Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
How do you evolve the humble kart racer? It’s a tough proposition, especially for a genre so singularly defined by Mario Kart’s dominating presence. Yet the traditional rival to Nintendo’s plumber has come closest to establishing a vibrant alternative, chiefly with 2010’s Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and its 2012 sequel, All-Stars Racing Transformed.
While that last game impressed with a solid roster of characters from across Sega’s library, transforming vehicles, and fun weapons, the sub-franchise has been quiet for the last seven years – until now. Developers Sumo Digital are back, dropping the wider Sega cast and focusing in on Sonic and his anthropomorphic mates.
While this largely sticks to the established kart racing formula – colourful, twisting tracks packed with obstacles and hidden routes, bizarre power ups, speed booster ground strips, and racers of different weight, speed, and handling classes – there are a few tweaks that help it stand out. The biggest change is in the name: here, you win or lose as a team.
Characters are split into groups of three, each member specialising in speed, technique or power. For Team Sonic, the blue hedgehog himself is the speed racer, Tails is technique, and Knuckles is power. Team Amy sees the same roles attributed to Amy Rose, Chao, and Big the Cat, respectively. With five teams in all, including some niche figures from Sonic lore such as Zavok and Vector, there’s plenty here for Sonic fans.
Doesn’t have the effortless charm of its predecessors.
While you’ll only select one racer to directly play as, the performance of your teammates impacts the chances of victory. Each racer earns points based on their finishing position, and the team’s final score determines placing. This is fine for multiplayer races – online or off – where you can co-ordinate efforts, but can become frustrating when playing solo, when the other two characters are AI controlled. Finishing first place yourself, but having teammates come further down the chart and potentially robbing you of the win is immensely annoying.
This is somewhat mitigated by some genuinely fun mechanics that make use of the team format. Riding in an ally’s slipstream builds up a slingshot charge, allowing you to catapult ahead with a speed boost, while swerving past stalled pals gives them a jump start. The power-ups, called Wisps, are also restricted by character type – a speed racer will never get a technical racer’s Wisp, for instance – but the ability to trade items between teammates allows for some tactical play.
The group approach is the main style of play in the story-driven adventure mode, which sees Sonic and his allies and enemies drawn into a series of races by the suspicious Dodon Pa. Adventure also throws a few variant race styles in – Survival is a tense elimination format, where the last racer each lap is knocked out; Grand Prix sees you having to place first over four back-to-back races; Daredevil has you drifting through red and yellow posts to rack up points and multiplier bonuses; Ring Race has you collecting Sonic’s familiar golden rings against the clock.
The latter two of these see some of the game’s strangest difficulty spikes though. Starting with a matter of seconds on a timer, you’ll have to rack up a high enough score to win medals, or collect enough rings. It feels nigh-impossible though, the slightest mistake or missed ring meaning you’re out of time before you achieve the goal. Thankfully, these are usually optional races, branched off from the main progression, so they shouldn’t hold players back but will aggravate completionists. They’re also made marginally more tolerable by returning later when you’ve upgraded racers’ vehicles – but upgrades themselves are randomly awarded from loot box-style drops, bought with in-game credits earned through play.
Away from the story, Grand Prix tournaments, single session Exhibition Races, and Time Trials offer more traditional single player races alongside the team racing format, which removes some of the frustrations created by the latter for anyone simply not enjoying it. Unfortunately, if you’re not digging the team racing, it’s always central to the game’s focus – again, it’s in the name. Coupled with the irritations of Daredevil and Ring Race challenges, Team Sonic Racing just doesn’t have the same effortless charm of its predecessors.