Since the release of Nintendo’s Mario Kart 8 in 2014, the genre has more or less remained quiet, with the odd shameless tie-in, such as Nickelodeon Kart Racers or Garfield Kart, peering its head out as easy space within a fairly basic and fundamental video game genre. The reasoning for this is fairly simple: Nobody does kart racers quite like Nintendo. Mario Kart 8 is a masterpiece and easily the best game in its genre-defining franchise, so beloved that the Nintendo Switch port (released three years later) currently remains the highest-selling title on the platform. Thankfully, as they continue to prove, SEGA does what Ninten’don’t’, or in this case ‘didn’t’, when they released Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing in 2010, a multi-platform marvel that acted not only as a brilliantly competent and fun kart racer but a wonderful love letter to SEGA’s history, including characters from titles such as Shenmue, Jet Set Radio, Virtua Fighter and strange guest characters, like Banjo and Kazooie, depending on the platform, and later building upon it with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, an even better sequel that cut down on the broader SEGA fanfare in place of tighter design and focus and the introduction of transforming vehicles and stages, re-contextualising just how versatile the team at Sumo Digital are. SEGA had tried bringing Sonic into the racing genre with earlier titles such as Sonic R and Sonic Drift on the SEGA Saturn and Game Gear, respectively; however, Sheffield-based studio Sumo Digital had instead perfected bringing their IP into an excellently designed kart racer.
That brings us to Team Sonic Racing, Sumo Digital’s third outing with SEGA’s branding and ditching the wider scope of the company’s history entirely for a game focused on one franchise and one franchise alone, Sonic the Hedgehog. Tightening its focus once again, it’s clear that this time the team’s intentions are for more than just merely playing around with the kart racing genre, instead Team Sonic Racing is a full-on experiment to see how far developer Sumo Digital can push it, and the results are certainly excellent. What I’m mainly referring to is Team Sonic Racing’s titular ‘team’ mechanic that sees the player matching up with two other characters (four teams of three), each race and working as a unit to lead themselves to victory. This means that the goal of each race isn’t to simply achieve first place but to instead assure that your two other team members are also performing well, as simply abandoning them can possibly lead to an overall failure. To ensure this, the player must constantly keep tabs on their teammates, communicating with them mid-race by offering them item boxes and ‘slingshotting’ off them, in which the player follows a trail left by the team member furthest ahead of them, giving a quick boost on exits and allowing them to surpass the teammate and vice-versa. This also works in tandem with ‘skim-boosting’, in which after a character is hit with a projectile or item mid-race, a party member can drive past them and help them boost out of their initial slow-down.
At first glance, this appears as a gimmick in an attempt for Team Sonic Racing to differentiate itself from the other titles in its genre, but my fears of this were quickly laid to rest when I noticed just how fully committed the game is to this mechanic throughout. It adds an engaging and rewarding metagame to a skilled player that may be far ahead of the competition in first place, subconsciously knowing that their party members falling behind will affect their victory, and even if it isn’t entirely your cup of tea, there are plenty of modes that can be played traditionally. This isn’t even to mention the game’s content-rich single and multiplayer options featuring 15 characters, from classic icons, such as Tails, Knuckles, Dr. Eggman and Metal Sonic, to newer fan-favourites, such as Silver and Blaze, to weirder additions, such as Big the Cat and Sonic: Lost World’s Zavok (truth be told, I’m probably the one person that would have been upset had Big the Cat not been included). Each character’s car is fully customisable, and custom parts can be bought at random with credits earned in-game after completing a race, though the rate at which they can be unlocked is slightly frustrating since there is no option to buy pieces in bulk, instead the player is required unlock a piece at a time, which can get rather time consuming after racking up a large amount of currency.
The depth of the customisation is sure to get some players addicted, however, as parts are easily unlocked, and everything can be changed from each car’s bonnet, tires, paint patter, and vinyls can be applied; it’s quite obtuse. Furthermore, there are 20 individual, excellently designed tracks based off seven classic and modern Sonic stages, including Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ Sandopolis, Sonic Unleashed’s Rooftop Run and Sonic Colors’ Planet Wisp, all neatly packed into an adventure mode with a series of trials stretched out upon seven chapters lasting roughly five or six hours. The story told is thoroughly underwhelming considering the cast and attention to detail seen in all the other aspects, following a simple narrative of Sonic and his friends having been invited to a race by a mysterious tanooki character named ‘Dodon Pa’ who is interested in testing their driving abilities and vehicles. The main concern to note is that it, unfortunately, does not answer the ever-present question in this series: “Why is Sonic in a car?”. And that is unforgivable.
There are five Grand Prix races that the player may tackle both online or offline, alongside exhibition and time trial modes, all offering a plethora of content, both single-player and multiplayer, for a title this discounted at launch. I should note, however, in my experience with Team Sonic Racing’s online mode, races have ranged from excellent in fluidity to downright unplayable in awful connection instances, and a lot of my time spent trying to play online was actually spent waiting for other players to connect to the game’s lobby. This isn’t so much a problem with the game itself as it is the lack of a current player-base; however, I have to wonder if it is actually a lack of player-base or merely a bad netcode as my other online experiences weren’t exactly buttery smooth. The same can be said for the rest of the game, however. I found that through all of my play sessions on a regular PlayStation 4, the game would frequently drop from its usual 60 frames-per-second down to the mid-30s, specifically while making sharp turns on practically every stage, something strange considering that the game, while quite beautiful and brimming with colour and animation, is far from demanding for this generation of hardware’s expectations. While each stage is full of references to past titles and eye-catching visual flair, the character models of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and friends leave a lot to be desired, a decision I presume was made to cater to the Nintendo Switch release. Character models, when viewed up close during customisation, are lacking any sort of expression or distinguishing charm, which certainly isn’t noticeable during gameplay, but it is when spending little-to-no time customising and certainly could have been granted more flair and personality.
The same can certainly be said for the in-game cutscenes for the story mode. The story is told through simple visual novel-style sequences with less than flattering character art used to portray them on top of the pretty standard, cheese-filled voice acting the series has become associated with at this point. These sequences leave a lot to be desired and made me lose interest in the story almost immediately. Fortunately, almost all of this can be forgiven due to what is one of Team Sonic Racing’s best assets overall, it’s incredible soundtrack. Bringing together the composers of Sonic titles new and old, Team Sonic Racing’s soundtrack is consistently brimming with track-after-track of excellence, which thankfully sits up and stands alongside the greatest of soundtracks in the series’ 28-year legacy.
Minor technical issues aside, Team Sonic Racing may abandon the SEGA fanfare that made Sumo Digital’s kart racers so brilliant before, but what lies in its wake is an excellent, focused, experimental title that pulls in elements from new and old to culminate into one huge, definitive Sonic the Hedgehog kart racing experience. Best of all though, its ‘team racing’ mechanic is superbly realised, re-contextualising the genre in a way that only the Sonic series could, and hopefully it will be built upon in future instalments.
Developer: Sumo Digital
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Release Date: 21st May 2019