The Sonic franchise is no stranger to the power of teamwork. Tails has been an inept, if occasionally useful, AI sidekick to Sonic since Sonic 2. Knuckles Chaotix was built around the idea of two characters using each other’s momentum to rubber-band around the stage. Sonic Heroes had players switching between different characters and using their strengths to get through stages. These instances have one thing in common other than using the power of teamwork: they were all arguably lesser experiences because of it. I’m not sure Team Sonic Racing breaks this trend, if the brief E3 demo is any indication.
At first glance, Team Sonic Racing looks, feels, and even sounds a lot like Sumo Digital’s previous superb Sonic racers. The cars still control like a dream and seem to even have a little more weight to them this time around, which feels nice. The game’s focus on drifting is complimented by superb drifting controls which work as smoothly as ever.
The weapons are common and useful enough to spice up races, but aren’t powerful enough to interfere with the game’s sense of speed. This time around, the weapons are based on wisps rather than generic items like rockets and banana peels. Some of the new wisps are basically just analogs for the old weapons, like the blue block wisp replacing the banana peels and the orange rocket wisp replacing the rocket. Others, however, are brand new, like the fire wisp, which leaves a trail of damaging flames behind the racer that used it.
The visuals are vibrant and colorful, as one would expect from a Sumo Digital SEGA racer. The frame rate does chug at points in the demo, but these sorts of performance issues are common in E3 demos and are often eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, by the time of retail release. The music fits Sonic’s world rather well, and the announcer is almost certainly the same guy from Transformed. Playing into the team dynamic, there is much more conversational interplay between characters this time around. Teammates encourage and thank one another and taunt their rivals, which adds a nice bit of character to the festivities, though hearing Tails ask Shadow who his daddy is was as weird as it was funny.
Despite all these similarities, Team Sonic Racing’s demo just doesn’t grab me quite as effectively as Transformed did when I first tried it at an event six years ago. The loss of the SEGA branding certainly plays a small role: the SEGA fan service in Sonic & All-Star Racing Transformed is an important part of the game’s charm in my opinion. Team Sonic Racing’s much bigger problem is its namesake: it’s team-based game play simply feels a bit clunky, at least in single-player.
As the name suggests, Team Sonic Racing is all about racing with a team of other racers. Even if you take first place, you can’t win if they do too poorly. On paper, this mechanic sounds interesting: rather than simply looking out for yourself, you have to also do what you can to help your team. You can pass them items, pass them close to give them skim boosts, and leave them wakes behind your car that they can use to slingshot and increase their speed. Your team in turn will offer you items, leave wakes for you to slingshot on, and give you skim boosts. Do enough of these team actions and you will fill up the Ultimate meter, which allows you to activate a team ultimate, which gives your team a super powerful speed boost.
In practice, however, it just isn’t very engaging, and can occasionally lead to some frustrating losses. You don’t have much control over the performance of your AI team mates, and while they are usually competent enough to not lose you the race, the interplay between you and them simply doesn’t add much to the experience. Using your team’s wakes to slingshot is fun enough, and receiving items from them can be helpful, but it doesn’t really add much to the kart racing formula.
To make matters worse, sometimes your team mates can completely fail, costing you the race even if you get first place. During my last race before writing these impressions, I was doing what I could to help my team, enough to to fill my ultimate meter. But despite my efforts, my team mates still ended up at the back of the pack, leaving me in last place. This only happened once, but that this happened at all highlights how poor this mechanic can work in single-player.
Compared to the transformation mechanics of All-Stars Racing Transformed, Team Sonic Racing feels like a step back. Even the course itself feels like a downgrade from the transforming Panzer Dragoon course that was used to show off Transformed six years ago. It doesn’t feature any impressive set pieces and is generic in design.
Team Sonic Racing feels like something that would work better as a multiplayer-only mode, rather than the central gimmick of an entire racing game. I get the feeling that Team Sonic Racing’s team game play will work better in multiplayer, where your teammates will be other people rather than AI. I can imagine myself having a lot of fun racing alongside my mates from Sonic Talk, Jason and Chris, laughing as my mediocre skills bring down our standing as a team and cost us a race.
As a single-player experience, Team Sonic Racing isn’t awful. I still loved drifting and boosting through the demo, and I often got really into it. Much of the foundation that made Sumo Digital’s past Sonic racing games so enjoyable is still here. But if you were hoping for a game that built upon what Transformed accomplished, I think you will be disappointed.