There are very few great kart racers outside of Mario Kart these days. It's been seven years since the excellent Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, so fans have been keen for SEGA to give the genre another spin. Team Sonic Racing is a monkey paw in that regard. Gone are the other Sega characters and stages in favor of a Sonic-focused entry, and gone are the transforming vehicles that let you race across land, air, and sea.
Team Sonic Racing is a more traditional experience in terms of traversal. You have your wheels on the ground, racing through bright, colorful courses full of deadly traps. There are speed pads to give you a boost, but you can also utilize a power slide to give you the edge in terms of speed. There are also a host of weapons that you can pick up on the course, ranging from simple missiles, and stone blocks, to ghosts that steal items, and giant stone column-summoning mega-attacks. Team Sonic Racing is pretty standard in terms of its kart racing bonafides, and if you've played Mario Kart, you should be well at home here.
Sumo Digital has delivered a total of 21 beautiful tracks, full of wonderfully twisty track design, unique obstacles and stage transitions, and eye-popping colors. They're not all entirely new. From Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, the returning courses include Roulette Road (which was in Transformed), Bingo Party, Pinball Highway, Ocean View, Whale Lagoon, Lost Palace, Thunder Dock, Dark Arsenal, and Turbine Loop. That's nine of the 21 courses that are brought back from a previous game, which only feed into the "step back" mentality.
Sumo Digital did a damn good job with the updates though, and the new courses are great. The meteors and mighty gears of Clockwork Pyramid, the giant lava golem above Hidden Volcano, and the balloon hopping of Sky Road are instantly memorable, even if the latter reminds me a little of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe's Cloudtop Cruise. I'd love to eventually see entire tracks from a bird's eye view, so I can puzzle out their winding ways.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Returning developer Sumo Digital has rethought the mechanics of racing itself. The focus of Team Sonic Racing is right there in the title: "Team". While there are standard races, with each animal or robot for itself, the primary mode of racing involves teams of three. Placing first isn't enough, as winning requires a cumulative score higher than other teams, and that's based on your placement in the race. If you get first and the rest of your team is dead last, you're probably not winning.
When you're playing in most team races, it's you joined by two AI partners. You choose a pre-set team, and then one of the three team members, each with a different style: Speed, Technique, or Power. This not only determines where your racer's stats lean, they also have different bonuses. Power racers can slam through on-course obstacles without slowing down, while Technique racers can drive off-road with no speed penalty.
There are five teams roughly themed around their lead racer. Team Sonic is Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles; Team Rose is Amy Rose, a collection of Chao, and Big the Cat; Team Vector is Vector, Silver, and Blaze; Team Dark is Shadow, Rouge, and Omega; Team Eggman is Dr. Eggman, Metal Sonic, Zavok. (No one will probably remember Zavok, as he was the antagonist of Sonic: Lost World.) The biggest hit against Team Sonic Racing is the loss of the alternate Sega characters. Once you get past Shadow and Amy, my mind begins to tune out a bit, and there was something magical about Amigo, Alex Kidd, and Shenmue's Ryu Hazuki outracing Sonic and friends. Yes, you judge what you have, but I can't help but feel like we took a slight step back in terms of the roster.
There are a host of Team Actions you can perform while rolling around each track. You can draft only off your own team members or skim past them, both of which give a short speed boost. If you're briefly knocked out by opponents and there's a teammate nearby, you'll be pulled back into full speed. You can also pass items between team members as well, and in fact, that's the only way to access some items, like triple bombs or triple missiles. Doing enough team actions during a race fills up a meter and once it's full, you can pull off a Team Ultimate. This gives your whole team temporary invincibility and a super-speed boost, letting you plow throw course obstacles and other races.
Managing the Team Ultimate is a part of mastering Team Sonic Racing; knowing when to use it to gain ground or absorb enemy attacks is key. The Team Ultimate breaks the purity of the racing a bit, because it's amazingly powerful when active and properly doing Team Actions will let you use it at least twice during each race. It's an integral part of the general game mechanics, but sometimes I almost wish I could turn it off.
On A Challenging Adventure
Team Sonic Racing includes a host of basic modes. Local Play offers Grand Prix, Exhibition, and Time Trial, in Team Race and lonely Standard Race variants. Online play throws a random assortment of tracks and race types in Casual and Ranked Play. The meat of the game is the Team Adventure mode. This features a map of various tasks and race types. There are the standard races, but where it gets really fun are the special race challenges.
These pop up during the Team Adventure. While most races are just about stepping onto the winner's circle, these are mostly score-based. Take Eggpawn Assault, which spawns an endless line of Dr. Eggman's robots for you to destroy, with different types offering you more points. Ring Challenges has you collecting rings on the track to earn points, but you're racing against a timer and collecting rings while drifting adds to the timer. Destruction has you hitting colored rings on the track, and Traffic Attack has you avoiding robots and driving through moving gates to earn extra time and points.
Not only do these challenges break up all the straight up racing action, if you pay attention they actually make you much better at racing itself. Tasks like Traffic Attack and Ring Challenge actually help you with drift control and finding the proper course line. Eggpawn Assault is about weapon control and precision. The challenges will truly test you too; getting Silver is doable, but Gold and Platinum are there for the very best. Hell, I admit, I almost threw my controller after trying and retrying some of them. These are the kinds of things that help Team Sonic Racing pull away from Mario Kart, it's a shame they're only in Team Adventure. I wish you could choose them in Local Play.
Green Hill Customs
The backend of Team Sonic Racing is a full customization system. Every character has their own ride, which doesn't change, but you can switch up things about that ride in the Garage. The lowest level is a whole series of paint jobs. But there's a whole other set of unlockable gear. Performance parts include the front, rear, and tires of any ride, which come in standard and Legendary versions. There are full paint kits, vinyls to cover your kart, even unique horns.
Some of this stuff is unlocked by playing, but a lot of it comes in Mod Pods. Yeah, they're pretty much loot boxes. Each Mod Pod costs 10 credits and the credits tend to fall like rain in Team Adventure, so it's not hard to get a bunch of them. Also, there don't seem to be any real-world purchases, at least in the review build I played. If you hate the mere scent of loot boxes, avoid Team Sonic Racing. Otherwise, it didn't bother me much in terms of basic play.
Perhaps it's not entirely fair to compare it to the fantastic Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed or even Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, as both were building on a previous entry. That said, Team Sonic Racing does draw tracks and even karts from Sonic & All-Stars Racing. The Team mechanics are interesting, but the Team Ultimate breaks up the pure racing action. And the challenges in the Team Adventure are so good, that I wish they were available elsewhere in the game. It's a very good game, but my mind is constantly drawn to the high bar established in the genre. Team Sonic Racing is on the winner's podium for sure, but it's taking home the Silver, not the Gold. (The $39.99 asking price does soften the blow of coming in behind.)
Sumo Digital is back to hit you with that fantastic Sonic Racing action. Team Sonic Racing has a new focus on team-based mechanics, but it ultimately feels like a step back from the excellent Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. The tracks are great, there's a whole of new customization options, and Team Adventure's challenge courses do well to differentiate the game from its peers, but it's a rebuilding year.