Nearly ten years ago, SEGA and the Sheffield based developer Sumo Digital teamed up to bring Sonic and a number of SEGA franchises to the world of mascot kart racers. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was a hit with fans of SEGA, Sonic and drift-focused racing games and only two years later the studio returned with the even more successful Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Transformed not only outdid the previous game in fan service, but also in ambition. Players controlled transforming vehicles with three distinct modes in tracks that would change with each lap. After a seven year break, SEGA and Sumo Digital are back with Team Sonic Racing. Fans are undoubtably wondering what to expect from this third outing, though the lead up to the game has probably put fans in more of a place of uncertainty than excitement. Is Team Sonic Racing a worthy follow-up, or is it a step back for the series?
When it was revealed, Team Sonic Racing was met with a mix of excitement and concern. Sonic fans were getting a full-on Sonic franchise racing game, something they really haven’t seen since 2010’s Sonic Free Riders and 2008’s Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity. Also, SEGA was clearly tying the new game to Sonic R with the marketing emphasizing the logo’s reuse of the same “R”. It also became immediately apparent that SEGA had dropped all non-Sonic franchises in favor of the blue blur and his friends and the transforming mechanic from the previous game was absent.
In approaching the game, I wanted to play it for what it was and not for what I wished it would have been. Of course I would have been overjoyed to see another take on Transformed with improved controls and graphics and even more SEGA fan service, but I don’t think it would be fair to deduct points from Team Sonic Racing when from the beginning the promotion for the game was clear about what it was, and a true sequel to Transformed was not it.
If anything, Team Sonic Racing feels like more of a sequel to the original Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing and those who felt that air and water took away from the feeling of pure road racing should have a lot to enjoy here. Heck, tracks from both previous All-Stars Racing games appear IN Team Sonic Racing, so there are quite literally elements that fans of the previous games enjoyed. With the additional vehicle modes out of the way, track designs focus purely on automotive racing, which means returning Transformed tracks are re-designed to focus only on the one racing mode. This does take away a bit from the excitement of these tracks, but what they might lack is more than made up for in the new tracks.
A majority of the new tracks feature some very clever designs, with racers driving up walls, bouncing on clouds, floating on invisible Mother Wisp roads and dropping down stair stepped hills. Like many Sonic platformers, Team Sonic Racing features seven zones with three tracks each, totaling 21 tracks. The game also features five teams of three characters each, totaling 15 racers. While the track count is on par with Transformed, the focus on seven settings means each zones three tracks will feel a bit similar, though efforts appear to have been taken to make them feel unique.
The roster count, meanwhile, is rather small featuring half of what was seen in Transformed (when counting every racer on every platform) and I do not see any sign of secret unlockables, DLC or launch day content. What more, after just a few introductory races, I found that I could play a bulk of the tracks and the full roster from select modes. On one hand it’s nice to be able to play so much out of the gate, but on the other hand I was disappointed with the lack of surprise or the tease of some super cool racers or tracks that I would have to work towards to unlock.
So where does the additional unlockable content come into play? As you race you earn tokens that can be redeemed for capsule toy style Mod Pods. These pods contain vehicle enhancements, color schemes, decals, horns, and items that you can equip before a race. Theres a little fan service by way of the paint schemes, which evoke stages from previous games including the Sonic Advance series, the Genesis classics and even Sonic Mania. The parts not only change your stats, but also change the look of your vehicle. The parts and paint mode is deeper than I expected, and I had fun changing up the look of my vehicle between races.
The highlight for fans who like a story in their game is the Team Adventure mode. Through static cutscenes with a fully voiced cast, Sonic and his friends and enemies make their way through a Mario-esque overworld map in an effort to win races and figure out what the mysterious new character Dodon Pa, a tanuki, is up to. The story is nothing special, but the character interactions are fun and surprisingly self-aware. I say that because the story almost calls out the game itself for the weird team-ups. Vector is asked why he isn’t teamed up with Espio and Charmy, and the question of why Orbot and Cubot aren’t racing with Eggman is also brought up.
It’s funny, but it also makes the imperfections of the roster more apparent. One complaint I had was that when selecting a spot on the map, the X button (on the PS4) would select an event without story scenes and the Square button would select an event WITH story scenes. Given X is almost always select, I would constantly make the mistake of skipping cutscenes only to have to wait until the appropriate menu to return to the map and select it again. Sometimes I would forget, do the race, and not only miss the cutscenes before the race, but also a cutscene that took place after the race. It’s a nitpick, sure, but it is a UI choice I really hope they fix with a patch.
The soundtrack, which unfortunately leaked prior to the game’s release, is excellent. Gone is the dub step that ruined an otherwise great soundtrack in Transformed, and in its place is the dated but beloved rock stylings of Crush 40. Fans of more recent games will also hear contributions from Tee Lopes, Hyper Potions and others. If you haven’t listened to the leaked tracks yet, I urge you to wait until playing the game itself to experience the tracks as they were meant to be heard. Theres some real fun auditory easter eggs and new tunes you’ll sure to be humming in the weeks ahead.
Now to get to the three elephants in the room: Team Racing. Not just a mode, team racing makes up a bulk of the gameplay. You and two racers, either AI or real people should you play locally or online, race as a team and earn points based on your placement at the end of a race. The better your place, the more points you earn and your team total is compared to all competing teams. It’s an interesting concept, but on paper seems like a recipe for disaster. What if your teammates are awful racers? That’s where Team Actions come in. Boosting past struggling teammates will get them back into the race, riding a teammates slipstream will slingshot you ahead with a boost and you can transfer items to teammates anywhere on the track.
The items consist of wisps, a concept I honestly really like. Rather than relying on the limiting power-ups from pre-2010 games, or making up weapons like past All-Stars Racing games, the wisps offer up a fun variety of offensive and defensive items that fit with the Sonic setting. The team setting, however, means there are two less opponents for you to try and knock out of the race and I feared I wouldn’t know exactly who was who in all the chaos, but there is a fair amount of on-screen UI that makes it pretty clear who your teammates are and who the competition is. Some of the best moments are when you and a teammate work together to take down a rival, and I can’t wait to see what sorts of crazy takedowns occur as I play the game at launch with friends.
If it sounds like I’m positive on the team racing aspect of the game, I am only because my own experiences have been pretty good. I do have to say that harder modes and later tracks really put the AI teammates to the test and make for a difficult, but not impossible, racing experience. This is where I think the concept stumbles, as you really should be racing with real people for it to work. Personally, within the Sonic and SEGA community I know quite a few people who will be playing this game but have been critical of the mode based on what they’ve played in demos at events. My only fear is that should my friends try the game and stop playing because they don’t like the concept, I’ll have fewer people to play with. The online community for this game is young as I write this, filled mostly with reviewers like myself, so I don’t feel I can accurately rate the game until a few weeks after release. As such, my final score might change.
Team Sonic Racing is the best Sonic-only racing game in a while, but when you look at the games it is being compared to it’s not stiff competition (sorry Riders and R fans). However, when compared to the past two Sumo Digital racers, Team Sonic Racing might outdo the original All-Stars Racing in several areas but it fails to replicate the surprise, excitement and insane fan service found in Transformed. I applaud Sumo Digital and SEGA for trying a new racing concept, but I feel the idea will really succeed or fail based on how the general public approaches the game. My hope is we’ll see true teams form with racers working together for some really exciting gameplay experiences. Only time will tell.
- When team racing works, it really works
- New tracks are imaginative
- Excellent soundtrack
- Story mode is a welcome addition
- Team racing will live or die with the online community
- Imperfect AI at the highest difficulties
- Weak roster