For all of Sumo Digital’s noise about wanting to develop a relatively simple and accessible game, there is a surprising amount of depth to be found during a race of Team Sonic Racing. Certainly more so than in pseudo-predecessor Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
I’m not strictly talking about the number of features, modes and unlockables on offer here – the Gamescom demo I played was locked to single races, although Sumo is promising an Adventure mode comparable to the sizeable World Tour in Transformed – but rather the core mechanics of the gameplay itself. Transformed was a masterpiece in arcade racing, but nevertheless arcade racing it was; you can’t get a much simpler concept than ‘drive faster than everyone else and come first place’, after all.
Team Sonic Racing dares to try something different by attempting to innovate on the very dynamics of the rules of racing itself. In fact, coming first place in a race may not actually guarantee you a win, such is the seismic shift in game design here. It can all be very confusing at first, but after darting around a few tracks it’s easy enough to grasp, and it’s a good introduction to a system that ultimately has a fair amount of gameplay potential.
Speeding through the cobbled and Carnival-heavy roads of new track Market Street (based heavily on Sonic Unleashed’s Rooftop Run), it was immediately obvious amidst the chaos that this was no ordinary race. Depending on your character choice, you work together with two other characters (in this demo I played as the adorable Chao in their Chaomobile, with Amy Rose and Big the Cat helping me out) and compete to be the best team on the track.
Points are given for driving behind another teammates’ slipstream, performing tricks (using the right analogue stick, as in Transformed) and making sure that your friends are protected from your rivals’ attacks. Picking up and using an item is no longer a game of hoarding the best weapons for your position; you can choose to pass an item to a teammate using the ‘Circle’ button (we were playing on PS4 consoles) and if they accept you earn team points. Same goes the other way around; you can accept items from your AI friends with the ‘Circle’ button to help fortify your place in the race too.
Market Street itself had an interesting track design, navigating players through a busy street festival full of gimmicks that can be used to get ahead – including hot air balloons in the shape of various Sonic character heads that can also be a deadly distraction if you focus on their majesty too much. As you’d expect, the stage is multi-tiered too, with boost jumps offering an opportunity to race along the rooftops and cut a chunk of the track out. But each route has its own hazards, so the upper route may not always be the best shortcut…
There are still a few kinks to be ironed out before the game hits its release date; namely in the performance department, as we noticed some choppiness in frame rate towards the start of a race (which stabilised as things progressed), but these kind of things are usually the last to be addressed as developers optimise their games ahead of crunch time. So, not a huge concern at this stage.
The bigger issue was that no matter how interesting these tracks were, it really felt like I was more of a passive tourist in Sonic’s world rather than an active participant in a breakneck-speed race. Perhaps it was down to the overall speed of the demo, which didn’t feel all that exhilarating, but Sumo insists that faster modes will be included to satisfy the speed demons still addicted to All-Stars Racing Transformed. Hopefully that will be all the fix I need.
Time will tell if the team-based play will be immediately obvious, accessible and (most of all) enjoyable for players, or if instead these new mechanics will be a confusing barrier for entry for all but those who are likely to enjoy it the most: families or pals who like to race in co-op with players who aren’t so skilled at driving games. In any case, we certainly admire that Sumo is trying something new with the karting genre, just years after it proved that it could go toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s own Mario Kart series.
Team Sonic Racing bursts onto Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC this December.