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Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was the best game no one expected. Not just the best kart racing game in years, but also the best Sonic game in recent memory. It was polished, imaginative, and most importantly, it was just plain fun. Now Sonic and company are back in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.

A few slight changes have been made to the formula this time around. You may have noticed “All-Stars” no longer has the publisher’s name before it, and that’s presumably because real-life Nascar driver Danica Patrick has joined the virtual roster of racers. The “Transformed” part of the title also alludes to the gameplay’s biggest departure from the original’s strictly four-wheeled affair. Now karts will dynamically morph into water or airborne vehicles during certain sections of each map.

Things have obviously gotten kinda crazy, and we nabbed Sega of America associate brand manager Aaron Webber to chat about Diddy Kong Racing, Panzer Dragoon courses, and fan-favorite Nights joining the playable racers!

GamesBeat: What exactly does an associate brand manager do on a title like this?

Aaron Webber: So translated, that means I work on games from the very beginning stages; sometimes — in Racing’s case, it’s the very early concept stage — all the way until the game finally releases on store shelves. Everything in between. All the marketing and messaging is stuff that I’m involved with, and my team.

GamesBeat: What was some of the most standout feedback Sega got on the original All-Stars Racing?

Webber: It’s kind of funny, but I think most people went, “Oh, wow, this is a lot better than I expected it to be.”

GamesBeat: I had that very same reaction.

Webber: Yeah. On the one hand, it’s fair. With a lot of people, you look at the kart racing genre, and there’s not been a lot of change over the last 10-15 years. Even Mario Kart changes here and there, but not a lot of differences. When people looked at Sonic last time, they probably thought, “Oh, it’s just a Mario Kart clone. It’s just the same old, same old.” Then they played it, and they said, “Wow, it’s unique, and it’s really fun to play. The multiplayer’s fantastic.” I think that’s what it was. People thought it was really good.

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GamesBeat: What are the core pillars of the game that make it unique?

Webber: This time around we’ve shifted things up on our end a bit. With Transformed, as the name suggests. … The game is called Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, which is kind of a mouthful, I know. The vehicles transform from cars to boats to planes as you go across the different terrain: land, sea, and air. For us, it was a case where we wanted to take and improve upon it and do stuff that people had never done before. When you get into the water, you’re not just underwater on the ocean floor. You’re actually on the water, riding the waves. There are wave physics that are totally separate from the rest of the game. When you’re in the air, you have full control over your vehicle. You’re not just hang-gliding down. You can go anywhere you want and fly anywhere you want. That kind of freedom is what we wanted to use to distinguish Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed from the other kart-racing games out there.

GamesBeat: By adding new features, you’re actually kind of throwing back to an older kart racing game. …

Webber: Yes, Diddy Kong Racing. Yeah.

GamesBeat: That obviously had to be some kind of inspiration for you guys.

Webber: A lot of kart racing games were inspirations for the devs at Sumo over in England. They did the first game, as well. They looked at a lot of games and said, “Okay, what are the best parts of these games? Likewise, though, there was a lot of creativity from their side. One difference from Diddy Kong Racing, where you could pick your vehicle at the beginning and you would be in the plane or the hovercraft or the car. … Certain vehicles were naturally just better at certain tracks. That’s just how it went. With Racing Transformed, we tried to make it so that every vehicle is kind of similar in terms of fairness and balance. When everyone’s on the water, everyone’s on the water. Everyone’s going to have to be going through that same challenge. No type of vehicle — no plane or boat or car — is necessarily going to be dominating the race the whole time just because of the track you’re on. Now, that said, there are some tracks where you’ll get a clear choice. You can go left and become a car. You can go right and become a boat. What do you want to do? Those moments will happen, but they’re very strategic, and everybody in a race has the option to choose one or the other, so it’s fair.

GamesBeat: I have to ask. … Danica Patrick.

Webber: Yeah? [smiles]

GamesBeat: How does she fit into this universe?

Webber: She fits in the same way as any other character from a more serious game would fit in. You’ve got Joe Musashi in these kiddie levels from Monkey Ball, right? So the game is a celebration of Sega history. At the same time, it’s really important for Sega to go out there and do things to expand and grab people and get them to look at the game and say, “Wow, this is a cool game, and I might not have looked at it otherwise.” Danica Patrick is a Nascar superstar. She’s one of the first and only female drivers out there. Danica was a perfect fit for us because she’s someone who’s very fast. Obviously, that’s what she does. Sonic is very fast.

We got the partnership going to where Danica’s in the game, and then likewise, Danica’s helping promote Sonic to an audience that might not otherwise have seen Sonic Racing — might not know about it. But clearly they’re people who love racing, so that first connection is already there. I know a lot of fans have looked at it and said, “Why is Danica here? She took somebody else’s spot.” That’s not the case, to just get that on the record. Danica was added in. So her being in the game didn’t take away anyone’s chance of seeing their favorite character in the game. I should state that clearly because I know some fans felt like that. That’s not the case, though. Neither is Wreck-It Ralph, from the Disney movie, which I think fans are actually pretty excited about. Wreck-It Ralph is going to be there. And likewise, Sonic is going to be in the Wreck-It Ralph movie.

GamesBeat: What were some of the most requested characters from the original that are now in the sequel?

Webber: One of the biggest ones was Vyse. There was a whole thread on the Sega forums for Vyse. Secretly, I’m a huge Skies of Arcadia fan … or that’s not actually a secret. Anyway. When the initial list went around, we all get to pitch in some characters and say, “Maybe this would be a good fit.” I put Vyse’s name on the list, and apparently other people agreed. I certainly didn’t make the final call. I just put the name there, and Vyse ended up making it into the game. Knowing that Vyse was in there was great when we read that thread. Everyone was saying, “Please put Vyse in!” By this point, we knew Vyse was in for months. I just smiled when I saw that. Vyse is one of them. Another one of the biggest ones was Nights. There was a whole campaign for the first game: the “Don’t Forget Nights” campaign. Even though Sumo was awesome and they put Nights in as the sort of flag-bearer at the beginning, in this game we have Nights returning as a fully playable character. In fact, as a sort of homage back to the original game, Nightswill transform into the vehicles. Just as Nights used to transform in the snow level — he’d transform into the sled for Eliot. Now he’ll transform into the car, the boat, and the plane. There’s a little Nightopian on top riding him.

GamesBeat: Is Reala in the game?

Webber: Yeah, Reala’s here, too.

GamesBeat: Cool, cool. I also saw a Panzer Dragoon level. …

Webber: Yeah, you saw a Panzer Dragoon level that references almost all of the Panzer Dragoon games, which is pretty cool. We’ve got references to the first Panzer and every Panzer after that. When you get to the flying section, you’ll see these plants hanging down. Those planets are a direct reference to Panzer Dragoon Orta. So from the very beginning to the Xbox Orta, we’ve got references to everything. Every level is like that. Skies of Arcadia has its own level. You’re gonna see the Delphinus in that level. There’s some really cool stuff. If you pause and freeze-frame our trailers, you’ll see the things I’m talking about. None of this is technically new information there, but it’s really cool the amount of stuff we’ve hidden in these levels as Easter eggs for fans.

GamesBeat: Anything else we should know about?

Webber: I’d say a special thanks to all the fans out there who pick up and get all the Sonic games and the racing games. Likewise to Sumo. They’re doing a great job getting the game together. We’re almost there. We’re out November 20. We’ve got versions across pretty much every platform, so whether you own a 3DS, a PC, a 360, a PS3, a Vita, or a Wii U, whenever that comes out … you’ll be able to pick up the game. We’re pretty excited for that.

GamesBeat: Did you say iOS? [The first game was later released for iOS — Sebastian]

Webber: I did not say iOS. I’m just talking consoles today. Now, that said, there was DLC in the last game: Metal Sonic and all that. We got a lot of good feedback on that. So anyone who picks up the game in its first release — like if you go in the first day or the first week, it’s going to say “Bonus Edition” on the top. That’s going to get you all the DLC for free, just packed in there as a thank you. You get Metal Sonic. You get the Out Run track, which is pretty good. And then also you get some free stickers for your in-game driver’s license. It’s a really nice package as a special thanks for anyone who’s out there supporting the game in the first initial launch.