I’ll never forget the day I booted up Sonic Drift on my Game Gear. I was filled with anticipation, expecting something comparable to Super Mario Kart in terms of quality. What I got instead was a claustrophobic racer with poor track design and limited options. From the days of hit-and-miss titles like Sonic Drift 1 & 2, Sonic R, and the Sonic Riders games, Sonic has been following in rival Mario’s footsteps, both on and off the racetrack. But beginning with Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing, SEGA and developer Sumo Digital began to up their game. While that title was a modest success, its acclaimed sequel, Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, surprised me in every single way as a masterful entry into the kart racing genre, standing toe-to-toe with the best Mario Kart titles and surpassing them all in terms of quality single-player content. So when Team Sonic Racing was announced, my first question was, ‘how will they top Transformed?’
Dear reader, it is my duty to inform you that while Team Sonic Racing does not top Transformed in terms of track selection, represented franchises, or the polish of its physics and challenges, it does introduce a lot of interesting and unique ideas to the kart racing sub-genre and delivers a thrilling set of challenges and often-refreshing mechanics that make for synergistic co-op play. It also features a fully voice-acted story with a focus on the core Sonic cast, and the writing and voice performances are fairly decent by Sonic standards, which should please hardcore fans.
Deepest Lore… That No One Asked For
Believe it or not, Team Sonic Racing comes packaged with a fully voice-acted story, told through dialogue bubbles between races in the Team Adventure campaign mode. The mysterious (and stylish) tanuki Dodon Pa, head of the galactically-renowned Dodon Pa Motors, wishes to host a series of racing events, and Sonic and friends are to be the stars. You’d expect that to be a straightforward narrative, and it is, but Sumo Digital goes out of their way to give every one of the cast and crew dialogue via individual moments added to keep the story going throughout the long gauntlet that is Team Adventure mode.
Similarly to Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, each of the cups you’ll be tackling is a mixture of different challenges: there’s Grand Prix races, Survival Races (where you and your team members can be eliminated if you're behind at the end of each lap), and various side events such as Elimination (where you hunt Eggpawn racers), Ring (drifting while collecting rings to increase your time, arcade-style), Star Post (chaining super-accurate drifts together), and Traffic (weave between moving robots to score additional time) challenges to test your mastery of the controls and the accuracy of your driving. The side events require memorization on top of fast reflexes, and some of them were honestly quite frustrating to master. I was satisfied with getting Silver on a lot of the grueling Traffic challenges, for example. This is one game I’m not going to 100%.
A lot going on under the hood
The foundation of a great racer lies in its mechanics, and Team Sonic Racing earns high marks in this regard. The new Wisp items seem mostly balanced, with a few being duds, but none truly standing out as game-breaking or overly unfair. Also, the ability to customize your vehicles with visible and functional upgrades adds a nice touch, with the wide range of options reminding me of nothing less than the stellar Star Wars Episode I: Racer. As for the flow of the gameplay, it’s well-suited to the long, sprawling tracks.
One of the simple-but-ingenious innovations that Sumo Digital introduced in their Sonic racing series is the ability to keep one’s drift-boosts going even when shifting the direction of your drifts. This allows one to charge one’s boost level to maximum on many complex switchback turns, highly favoring precise driving whilst upping the risk-reward ratio. This fantastic gameplay mechanic sees full use here.
Three Cars are Better Than One
Team Sonic Racing also emphasizes its team mechanics, which are actually wonderfully fleshed-out and set this game apart from other racers. Each default team is composed of three different types of racers: Speed, Technique, and Power, each with their own unique Wisps (items) and individual strengths. Rankings at the end of each race are based upon your three-racer team’s accumulated points, so you’re going to be wanting to work together with your teammates to help them succeed. One of the ways you can do this is by using Slingshot Boosts: the team member in the lead produces a golden trail on the track, and their teammates can follow this trail in order to increase their speed - the longer they follow the trail, the more intense the boost. You can also skim past a slower or stopped teammate in order to give them a Skim Boost, which is super helpful if one racer has just spun out due to an opponent’s attack.
What’s more, you can pass items back and forth between teammates, increasing the power or amounts of the item and providing racers with items they couldn’t otherwise use. There’s also Team Ultimate, an ability that fills up via meter and gives all team members temporary invincibility and speed boosts. Popping this off allows all three of you to zoom past the competition provided you don't hit any obstacles, but since everyone has this ability and CPUs often wait until opportune moments to go Ultimate and the meter charges mostly via team actions, timing is key.
Additionally, there’s the Rival Takedown, which rewards offensive play by filling up Ultimate meters whenever you take out rival racers with Wisps or by shunting them off-course. The team mechanics themselves are pretty fun in single-player, but it's in multiplayer where they shine most. When you and your team can race in sync, it’s truly a beautiful thing.
Speaking of multiplayer, that’s far and away what Team Sonic Racing excels at. Coordinating your strategies with your friends, picking them up when they’re struggling, and passing items back and forth is a welcome change from the typically ultra-competitive nature of games like Mario Kart 8. In fact, I was reminded of the best moments of Mario Kart: Double Dash!! at times, and from someone who played that game until his controllers broke, that’s high praise.
All That Glitters Isn’t Gold
As for the presentation, Team Sonic Racing shines more aurally than it does visually. The soundtrack is among the best in recent Sonic history, with longtime series contributors like Jun Senoue and Crush 40 working together to create some bangin’ original tracks and remixes. The tracklist is sure to please fans of titles such as Sonic Heroes and Sonic Colors.
Though the art direction isn’t to blame and the backgrounds and cars really do look gorgeous, the artists haven’t quite mastered what Nintendo managed to do in Mario Kart 8: make tracks that are detailed and easy on the eyes, but not too dizzying or disorienting. There were times when it became a bit of a chore to keep track of everything going on. Not being able to see far enough ahead to know how to line up my car or how many tricks to execute were annoyances I don’t recall having in Transformed.
Also, the way that Team Adventure mixes Mirrored tracks in with non-Mirrored tracks, rather than saving those for a separate set of cups, wreaked all sorts of havoc with my mind. I started to second-guess myself far too often as to whether I was playing a track mirrored, or my memory was failing me.
Unfortunately, despite all it has going for it, Team Sonic Racing doesn’t achieve its full potential. The track selection is far and away inferior to the offerings of Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, for instance, with less variety, more cheap obstacles, and frustratingly, many portions of the track that will put you at a standstill without much prior warning. There are some standout tracks that really allow for a steady pace and flow to be maintained, but it feels like for each great track, there are two half-baked ones filled with recycled ideas that go on for far too long.
What's more, the over-emphasis on customization sadly comes at the cost of fine-tuning in terms of the gameplay. Take for instance the supplemental challenges in Transformed, where you can easily pinpoint where you went wrong and adjust your loadout and gameplay accordingly. In Team Sonic Racing, all too often, I was struggling against the overly winding tracks, slightly slippery drifting physics, and sometimes unforgiving hit detection. These elements make for a less satisfying game overall, despite all the cool new team mechanics. While Team Sonic Racing ought to be commended for its focus on team synergy rather than relationship-shattering competition, its strengths are offset by more basic shortcomings, and I'd only recommend it to those who've already fallen in love with Sumo Digital's prior offerings in this series.
+ Fantastic team mechanics make for a new twist on the arcade kart racing formula
+ The rockin' soundtrack might be one of the best in recent Sonic history
+ A long campaign filled with challenges and customization options for every vehicle
- A mostly lackluster track selection with more disorienting tracks than fun ones
- The physics engine and fine-tuning feels less precise than in Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed
What I’ve Played
Beat Team Adventure mode with 121/142 stars
Unlocked all custom parts for all racers
Played several hours of local multiplayer
Played on: Nintendo Switch