It says a lot about Sumo Digital’s developing competence when the team can create a sequel to a much-loved racing spinoff series, nearly seven years after the last entry, on (seemingly) a much tighter budget, and yet still manage to find ways to make the experience appear like a full-priced premium package.
That’s not to discredit the studio at all; far from it, we’ve seen all sorts of spinoff titles come and go in which the quality of the experience really did not meet expectations (Sonic Chronicles, we’re looking at you here). Knowing that we were about to playtest what was being marketed as a budget title, Sumo has quite honestly done the opposite and absolutely exceeded our expectations going in.
Reviewer: Svend ‘Dreadknux’ Joscelyne
Of course, with a pedigree and history as lauded as Sumo Digital’s, there was really nothing to worry about on the gameplay quality front. But with two incredible Sonic ‘kart racing’ games already under their belt, 2019’s Team Sonic Racing really does feel like a different beast to 2012’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Much more ‘experimental’, in many ways.
The most obvious example of this can be found in the innovative gameplay mechanics that Sumo has worked into the tried-and-tested mascot kart racing genre. In Team Sonic Racing, you’re not just racing to win on your own. You buddy up with two other characters on the roster, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and work together to make sure all three of you end up as high on the leaderboard as possible.
That means if you want to be a lone wolf and gun for pole position, you might end up coming unstuck. Team Sonic Racing, as the name suggests, adds up every racer’s ranking to a team pool, and gives the gold crown to the group who ends up collectively finishing the highest. So, you might end up getting 1st place but if your teammates end up 9th and 10th, you’ll have a huge problem on your hands.
Luckily, there are a number of unique tools and abilities that can help you give your teammates a leg up. Leading racers in a team will leave a golden slipstream, allowing falling teammates to drive through and charge up a ‘Slingshot’ turbo boost. Passing close by to fellow racers who have just spun out will give them a ‘Skimboost’ to get back in the race quickly. And you can trade any items you collect on the track with your buddies, passing missiles and defenses around to whoever may need it the most.
In practice, we found these gimmicks to be incredibly intuitive and actually enhanced the kart racing experience for us – despite the fact that these features were clearly intended to help lower-skilled players enjoy and feel accomplished in the game, us creaky old Mario Kart and ASR Transformed experts found them to be rather novel – particularly the Slingshot.
Actually, one of my favourite features is probably the ability to offer and receive items from teammates. I found myself just lazily offering items to my buddies whenever I ended up far enough in the lead. It feels like a better use of time when in pole position as opposed to something like Mario Kart, where leading racers will be cursed forever with having to recycle constant Banana Peel items.
Performing any of the above team actions – and collecting rings on the track – will charge up a Team Ultimate meter, positioned just underneath your player character’s head. When it’s full, you can unleash a temporary burst of invincibility and turbo speed for all team players, while a short version of your character’s theme song blasts out in the background. There’s something oddly anti-climactic when using the Team Ultimate – it never feels like you’re really going at it, like a ‘super’ move should do – but who’s complaining when you can use this to bust through the competition and take the lead?
These Team Ultimate moves can make or break your collective position, so it’s doubly important to work together and perform team actions. It also means that tactical play is the order of the day here, as certain characters will have trade-offs that will require a heavier use of certain co-operative moves and items.
Each ‘Team’ on the Team Sonic Racing roster consists of a Speed, Technique and Power character which allow for faster speeds, better handling, and higher defence respectively. Because you aren’t limited to how you form a team in local and online multiplayer races (you can have three Power characters, for example, from different Teams – with Team Sonic, Rose, Vector, Dark and Eggman to choose from), it’s good to make sure your trio is well-balanced. You can also unlock mods for each character’s car that can tweak the performance stats in a particular direction, to offset any potential vulnerabilities.
While there is a wealth of tactical depth on offer here, the game often leaves you in the dust trying to figure out all the nuance. Team Sonic Racing doesn’t make it easy for you to learn the deep cuts of its mechanics, and almost seems in a hurry to throw you in the action without asking you to think too much about things. Features such as Slingshots are fine as they’re well telegraphed from the start, inviting you to try them out and discover their benefits, but some mechanics won’t be clear to you at all until you happen across a random Tutorial loading screen or get clued in by a rogue in-game line of dialogue.
To give a specific example, I had no idea until yesterday (and I’ve been playing this game for a week) that certain Character Types (Speed, Technique, Power) can obtain exclusive Wisp power ups, and that it’s actually Technique characters that can drive over dangerous terrain unimpeded, not Power characters. I learned all that not from the game though, but by accidentally coming across this official Sonic YouTube video:
It’s not exactly made the difference to my enjoyment of the game or anything, but to someone out there who wants to get deep with it, this might be a slight irritant. It’s all stuff that could have been covered by the Story Mode – there is a Story Mode, and it’s very good actually – but you’re kind of just thrown into the action unceremoniously. For a game that introduces such innovative new ideas, it almost feels like Sumo wasn’t exactly confident in it enough to detail it all in full.
The Story Mode – titled ‘Team Adventure’ – doesn’t really offer any satisfying plot to sink your teeth into, and the static-image ‘cutscenes’ here is perhaps the biggest clue as to the game’s budget approach, but look past all that and you’ll find some classic Sumo magic within the stages themselves. A satisfying mix of traditional races and quirky single-player scenarios – such as gunning down rogue Egg Pawns for points, racing between cute little traffic robots and Survival mode trials – all offer a fantastic challenge. My favourite of these being the ‘Daredevil’ mode which tasks you with drifting past Star Posts for combo points.
Overall, the presentation in Team Sonic Racing is excellent. The worlds and zones you race through aren’t exactly vast in number, but the tracks themselves are well designed and entertaining enough to be worthy to come back to. There are some interesting stages that include diverging paths, half-pipes and gravity-based gimmicks that keep you on your toes, although they don’t quite match the intensity of All-Stars Racing Transformed’s evolving environments.
And although it is a bit of a shame to see several tracks dedicated to a single zone, there is a valiant attempt at designing each map to stand out from one another. Wisp Circuit, for example, gives off some serious ‘starting level Green Hill’-like vibes, while the Mother Wisp track takes you to the sky and offers an etherial pink road along which to drive on. A further track in the same ‘Planet Wisp’ set, Eggman’s Factory, almost feels like a totally different location with purple gunk flying everywhere and Eggman’s iconic red-orange power plant from Sonic Colours making an appearance.
Perhaps the most standout element of Team Sonic Racing is in its incredible soundtrack. Seasoned Sonic music director Jun Senoue has been out of the game for a while, and he’s clearly been itching to get back into a Sonic project because with his return in Team Sonic Racing he has brought the very best of his talents to the table. From Wisp Circuit’s jazzy-boppy theme to Frozen Junkyard’s intensely heavy riffs, this entire game has Senoue’s signature licks all over it.
A lot of the racetracks in Team Sonic Racing are retro-fits from past All-Stars Racing games, but instead of carrying over Richard Jacques’ (awesome) tunes from Transformed, Senoue has gone above and beyond to produce remixes alongside popular artists such as TORIENA and The Qemists, and has also worked with Tomoya Ohtani and Tee Lopes on various mixes of Sonic Unleashed and Sonic & Knuckles tracks too. It’s one of Senoue’s finest franchise works and we can’t wait for the soundtrack to be made available.
About the only concern that I have with the game – obtuse mechanics and limp story mode plot aside – is in its longevity. Once you’re done with the Team Adventure mode (and it is all over very quickly), you’re left with re-running existing stages on higher difficulties (some which, like in ASR Transformed, border on the insanely tough) as well as Local Play Grand Prixs, Time Trials and Single Races – each with their own completion marks, and can be tackled either locally or online with pals.
You can also play ‘Standard’ mode of races, which is essentially Team Sonic Racing without the ‘Team’. This classic style ‘every hedgehog for themselves’ race was probably included to placate fans who don’t like the idea of playing with team mechanics, but ironically I don’t feel like this mode is any cop compared to the main team play. I found myself trying to send items to non-existent team mates and getting very sad! It’s a testament to the success of the core concept of Team Sonic Racing that playing in the ‘classic’ way now feels like a bore in comparison.
But with all that aside, I can’t help but feel like the level of content on offer doesn’t quite feel as generous – or substantial – as in 2012’s Transformed. Outside of Multiplayer and team-based GPs, the Story Mode challenges are perhaps the most interesting thing in the game, and it would have been great to have a broader collection of these to play.
A larger variety of worlds would have been fantastic too – I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Rooftop Run in the past ten years, but it’s always one time too many. Perhaps more stages, along with potential new characters (it’s surprising that there doesn’t appear to be any unlockables beyond car mods, unlocked at random with an annoying in-game-currency-based Gacha system) can be possible for DLC.
Overall, this game doesn’t quite hit the highs of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, but it’s still a very competent, enjoyable and interesting racer that any Sonic fan would be happy to pick up and play. In terms of mechanics, content, story and even development approach (this is the first time Sonic Team has directly worked with Sumo on the racing series) Team Sonic Racing is very much an experimental project, but one that I think has been pretty successful. I’m looking forward to seeing the concept fleshed out in a more ambitious manner for a potential sequel, but until then I’ll see you on the race track!
SECOND OPINION: Adam “T-Bird” Tuff
Team Sonic Racing is an ambitious title which sets out to compete against the incumbent racing game models with a novel cooperative engine – and refreshingly it works. Those who have played the previous Sumo Digital SEGA racing titles will find many aspects familiar but will still be satisfied with enough in the new mechanics to keep the game interesting as they refine their skills. Like its predecessors, there is huge scope to play this title both online and locally, and players who invest time in the game will likely get longevity from it.
Those searching for a Sonic title with a deep narrative will be disappointed with the story mode, but this is not what this racing game is about; besides, what it lacks in story is more than compensated for with hilarious and often self-aware dialogue. The soundtrack is incredible, and Senoue et al. have once again worked to form a huge juke box of new and reworked material to satisfy every Sonic the hedgehog fan. While the available character roster is limited compared to the previous titles, Sumo have opted for quality over quantity and it shows, and they should be commended for the care and attention that has been invested in this game’s creation. Hopefully TSR will be the first in many titles to build and improve upon these great qualities.
This review of Team Sonic Racing was based on a review copy of the PlayStation 4 version of the game, supplied by SEGA of Europe.