Team Sonic Racing Review
Intelligently designed team racing constrained by some deficient details
As a follow-up to Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Team Sonic Racing is a bit of a head-scratcher. Transformed was a joyous tongue-in-cheek celebration of all things Sega, and it illustrated how proficient Sumo Digital had become at crafting a competent kart racer. Team Sonic Racing scraps the non-Sonic characters and themes, tosses aside the vehicle transformations, and reworks many mechanics to focus on collaborative team-based racing. It's an obvious risk, and it's one that doesn't quite pay off. This most recent Sonic racing entry is an enjoyable kart racer with cleverly-constructed team mechanics, but its novel ideas don't always fire on all cylinders.
With Sonic as its focus, Team Sonic Racing certainly feels, sounds, and looks the part. You can choose from a roster of 15 playable characters from the franchise and race three laps around the game's 21 tracks. All of the expected Sonic characters are accounted for, and the track selection is surprisingly solid. Most of the tracks don't try to replicate a particular level, but rather pay homage to the typical Sonic stage archetypes. Palm tree beaches, neon-filled casinos, and sandy deserts give the track selection a nice sense of variety, and the bright colors ensure that there's always something nice to look at. Each track even comes with its own theme song, and the music selection is superb. The soundtrack digs deep into Sonic's decades-long history to provide copious amounts of catchy remixes and earworm melodies that can easily find their way nestled in your head for the rest of the day.
Even though Sega's main mascot is the focus, Team Sonic Racing makes no attempt to hide how shamelessly it borrows from Nintendo's own kart racing series. Sonic Racing will have you drifting around corners for boosts, using item pickups that are suspiciously similar to Mario Kart's, and carefully timing throttle presses at the start of a race for a burst of speed. This isn't a kart racer that reinvents the wheel in that respect, but it greatly benefits by not doing so. These copy-and-pasted systems do most of the legwork in keeping dozens of three lap races around similar tracks interesting. Every item you acquire and turn you take is an opportunity that you're able to capitalize on. While the controls are a bit looser than its counterparts, Sumo Digital's adoption of Nintendo's tried-and-true kart racing mechanics proves effective in providing fast and tense races time and time again.
Team Sonic Racing seeks to break away from the pack with its emphasis on team-focused play. Races are done in teams of three with the final results being tabulated based on each members' finishing position. Securing the top spot will net your team a ton of points at the end of a race, but any singular team that manages to steal the second, third, and fourth spots can easily put the kibosh on your first place finish. As a result, you're encouraged to work together to ensure your teammates also finish in a respectable position.
Each playable character fits into one of three categories: speed, technique, and power. Each type has exclusive access to at least one pickup item, and they also have category-specific abilities. Speed can block projectiles with a well-timed drift boost, technique has an easier time on rough terrain, and power can smash right through many obstacles. Most courses have paths that give each one a chance to showcase their abilities, and the different racer types help make each team member feel as though they have a distinct role to play.
Team Sonic Racing doesn't merely make you depend on your teammates' positions to win - it also utilizes a few immensely intelligent systems to facilitate teamwork in satisfying and entertaining ways. Each team's lead racer lays down a yellow trail behind them that their teammates can use to gain speed, boost ahead, or quickly recover. The further ahead the lead racer is, the more ground their teammates can cover by utilizing the trail to catch up. Teammates can also trade items to each other if they end up with something that won't prove useful in their current situation. Making use of these systems doesn't only give you the upper hand, but also gradually fills up your ultimate meter. When full, you can unleash a ridiculously powerful speed boost that also grants you invulnerability and enhances your handling for a handful of seconds. Your team fills the bar simultaneously and triggering the ultimate boost together will increase its effectiveness. These ultimates are hugely impactful and drastically change the landscape of a race every time they're used. Because of this, even racers who are dead-set on finishing in first are encouraged to help out their teammates as they'll end up with a huge speed boost for doing so. It's a clever way of making sure teamwork is in everyone's best interest - with exceptional race UI helping to quickly discern the status of your teammates amid all the frantic action.
Despite the smart systems, the team races still have a hard time living up to their ultimate potential. When everything is working as intended, a three lap race can end up feeling like a series of strategic calculations. The lead racer will want to move as predictably as possible to make the boost trail they leave behind easy to follow, and ultimate boosts should be saved for straightaways where they yield the most potential. Unfortunately, the game's friendly AI seems to have a hard time following your boost trail regardless of how simple you make it, and convincing your friends to choose a character that isn't a speed type is going to be nigh-on impossible. When playing in multiplayer, you can forego the team racing altogether by selecting the standard mode instead of team race. It's a nice option to have, but that option is far too attractive given that this game was built around racing as a team - so much so that it's in the game's title. Team Sonic Racing does offer a clear glimpse at the team-focused racing vision that Sumo Digital and Sega had, but that vision doesn't go fully realized in this iteration.
When it comes to offering single player options to partake in, Team Sonic Racing proves surprisingly serviceable in most respects. You've got the ability to quickly jump into a four-race grand prix, a three lap exhibition race, or run a time trial - all of which are expected of a typical kart racer. The grand prix and exhibition races can also be played split screen with up to four players which, despite ratcheting down the framerate to compensate, works quite seamlessly. Things get more interesting in the Team Adventure campaign. It's essentially just a series of standard races against AI that you progress through by selecting nodes on a static map. You'll accrue stars with each race by meeting simple goals like finishing in first as an individual or placing first as a team, and the stars are just used as an easy way to gate your progress before moving on to the next chapter. While this is essentially the “Story Mode” - there's hardly any story to speak of. The game starts with a cutscene, but that's the only one in the whole game. The story is just a few lines of dialogue from a couple of character stills before and after each race that function as an excuse to have them interact. It's tremendously underwhelming given that they even created their own antagonist for this racing entry, but all he does is spout a few lines of largely meaningless dialogue.
While most of the Adventure Mode is made up of bog-standard races against the AI, each chapter has a few unique challenge stages that are especially entertaining. They're score-attack affairs that require you to do things like drift around poles, collect trails of rings, or take out targets before a timer runs out. They're simple and straightforward, but they're also extremely satisfying to perfect. They take the game's hit-or-miss AI out of the equation completely and leave you to your own devices in skill-based trials that are far from trivial. Each one is a breath of fresh air amid the Adventure Mode's heap of standard races against AI - it's just a shame that there weren't more of them.
Every race you complete in Team Sonic Racing nets you some currency to use on the game's less than stellar loot boxes. These loot boxes (dubbed “mod pods”) are how you unlock pretty much everything: performance-enhancing parts for karts, consumable boosts that give you the edge in a race, different sound effects for your horn, and cosmetic kart decals can all be had out of the random drop spheres. They do sidestep some of the typical random reward problems by doing away with duplicates and generously doling out the in-game currency that's used to buy them, but they're still annoying to have to interact with. Just by playing through the single player campaign, you'll end up with enough currency to buy well over 100 random pods, but you have to buy and open each one individually which can take upwards of twenty minutes of sitting and tapping X. It's bewildering how long it can take. Thankfully, there's no option to purchase them via microtransactions - but there's no telling whether or not it'll stay that way.
There's a remarkable amount of cosmetic customization options in Team Sonic Racing, but they're also undercut by the game's deficient system of progression. As you open more boxes, you'll begin accruing a collection of different parts for each character's kart. These parts can be equipped to enhance things like your kart's speed, boost power, recovery time, and handling to help give you an edge on the competition. The parts that offer the biggest stat increases are dubbed “Legendary” and are gold in color. That's all well and good, but the fact that they come in gold means that any color customization you've done to your kart is rendered completely useless. You have to make the choice between a kart that performs better and one that looks cooler which completely undercuts the impressive array of cosmetic options that are on offer. It's hard not to be baffled by how poorly thought out the upgradable kart system seems.
When you've had your fair share of the game's single player and local split screen, the disappointing online multiplayer awaits you. Private lobbies and quick matchmaking are both present, but nearly everything else seems to have been mishandled. Creating a party of friends to play with isn't intuitive, ranked play tells you next to nothing about how the ranking system works, and every online race is bookended by unskippable flyby sequences that destroy the pace of online play. Once you're finally racing, everything seems to work okay and lag isn't a major issue, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a full lobby. There aren't many people playing online at launch week, which doesn't bode well. The mechanics are at their best with real people working together, but the online component is so underwhelming that you're almost better off grabbing a few more controllers and just playing in split screen.
Given its flaws and underdeveloped features, it's important to note that Team Sonic Racing is priced at $40. While the more budget-friendly price may help explain some of the slapdash story presentation and the less than stellar online multiplayer, there are still a few persistent technical issues that remained a problem for the majority of our time with it. The audio would begin desyncing with the visuals which seemed to happen more often the longer a play session dragged on, and controller rumble would just stop working which made distinguishing between levels of drift boost far more difficult. There was also one instance in which every time a kart would jump over a particular gap, it would spin out and lose speed for some unknown reason. These issues were small and mostly harmless, but they served to further diminish the quality of a final product that isn't oozing polish to begin with.
Despite all its problems, deficiencies, and head-scratching design decisions; Team Sonic Racing can still be a legitimately enjoyable time. The fast-paced racing is exhilarating, the colorful visuals combine nicely with the excellent music to make for a cheerful commemoration of Sonic's history, and the team racing mechanics show a lot of promise when they're working right. Best case scenario, this is something that Sumo Digital and Sega will iterate on and improve with a sequel that irons out all the wrinkles. In the meantime, we're left with the growing pains of some great ideas that have yet to be fully realized.