TSS Review: Sonic Racing

Sonic Racing was one of the first titles announced for Apple Arcade, a subscription service exclusive to Apple devices meant to provide mobile gaming experiences free of loot boxes and microtransactions. As one of the service’s premiere exclusives, does Sonic Racing make good on Apple’s promise for better mobile gaming?

Sonic Racing is essentially a “light” mobile port of the console game Team Sonic Racing. It has the same course themes and focus on team racing, although the course design has been significantly simplified, with most of the team mechanics removed. There has no story mode, grand prix, or any kind single-player content to speak of, and contains only two modes: online racing and practice (the latter mode being the only part of the game you can access when offline).

The online races are fun, especially in short bursts. Every race is a contest between two teams, consisting of one human player and two AI-controlled teammates. Unlike TSR, the AI teammates don’t actually need to place highly in order to secure a victory, as the winner is simply whichever human player crosses the finish line first. This simple 1-on-1 dynamic makes for less chaotic races then you might find in other kart racers, but racing can still get intense, especially when racing against someone with a similar skill level.

The visuals are solid for a mobile racing game, especially on devices capable of running the game at high settings like an iPad Pro. During my playthrough, the game didn’t suffer from any notable lag or slowdown like many other mobile titles, making for a pretty smooth experience. The soundtrack is taken straight from Team Sonic Racing, so the experience plays to the same intense soundscape as it’s console counterparts.

Sonic Racing also controls pretty well considering the game utilizes a touchscreen steering wheel, and should satisfy anyone used to playing racers on their mobile device. Given that this is an Apple Arcade game, it also includes controller support, which is implemented very well and might even make the game a bit easier than it was originally intended.

Of course, the game does sacrifice some functionality for these simplified controls. Drifting, for instance, has been removed and replaced with a boost that simply charges on turns, which players looking for a more technical and refinable experience might find disappointing. Tricks, as well and the ability to fire weapons in more than one direction have als obeen removed from the game; these changes make the racing in Sonic Racing feel less dynamic compared to the console experience. The controls weren’t the only part of the game that got simplified either, and it’s here that we start running into the game’s problems.

Instead of having a variety of team-based moves to pull off, Sonic Racing instead treats your other team members like a loadout: each character has one ability that can help you. When you have Knuckles on your team, he’ll supercharge any boost pads he uses. Rouge, meanwhile, will leave a slipstream for you to boost on. Unfortunately, the uses for these skills are limited, especially since the AI characters will often be either too far behind or ahead of you for these abilities to be useful. It’s no longer possible to give or receive items, ride or leave slipstreams, skim boost, or activate team ultimates. What this game does with the team mechanics leaves it feeling like a banal racer. What it does with items turns it into an outright unbalanced one.

Most kart racers use an item system designed to balance out races, by boosting people in the back and and giving people in the front only basic items. Sonic Racing throws this system away, instead replacing it with a “loadout” style system. You go into races with a customized loadout of wisps/items, which will be the 5 items you are limited to during a race. Throughout the race, you are then handed these items at random, with no rhyme or reason. You can be coasting in first place and get grey quake and white boost wisps (which are designed to help out people in the back), and you can be in last place and get nothing but useless violet voids and blue cubes. This is because the item system in this game is designed around wisp “rarity” rather than race balancing, with the more useful wisps being more “rare” rather than being reserved for racers who actually need the help.

The balance certainly isn’t helped by it’s various level-up systems. If there’s one thing Sonic Racing is good at, its giving you plenty of things to grind for! The game gives you three different things to level up: wisps, individual characters, and your overall “player level.” Wisps are leveled up with “wisp cards,” which can be earned from completing challenges or bought with coins. Only a limited number of wisp cards can be purchased at any given time, and the wisp cards available are chosen at random and reset after an in-game timer counts down. Characters are simply leveled up with use, and will gain experience by either being played or being on your team. Player level, which improves your damage resistance and allows you to equip more rare wisps, is increased by leveling up wisps. Overall, this can lead to races between opponents at different levels feeling pretty lopsided.

Therefore in order to perform better in races, you need to grind. This is one area where I can praise the game: it acknowledges how unfair things can be, and it still lets you progress even if you are losing a lot of races. Even if you are constantly losing races, you can still level up everything, just at a slower rate. I lost a lot of my early races, but I was still able to eventually become a bit of a powerhouse with a 70-percent victory rate. That said, I’m not saying the grind in this game is good. In fact, I’d argue that that’s this game’s biggest problem: you ultimately have to play far too much of it to unlock tracks and characters.

In Sonic Racing, the only real objectives you have to shoot for are the game’s “leagues.” Reaching a new leagues is how you unlock new tracks and characters. Unfortunately, the grind for unlocking these leagues, especially the later ones, can take hours upon hours of playtime. At the start of the game, you only have access to Sonic, Knuckles and Tails along with three tracks. That’s all you can play until you collect 150 trophies and move on to league 2 and unlock Rouge, Metal Sonic, and another two tracks. Then you need to reach 500, then 1050, then 1800, and so on. To unlock the final characters, you’ll need a whopping 3900 trophies!

To put that into perspective, while I was able to unlock league 2 in less than an hour, leagues 3 and 4 took longer. I actually timed how long it took me to get the 550 trophies I needed to advance from league 3 to 4, and it took me almost exactly three-and-a-half hours. For the record, I suffered only a handful of defeats over the course of this play session. At that rate, it would take another 5 hours to unlock league 5 (and get a character I really want, Blaze), another six hours to unlock league 6 (which contains the final two tracks), and yet another 7 hours to unlock league 7 and the game’s final two characters, Shadow and Eggman.

Grinding is not necessarily a bad thing and definely adds longevity, but while many other games also add variety to the grind, Sonic Racing simply does not.

There are challenges to complete, which encourage the use of certain items or characters, which give you wisp cards to power up your wisps. There are also “special events” which give you rewards for doing something like racing alongside teammates with the “skim boost” ability. None of this is especially engaging, though, and really only effects how you might do things while you grind, rather than making the grind more entertaining.

Ultimately, Sonic Racing feels like a mobile racing game built with a premium economy in mind, that wasn’t adequately rebalanced when that economy was removed in order to become an Apple Arcade launch title. The game even features red rings, a premium currency in other Sonic mobile titles, that don’t appear to do anything here. Certainly, this game feels like it would benefit from some sort of way to buy trophies, and the way wisps can be leveled up feels like something that had initially been built for a premium currency before being changed to work with in-game currency instead.

As a mobile racer Sonic Racing is a decent distraction, but unless you are either happy with the content in the first few leagues, or don’t mind casually chipping away at the game for weeks or months on end, it is also a game that quickly begins to feel repetitive and unfulfilling. This game is not engaging enough for even moderately lengthy play sessions, nor addictive enough to return to habitually over a long period of time. As an Apple Arcade title, Sonic Racing is hardly a great example of the service’s potential. This game is certainly not worth subscribing to Apple Arcade for.

This game was played on an iPhone 7 and an iPad Pro, both with the touchscreen and with a PS4 controller.

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