It’s all well and good releasing karting games on Sony and Microsoft’s consoles, but it takes a big old set of Sonic Spinballs to try launching one on Mario’s home turf. If anyone’s shown it’s capable of this, though, it’s Sheffield-based studio Sumo Digital.
Very few developers have perfected the art of arcade-style handling like Sumo, and its first attempt at a Sonic karting game – Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing – was a surprisingly fun speed-fest that paid tribute to Sega heroes past and present. Its clumsily-named sequel Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed was even better; with its morphing vehicles and ‘living’ tracks that changed each lap, it may not quite have been up to Mario Kart’s lofty standards but it certainly took the genre further in terms of innovation.
Now we have Sumo’s third attempt, and rather than taking the ‘Sega Superstars’ theme even further, it’s instead stripped back much of what made Transformed so unique in favour of a ‘safer’ karting game solely focused on Sonic the Hedgehog and his mildly-annoying chums. It’s a bold move, and one that doesn’t entirely pay off in all the ways Sega and Sumo may have been hoping.
As the name suggests, the main gimmick in Team Sonic Racing is the ability to race in teams of three. Whereas most races fit the usual leaderboard style points system (15 for a win, 12 for second etc), this time the winner isn’t the racer who finished first, but the team whose combined points total is highest. It’s all well and good taking the chequered flag, then, but if your partners trundle in at 5th and 7th while another team puts in a solid 2nd-3rd-4th performance, the other mob will get the win.
This could potentially lead to frustration: nobody likes a game where you can do the best that’s expected of you and still lose. Thankfully, you have at least some say in your partners’ progress thanks to the item transfer mechanic, which lets you offer up any power-ups you collect and send them to your partners in case they need them more. It’s strangely satisfying when you send some rockets to your 7th place chum and see their ranking climb a few moments later. Even though you’re just watching a number change, there’s an odd feeling of teamwork done well.
For those loners and rebels who don’t play well with others (even if they’re only AI-controlled), there’s still the option to take part in solo races in the Grand Prix, Exhibition Race, Time Trial, Wireless Play and Online Multiplayer modes, but be under no illusions; these are considered an 'extra' option. The game very much puts team racing front and centre, as is clear in its main mode, Team Adventure.
This is a story mode in which Sonic and his pals are invited to take on a series of races by a mysterious tanuki called Dodon Pa. At first you can only race as members of Team Sonic (Sonic, Tails or Knuckles) but as you progress through the mode’s seven worlds taking on various single team races, team GPs and solo challenges, more trios enter the mix and by the time you reach the last couple of worlds you’ll have 12 of the game’s 15 characters to choose from (Team Eggman sits this mode out, for reasons that become obvious).
Anyone familiar with the Story mode in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed will know what to expect here, because other than the newfound emphasis on team racing the general structure is similar. You make your way through a series of maps, trying to place high enough to collect enough stars to progress. Some of the solo missions are carried over from its predecessor too, most notably the one in which you have to avoid traffic while driving through moving gates to keep your time limit topped up. These missions can be obscenely difficult to clear with the highest Platinum grade, so if you’re a completionist you’re going to be spending an extremely long time trying to clear this mode entirely.
Progressing through Team Adventure also earns you tokens (as does taking part in any of the game’s other modes). These can be spent in the Mod Pods section, which is essentially an elaborate gacha machine where you can unlock new decals, horns, paint jobs and – most importantly – parts for the game’s vehicles. Each of the 15 characters has 18 different parts to unlock for their car, but if the thought of randomly unlocking 270 separate car parts through what’s essentially a loot box system has you worried, don’t be: the game is generous with the tokens, you never get duplicates and by the time you finish the Team Adventure mode you’ll have already unlocked the vast majority of stuff.
Of course, all this would be pointless if the game’s quality sat nearer to Sonic Boom than Sonic Mania on the quality scale, but thankfully that isn’t the case for the most part. The handling is just as satisfying as it was in Sumo’s previous Sonic racers, right down to the brilliant drift mechanic that lets you hold drifts for an absolute age if you’re good enough (resulting in boosts that come with a lovely kick to them). Weapons are fun to fire, even though the fact they’re depicted by Wisps from Sonic Colours means it takes a little longer than it should to learn which item does what. And the constant dialogue between characters is a nice touch, giving each race plenty of personality.
In terms of performance, the game runs at 30 frames per second as opposed to the 60 seen on other systems. This is understandable given the Switch’s limitations and the detail of the characters and tracks, and the game is certainly still more than playable. That said, while 30fps is never really a deal-breaker round these parts (we aren’t snobs about this sort of thing), if you’ve spent the last two years playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with its solid 60fps it’s impossible to move over to Team Sonic Racing and its halved frame rate without feeling like you’re now playing an inferior, less polished product.
In a sense, most of Team Sonic Racing’s issues boil down to this sort of thing; whether fairly or unfairly, many will judge it on what it isn’t rather than what it is. It obviously isn’t Mario Kart (that goes without saying), and it isn’t a 60fps racer. More importantly, though, it isn’t Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, which in every sense was the better game. It had a wider variety of characters and courses from numerous Sega franchises, as well as the aforementioned transforming vehicles and stages that told a story as you played through them, changing to reveal completely new routes with each lap.
Team Sonic Racing, on the other hand, feels like a far more ‘safe’ offering from Sega, one that will undoubtedly sell well because it puts Sonic and his pals front and centre rather than trying to sell younger gamers on the likes of Alex Kidd and characters from Jet Set Radio. For those younger Sonic fans, this is a dream game that handles really well and is full of stuff to do. For everyone else who knows what’s come before it, you’ll still have fun here... but you had more fun before.
Taken on its own merits, Team Sonic Racing is a fun karting game that doesn’t quite match Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in terms of either performance or sheer level of content, but still offers satisfying handling and should still keep Sonic fans entertained for a while. It’s impossible not to compare it to its predecessor, though, and in all the areas where Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed excelled, Team Sonic Racing is merely competent. By no means a bad game, then, but when we look back years from now it won’t be standing on any karting game podiums.
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