characters for multiplayer seems downright mean when you consider that kart racers are famed for their competitive sides.
Never fear, the local multiplayer's pretty poor anyway. While there's a decent number of modes, our five player races were marred by the stuttering framerate that Sumo managed to eliminate from the single-player portions, making even the best levels a chore, and the worst ones all but unplayable.
Even the Wii U-exclusive asymmetric mini-games, free from framerate issues though they may be, don't deliver. The Shinobi-flavoured hide-and-seek of Ninja Tag is much too easy for the invisible GamePad player and Banana Heist, which sees a giant Monkey Ball attempting to crush fruit-collecting drivers is a little better, but nowhere near as addictive as it needs to be. We couldn't test the online aspect, but guess that's where the best competitive play is to be had.