(Xbox One review code provided by Sega.)
What’s left to do after you’ve ‘transformed’ kart racing?
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 7 years since the last Sonic racing game, 2012’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Even though it was released somewhat in the shadow of Mario Kart 7, a Nintendo first party game with a superficially similar vehicle gimmick, Sumo Digital was still able to deliver an exceptional game that stood apart from other kart racers.
Now all these years later, and after a significant development delay, have they done it again? What does the new Team dynamic bring to kart racing? Will this game be as memorable as its predecessor, or is the upcoming CTR: Nitro-Fueled likely to completely overshadow it?
These are the questions that I’ll try to answer in my review of Team Sonic Racing.
So let’s talk about what this game offers. Booting up, if you can skip the awesome Crush 40 song and intro, you’ll find standard options like local Grand Prix, Single Race, and Time attack, in addition to online multiplayer. But my journey started with the Team Adventure mode. This mode is similar to the previous game’s World Tour mode, but this time the events are bookended with fully voiced story scenes to propel the narrative. No animation, but the voice acting is typically well done and at times pretty cute. No one buys a racing game for the story, and this is no exception. It’s light stuff, and skippable, but I found it humorous enough to see all of these characters work off of each other. In this mode you’ll work to beat different kinds of challenges across a set of maps. Through this, you’ll be slowly introduced to the various items and racing mechanics that the game has to offer.
The control in this game feels very much like the car controls of the previous one. It’s accessible, but also skilled. As I’m racing around, at the speed of sound, I feel like I can place my car exactly where I want to weather steering, drifting, or boosting. But I haven’t mastered it yet, as my current inability to pass certain challenges shows.
Every good kart racer tries to add something new and unique to the genre in an attempt to pull ahead of the pack. What this game adds is an innovative team mechanic. You control one player in a three-player team. Your team earns a cumulative score based off of each player’s finishing position, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to help their teammates as much as possible. There are three main ways to contribute to your teammates.
Item Box Transfer: Item pickups can be offered to or accepted from your teammates as you race. Certain more powerful items are only created through transfers.
Skimboost: Driving in close proximity to a stopped or stalled teammate will give them a speed boost. It’s a great feeling when you’ve been hit or accidentally drive into an obstacle to find yourself immediately back to full speed because your teammate skimboosted you.
And the Slingshot: The lead driver of your team will leave a trial on the road behind them. Driving in that trail gives you speed and charges your boost up to three times. Leave the trail to boost forward.
Not only will these team techniques help your team in the rankings, but successful team moves add to your ultimate move meter. “Team ultimate” is a large speed boost and invincibility for your whole team for a few seconds. You’ll want to fill this meter as often as possible.
Even your choice of character will alter how you race. Every team is comprised of three class types: a speed character who can block certain range attacks and push rivals away with enough drift boost. A technique character with superior cornering, who doesn’t lose speed on off-road terrain. And lastly, a power character that can more easily push around rivals and can break through barriers and obstacles without any loss of speed. This three class system seems inspired by Sonic Heroes, but I’d say it works much better here. I was afraid that the team mechanics would be a detriment to the racing. But instead, I’ve found them to be a refreshing addition to the standard formula. While maybe not quite as strategic as the Modnation series, I found the added layer of strategy on top of solid racing technique to very enjoyable. Even better, standard, non-team, modes are available for those times when you just want to win solo.
Scattered across the tracks are the aforementioned item boxes. The randomized item types you’ll find are fairly standard racing game fare, but this time they take the form of different colored Wisps from Sonic Colors. It’s a good mix of typical power-ups. If one of your team members has fallen way behind the pack, it’s tough to help them catch up. I’m surprised that some form of a ‘swap places’ power-up wasn’t included. It would seem to fit the game’s theme.
The tracks are well constructed, filled with spectacle, and cover a variety of themes. They include all the types of hard turns, branching paths, boost pads, and short-cuts that you would expect in a modern kart racer. I’m always fond of crazy, rollercoaster-like tracks that ignore gravity and this game loves them too. There’s an almost even mix of new tracks and updated tracks from the previous two games.
Graphics and Aesthetics
This game drops the rest of the Sega stable to focus only on Sonic and his cohorts. In doing so, it makes this game feel somewhat more like the start of a new series instead of a sequel. I really thought I would miss the other characters and themed tracks more, but what’s on offer here has enough variety that I’ve just been enjoying the racing.
I’m playing for this review on a standard Xbox One. I’m not a graphics or frame rate snob, so take my opinions with a grain of salt, but had no issues in my play time. It’s nice to see a Sonic racer made for this generation of hardware. It’s a step up in resolution and frame rate from its predecessor.
The repeating melody from the Crush 40 intro song, Green Light Ride, is used to great effect across the game. The rest of the music is very good, even if I didn’t always notice it while focusing on racing. But it’s tremendously satisfying to hear remixes and homages to songs from other older Sonic games. I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but a couple of times I gasped out loud when I recognized certain call-backs.
Over the course of your playtime, you’ll earn credit coins that you can spend in the Mod Pod. Here you’ll unlock vehicle upgrades that can improve aspects of your performance or grant further cosmetic options. You can also earn consumable bonus boxes which are selectable before entering an event and offer small advantages such as beginning the race with a certain item or increasing the rate of a metric. None of this is bad per se, but I would have preferred more tracks as a way to extend replay value.
This is where things get a bit sticky. Beyond these unlockables, there are only 21 tracks in the game, and only 12 of those are totally new. Even though the tracks are generally pretty large and there are mirrored versions, that’s not a lot of content. Thankfully this game launched at a more budget-friendly price point, so the comparative lack of content to similar games seems more acceptable.
Multiplayer is your best bet for extending your play time.
I enjoyed my time with Team Sonic Racing. Is this a game I’ll want to return to for months? It’s too early to tell and that will be largely dependant on the multiplayer scene. I’ve long likened first-party Nintendo games to “meat and potato” gaming, while Sonic is more like dessert. I’m writing this review during my sugar rush window. I can’t yet tell you for how long it will sustain me.
Buy or Try or Retire?
I think you should at least try Team Sonic Racing. If you are a fan of games in this genre, especially the previous entry, you are likely to enjoy it. It has a similar structure, amount of content, and launch price as Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, but on modern hardware and with a flavor all its own. I feel Team Sonic Racing is a compliment to, but not a replacement of Transformed.