Developer: Sumo Digital
Rating: E (Everyone)
When Sumo Digital released their kart racer Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing back in 2010, they established themselves as one of the few developers capable of competing in a genre long dominated by Mario Kart. Their follow-up, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, was even better, introducing impressive new twists to kart racing by adding boat and plane sections. Now their newest entry, Team Sonic Racing, simplifies a number of things—the cars no longer transform into other vehicles and the characters now come entirely from the Sonic universe—but tries something quite different: it centers around racing as a team rather than as an individual. Does this intriguing approach pay off?
Team Sonic Racing is a remarkably family-friendly game. The only elements remotely close to violence involve how you can attack other racers and spin out their cars with items like bombs, rockets, and lasers. In specific game races, you can blow up Eggpawn robots driving in cars by running into them or hitting them with a Rocket Wisp item. The game contains no sexual innuendo or foul language.
The hook of Team Sonic Racing—aside from playing as Sonic characters, of course—is the suite of team mechanics present in the game. In almost every game mode, you race as part of a three-person team, and you win or lose as a team; crossing the finish line first individually helps, but if the rest of your team sits near last place, you won’t win. Helping your teammates is essential to victory, and the game provides you with several ways, both passive and active, to do so. The character on your team currently the furthest ahead in the race automatically leaves behind a trail that teammates can follow in order to receive a speed boost, and if you pass that teammate you get a slingshot boost. You can also offer the items you pick up to the rest of your team with the press of a button.
Finally, the game’s Team Ultimate meter is filled whenever you perform any of the team actions listed above, or when you spin out the cars of any other racers whose team is ahead of your own. When the meter is full, you can activate your Team Ultimate for a temporary major speed boost, with invulnerability to boot. If you’re racing with human teammates, activating the Ultimate at the same time will extend the length of the boost.
This shift in gameplay necessitates your own shift in how you approach kart racing. You no longer control your own destiny when it comes to winning or losing; now you have to rely on your teammates and help them whenever possible. As a result, I rarely ever used items during my time with the game. It makes more sense to automatically offer them up to the rest of your team as soon as you acquire them; that way, if someone else accepts your offer, you automatically gain a small increase in your meter, regardless of whether or not that item is used effectively. On one hand, this change produces a sense of satisfaction in being a team player; the simple act of giving your item to a teammate is one of self-sacrifice, which creates a positive feeling that cannot be derived from performing well on an individual level. At the same time, for an act of sacrifice to be meaningful, something must be lost, and in this case, it’s the opportunity to use an item yourself. So, while I enjoyed being able to help my team, I couldn’t help but feel that I was also missing out on one of the key things that makes kart racers so much fun in the first place. It’s an interesting tradeoff, one that likely works a lot better when playing with real people on your team, rather than just with AI companions.
Team Sonic Racing’s story mode, called Team Adventure, requires you to complete a series of single races, grand prixs, and various challenge modes to advance. The story revolves around a mysterious tanooki who invites Sonic and his friends to participate in a series of races, and is told in the style of a visual novel, with static images of the characters paired with voice-acted dialogue. Its self-aware humor produces some mildly amusing moments, but overall it’s forgettable.
Outside of Team Adventure, you can also play single races, grand prixs, and time trials by themselves locally. You can even play solo races—referred to as “Standard” in the game—where each player races without a team, just like in other kart racers. This mode removes the team mechanics, leaving you with just the track, the items, and the competing racers. It’s a shallower experience than even the first All-Stars game, since in TSR’s Standard mode you have no super move of any kind; this ultimately shows how critical the team mechanics are to establishing the game’s identity from a gameplay perspective. It’s still nice to have, though, because it could easily have been omitted entirely.
Online play includes Team and Standard races, both of which can be played Ranked or Casual. Almost everything works fine here, but there is one glaring oversight in matchmaking: there is no button to cancel the matchmaking process while it searches for a lobby. That’s right! If you opt to seek out someone else’s premade lobby, you cannot back out of the search until it finds one. A couple times when I couldn’t find a lobby, I had to close the game and restart in order to get out of the matchmaking screen.
No matter what activity you do, though, each one earns you a currency called Credits. Those Credits can then be spent on Mod Pods, which randomly award you with either an Bonus Box—a consumable item that gives you an advantage in one race—or a customization item. Customization is split into two categories: performance parts and cosmetics. Each character’s car begins with preset stats based on their racing type—Speed, Technique, or Power—and performance parts tweak those stats to your liking, boosting certain stats while sacrificing others. Cosmetics change a car’s color, vinyls, and horns. Each character has a default color set, but you can swap out that set for anyone else’s set; for example, you can turn Sonic’s default blue and red car into a Rouge-esque hot pink car. All the characters’ respective color sets are available from the start, and you can unlock other sets based on specific levels from Sonic history. While it would have been nice to pick any combination of colors for a car, the options present are nonetheless robust.
The on-track items in this game are based entirely around the Wisps first introduced in Sonic Colors. It’s frustrating that Sumo Digital has once again altered the theme of their items, requiring players to learn them all over again. That being said, this theme finally feels right; Sumo’s items in their previous racers consisted of random items that had no real connection to SEGA characters, nor displayed any cohesion as a whole. Now, the items all share a common theme with a clear connection to the Sonic franchise. Hopefully Sumo will stick with this for any future entries. Certain Wisps can only be picked up by a specific type of character, which further plays into the game’s team-based design; by giving away items, you can allow characters on your team to use a Wisp they otherwise might not get. This seems like an unnecessary restriction for the sake of team play, though.
Going from the complexity of Transformed’s three types of terrain back down to one is a letdown. Sure, the simplicity of one terrain makes the team-based gameplay more feasible, but it doesn’t provide the same kind of excitement nor the same level of variety in moment-to-moment gameplay. The one bright side is that this allows Sumo to bring back some of the levels from the first All-Stars, a game that also consisted entirely of driving tracks.
Speaking of tracks, the race courses turn out to be a mixed bag. Mechanically they’re well-constructed, even though they are entirely driving courses. Both the new tracks and the returning ones are a blast, especially at higher difficulties, and many feature terrain or obstacles that can only be cleared by technique or power-type characters, giving those racers a fighting chance against the speed type characters.
Thematically, however, the tracks fail to take full advantage of Sonic’s rich history. Levels are split up into sets of three, with each set bearing the same overall theme. So while we are treated to a few surprising locales and musical pieces (who would have thought we’d get to hear the Sand Hill theme or see King Boom Boo haunting Eggman’s pyramid base again?) we’re still stuck with three Planet Wisp tracks, three Casino Park tracks, three Rooftop Run tracks, etc. This is a missed opportunity; considering that Sumo selected a wide variety of SEGA properties to appear in their previous racers, it’s disappointing that they fail to dig very deep into Sonic’s past now that the game is laser-focused on his franchise.
Viewing it as a whole, I can’t help but feel that Team Sonic Racing is a step down from Sumo’s previous racing games. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad game; on the contrary, it’s a good game—one that distinguishes itself with a unique gameplay twist that introduces fresh, positive experiences within kart racing. But the tradeoff in complexity isn’t worth it, and on top of that, the game doesn’t capitalize on the depth of the Sonic franchise in its level theming. There’s no question that Sumo is capable of making high-quality kart racers, but this one doesn’t meet the bar they’ve set for themselves.
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The Bottom Line