Back when Team Sonic Racing was first teased with an incredibly vague and short trailer, I wasn’t exactly impressed or excited. At the time, Sonic Forces had left me rather bitter about how Sega was handling the series, and I didn’t think they had earned enough goodwill to only hint at a new title and expect me to be invested. However, as time passed and more info was revealed, I was eventually coaxed back like a badger out of its sett. The fact that Sega had brought Sumo Digital on board to develop it was the primary reason since I really enjoyed their last two Sega-themed racing games, especially Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
But there was still some scepticism, and I wasn’t the only one. The focus was entirely on Sonic and friends this time and, rather than do what every other mascot kart racer did and just copy and paste Mario Kart, Sumo Digital were doing something very different and making a racing game where players would race in teams and have to work together in order to win. It was certainly a unique premise, but after being consistently disappointed by so many Sonic games over the last few years, there was this constant fear that I was setting myself up to be let down again.
So is Team Sonic Racing a worthy Mario Kart alternative? Is it even as good as Sumo Digital’s previous work? Or is it just a gimmicky failure?
While there is an option for the standard free-for-all races, TSR‘s main focus is the team-based races, where up to four teams of three compete to earn the most points by the end of the race. Where each player is positioned determines how many points they get, which is standard stuff, but the fact that you’ve got two teammates with you fundamentally changes how you play the game compared to other racers. Even if you were to come in 1st place, if your teammates came 10th and 11th, you’d still lose to a team that came in 2nd, 3rd and 4th. You can’t just play solo and expect to come out on top.
This is where the game’s team mechanics come in; various methods to help the team assist each other throughout the race. Firstly, whichever team member is furthest ahead will leave a yellow trail for their teammates to drive on which, upon leaving the trail, gives them a boost of speed. The longer you stay on the trail, the stronger the boost. Secondly, if one teammate is spun out by crashing into an obstacle or being hit by an item, another can drive past them and give them a boost to get them back to speed. And lastly, teammates can pass any items they pick up between them with the press of a button, with them usually turning into much stronger items instead. This one is probably my favourite feature; I always hated being in the lead in Mario Kart and getting worthless items so, here, if I get one I have no use for, I can just give it to one of my lagging teammates. And if you already have an item, you can still receive another from a teammate, with your first one being kept as a secondary to use afterwards.
Performing all these different team actions, as well as taking out racers ahead of you with items, fills up an Ultimate meter that, once filled, allows you to activate your Team Ultimate, which gives you a massive speed boost and makes you invincible until the meter runs out. Ideally, though, you ‘ll want to wait until everyone in your team has filled their meter and then have all three of you activate it at the same time since it makes the boost last longer. You can even extend it by ramming into your opponents.
It would have been very easy to have these team mechanics not be very well integrated but, while it does take some getting use to, these mechanics do work and don’t feel like a forced gimmick. The basics may be the same as other racers but having to race as part of a team had me constantly checking to make sure my teammates were doing well and doing what I could to support them. And with the Team Ultimates, even if your team is stuck at the back, you can still manage to catch up and potentially push ahead for a come from behind victory. All in all, it helps give the game its own identity separate from the previous All-Star games and Mario Kart.
That’s not to say it doesn’t copy any aspects from Nintendo’s series, and I’m specifically referring to the items. Unsurprisingly, the Wisps from Sonic Colours make a return and the majority of them all function exactly like items from Mario Kart. White Wisps are Dash Mushrooms, Orange Rockets are Green Shells, Blue Cubes are Banana Peels – it may take some time to get used to knowing which Wisps do what but it shouldn’t take long. This isn’t a criticism, though, since I feel like Mario Kart kind of perfectly nailed what kind of items should be in a kart racer. And that’s not to say that there aren’t any original items. The Cyan Laser requires you to focus said laser on opponents in front of you for a short while and the Grey Quake one is a bit like the Blue Shell in that it targets the racer in first, but what it does is form several stone pillars in front of them, which can be avoided entirely if you’re skilled enough.
One thing this game arguably does beat Mario Kart at is its music. I feel like even fans who find this game to be mediocre will admit that the soundtrack is killer, mostly consisting of kick-ass techno remixes of both recognisable and somewhat unexpected songs from throughout the series, mostly the modern era of games. I certainly never expected to hear a remix of the Sand Hill music from Sonic Adventure, and stumbling across one of Can You Feel the Sunshine from Sonic R had me grinning from ear-to-ear. It’s nostalgic for all the right reasons, and I’d find myself bopping my head a lot during races, which is something I never really do in Mario Kart. And there’re plenty of original pieces too, including a new theme song courtesy of Crush 40 which I’m sure I’ll obsessively listen to for a while.
One thing it doesn’t do as well as Mario Kart, though, is its selection of race-tracks. They’re not bad by any means but they don’t necessarily have as much character or charm as some of Mario Kart‘s and, as a result, aren’t particularly memorable or noteworthy. It doesn’t help that, of the 21 tracks, 9 of them are re-used from the other two racing games Sumo Digital did. While they’re perfectly fine and did get graphical updates, they’re all split into different themes based off of different Sonic levels – Seaside Hill, Casino Park and Final Fortress – and, as a result, they feel very samey, with barely any set-pieces or interesting layouts to make them stand out against each other.
It’s a shame since the remaining original tracks, while also split into four different themes, all have something unique about them to help them craft a more distinct identity whilst still adhering to said theme. For example, for the Rooftop Run theme, the first track has you race on the ground level during the daytime, the second takes place at sunset on a glass road in the sky, and the third is in a haunted clock tower in the middle of the night. All in all, it’s a mixed bag, with the undeniably best part about all of them being the aforementioned music.
Another criticism I have is the game’s rather small roster. The decision to have it consist entirely of Sonic characters was a massive turn-off for fans of the All-Star games, which featured a bevy of iconic and not-so-iconic Sega characters, but I don’t think having it be entirely Sonic-focused is a bad thing. This series alone has a bunch of characters to fill out an interesting roster, but Sega and Sumo Digital chose to limit themselves even further by grabbing only a handful of the usual faces, resulting in a character select screen that only has 15 racers to pick from.
That’s not to say the choices themselves are bad; as a fan of these characters, I’m pleased to see them appear, and there’s also some genuinely funny mid-race banter where the characters all take verbal pot-shots at each other (which you can turn off if you want). Hearing the normally stoic Omega say all cats smell because Big knocked him off the track never fails to make me smile. Though a couple of the character choices make me raise an eyebrow. Why replace Cream the Rabbit on Team Rose with a bunch of Chao? And who at Sega keeps trying to push Zavok? Nobody likes Zavok.
The roster is also split into three different categories – Speed, Technique and Power. These three classes all have different stats and unique abilities to take into account when forming a team. Speed characters, like Sonic and Amy, naturally have the highest top speed and, when getting a boost from a drift, can destroy any projectiles coming at them (which I honestly never pulled off because it’s so situational). Technique characters, like Tails and Eggman, have the best handling and can also drive across any terrain without slowing down (which kind of makes them my favourite characters to play as). And Power characters, like Knuckles and Vector, make up for their low speed with high defenses and stronger boosts, as well as the ability to plough through obstacles on the course (though figuring out which obstacles you can safely drive through is half the battle). Each class has access to unique Wisps as well, which I find a tad pointless since you can transfer them to different characters anyway.
However, each racer’s stats can be altered thanks to the different car modifications you can unlock with tokens you earn by taking part in races. You spend them at this vending machine that gives mods to you randomly, which also change the car’s appearance slightly. It’ll take a while to unlock them all but players who love customisation options will be more than happy with what’s on offer, since you can even change the cars’ colours, textures and add vinyls. Want to make Shadow drive a bright pink car with improved acceleration? You can do that. You and two friends can all play as the same character while still having different cars, both appearance and stat-wise, meaning you can craft a well-balanced team or just be really silly and make a team of Knuckles and Knuckles, featuring Knuckles. Annoyingly, when playing the Grands Prix and Exhibition races solo, your two teammates are assigned randomly so I can’t make my cool Sonic/Shadow/Silver team all with matching cars.
But if you are playing solo, you’re gonna be spending most of your time on the game’s single-player story mode. Sorry, that should be “story” in massive quotation marks. A mysterious old tanuki called Dodon Pa suddenly shows up to ask Sonic and his friends to take part in a big old racing competition for reasons unknown. The whole adventure is the characters mentioning how they don’t trust him but have to continue to take part anyway, whilst Sonic openly admits he doesn’t give a shit and just wants to keep racing, and it’s all told via static screens and character portraits. It’s not exactly engaging, and you can skip every cutscene if you wanted to. I almost feel like they shouldn’t have bothered adding a story since the main crux of the single-player is fine on its own.
You traverse a map completing different missions to earn Stars, which in turn unlocks more of the map and more missions to complete. Missions range from standard team races to other tasks like destroying Egg Pawns and collecting Rings. However, each mission comes with two or three different objectives, with each one earning you a Star. For example, the team races will reward you one for coming in 1st place yourself, but you can earn a second if your team wins the race and another if all your team members place in the top three. Some missions offer Keys as well to unlock other hidden areas on the map and these have much trickier conditions to beat, like not using a single Wisp, and you only earn them if you also meet one of the conditions that would earn you a Star.
Completing the bare minimum shouldn’t be too hard – the normal difficulty isn’t that challenging most of the time though there is an option to try a harder one and potentially unlock an even harder one – though going for every Star on the map will take a while. You can play with friends but your AI teammates are perfectly capable and shouldn’t drag you down with piss-poor performances. Honestly, the hardest parts aren’t the team races but the other miscellaneous ones, since you do them solo with none of your teammates to help (which is a weird decision for a game that pushes teamwork). They can sometimes be really obnoxious to complete, like the Daredevil challenges where you have to drift as close as you can past goal posts, with some of my best performances barely scraping me a passing grade. Bizarrely, while there’s no option to play them with AI allies, you can do them with human players, which I imagine would make these tougher challenges a walk in the park if you’re all coordinating and communicating properly.
As for the online play… eh, gonna be honest, I wasn’t particularly impressed. The races I took part in played fine with very little slowdown or lag, but I really struggled trying to even find other players to begin with, so most of the races consisted mostly of the AI. There’re options for both ranked and casual play, but I imagine it’s not a great feeling to build up a high ranking and then start losing it because you got saddled with bad teammates, be they AI or human players. There were options for other types of races like King of the Hill (where teams compete for how long they can spend in first place) or one where the only items were Rockets, but, for whatever reason, these are only available online and I was barely able to experience any of them since most people voted for the standard team races. I will forever be haunted by not knowing what a Vampire Race is.
Is Team Sonic Racing better than Mario Kart? No. Is it better than All-Stars Racing Transformed? No. But it’s a perfectly fun and functional racer that actually makes the most of its defining gimmick to offer an alternative experience that isn’t just different for the sake of it. If you’re a die-hard fan of either Sonic or Sumo Digital’s last couple of games, or you’re after something else to play with friends that isn’t Mario Kart, you’ll probably have fun with this one. Hopefully, given the game’s financial success, this could pave the way for even more Sumo Digital-developed racers that could help give Sega more of a standing in the mascot racer scene.