Sometimes it's okay to call a spade a spade. In this case said spade is Sega's Mario Kart impersonator Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed.
The comparison is not meant as a slight. In fact, Sega's first effort is one of the few examples of a kart racing game that captures the magic of Nintendo's revered series while still remaining approachable and playable. Many have tried. Few have succeeded.
If the latest hands-on demo of Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed is any indication, Sega isn't content with second-best. While Ninty plods along with safe, marginally improved sequels, Sega's racing ace threatens to overtake with an ambitious gameplay redesign supported by solid multiplayer offerings.
The marquee feature this time is terraforming tracks and transforming vehicles. As players tear around the various racetracks, chunks of the courses crumble away or are destroyed by on-the-loose Sega characters.
As alluded to in the game's title, each driver's racing vehicle is capable of shapeshifting when passing through a Transformation Gate. By sprouting wings and thrusters, or rudders and er, engines, racers can take the battle for the podium to the sky or sea.
Unlike the Mario Kart games, in which the change of terrain has little impact on driving beyond its speed, All Star Racing features a different driving model for each of the three terrains.
In effect this means, in order to cement yourself as the unquestionable master of multiplayer, you'll have to learn the ins and outs of each iteration of a track and get a firm grip on the various driving models.
I'm on a Boat
On water, the pace slows and wave physics can be used to knock competitors off their ideal driving line, while the robust flight mechanics reward players that continuously divebomb with speed boosts. Together with the tried-and-true corner drifting, the three different flavours of racing combine to provide a varied race experience.
Taking a cue from iOS title Jetpack Joyride, race courses are littered with gold coins which can be gambled in a slot machine mini-game during the race loading screen. Strike it lucky and you'll be given a speed boost or some other bonus, hit a bad beat and you'll lose your bet.
Fortunately, the game also rewards you with coins for hitting fellow racers with items, and you'll be doing plenty of that. We imagine (and hope) this addition will get multiplayer rivalries flaring from the outset.
The usual arsenal of virtual kart racing weaponry makes a welcome return in Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, with Sonic and company able to lob guided missiles, get up close and deliver short-range shockwave attacks or plant giant bees and blowfish across the tracks for opponents to stumble into.
When not on the lookout for explosive projectiles and hazardous oversized wildlife, each course also presents plenty of environmental hazards ranging from roving whirlwinds and chomping flying beasts to pillars of lava and awkwardly placed trees.
The last gameplay wrinkle comes from the ability to customise the strengths of your character through mods. In addition to picking a character, players can also select a specific mod to jack up a vehicle's performance in one of five categories: speed, acceleration, handling, boost and balance.
Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed has lots to be encouraged by. It's good to see Sega is making an attempt at mixing up the ageing formula with more drastic changes. From what we've played so far it looks to be on course for another fun-filled racing game. We're looking forward to taking this for an extended test drive soon.