Not many would argue that a certain plumber’s kart game has pretty much ruled the roost for years now. Despite some decent attempts to dethrone it, Mario Kart is still the one to beat. Sumo Digital themselves have put in some great work in the past in the genre, and in Team Sonic Racing they’ve had their best stab yet. Some sublime racing mechanics, well designed tracks and more than a few subtle references to all things Sonic, make for a package that is quite simply brilliant.
As the name may imply, the main hook here is the fact that rather than it being every racer for themselves, you are instead racing in teams – specifically teams of three. Each of these are predetermined (at least in single player) with Sonic teaming up with trusty allies Tails and Knuckles, Robotnik with his robotic henchmen, and so on. You are free to play as any one of a team’s members throughout, with each having different stats as well as specialties. Sonic is, naturally, a speed type, allowing him faster top speeds and boost. Whereas Knuckles is a power type, letting him smash through objects on the track without penalty. Finally, Tails is a technique type – this allows him to traverse rough terrain easily, opening up shortcuts otherwise inaccessible.
Each team follows the same pattern, with each character filling the roles you’d typically expect. It’s a little disappointing that there are only 5 teams in total, but the characters chosen fit well together in the team dynamic, though more could have been made of this in-game. As you race and perform actions, you’ll build an ultimate meter. Activating this will grant you increased speed and invulnerability. But, this is the same for each squad. It’d have been nice to see team specific powers – as it is, it is a useful but otherwise unremarkable bonus.
The first port of call will be the campaign. Here we have seven worlds full of different events to complete in, in order to earn stars to progress. A Tanuki named Dodon Pa has invited our heroes and villains to participate in races and events under mysterious circumstances, and throughout, there’s short but generally entertaining exchanges between characters as they attempt to figure out whether he has ill intentions or not. It’s nothing world changing, but the story has the light hearted vibe you’d expect from a Sonic game.
Each world has a fair few events to take part it, though not all are required to progress. These take the forms of not only races but also unique events. Races require you to work as a team – your final position on the podium is determined by an overall score of each members placement. Finishing first is all well and good, but if your team mates come last then you’re likely to still miss out on the top spot. Races require you to work together, sharing items back and forth as well as using the slipstream created by your team to get speed boosts. This is as simple as sticking to the highlighted yellow trail for a few seconds, before exiting to rush ahead.
I really liked this team mechanic – it always kept you in the action and enabled some great comebacks at the last moment, building up the maximum level three boost before careening past for the win. The AI sometimes doesn’t seem to make use of this, with more than one occasion ending with me in first while Knuckles (always Knuckles…) would be languishing in last. Each race has several bonus objectives, some requiring you to finish in first solo as well as in a team, and these can sometimes be failed through no fault of your own due to this. It’s hardly the biggest issue – you’ll get more than enough stars to progress, these bonus ones are more for completionists – but it can still be annoying.
Other events require a bit more precision and focus. These are games of skill more than out and out racing, for example; requiring you to narrowly skim a post for maximum points, or, destroy a number of enemies in a strict time limit. It’s here that picking your character matters most. Sonic is fast, but chances are you’ll fly past an object rather than hit or collect it. Even picking an ideal character won’t make things easy, mind. You’ll get one star for silver, and another at the platinum level, but man, it’ll make you work for it. Again, these are optional challenges (thankfully!) but are a great addition to what otherwise could have been a pretty straightforward affair.
Each racer can be customized fairly extensively, with rewards from finishing races and objectives allowing you to beef up their rides. What initially seemed a bit lacking soon expanded massively, with parts not only changing your stats but also the look of the cars, which can be further altered with a new color scheme. It’s a little disappointing that you are limited to set color schemes for this though. Each scheme based on the racers themes has only 4 colors per-part, and while there are enough sets to cater, I don’t see why we couldn’t have just had individual color sliders like you’d see elsewhere. The legendary parts, which provide the best stats, also can’t be changed, meaning if you’re not a fan of gold then you’re out of luck.
These buffs not only apply to the campaign but across the board, including the online multiplayer. This is perhaps the most flat part of the package, offering the bare minimum modes (ranked and casual matchmaking, and custom lobbies) but it’s the performance that is the real kicker here. While I’m only able to test on my Xbox and connection, I found multiple instances of being disconnected from games; I guess from people quitting out. One race, all three of my team were about to cross the finish line in the top 3 places when it happened. Outside of this, there seems to be a hefty amount of slowdown and network lag, which is completely absent is single player.
One stage had huge slowdown as all racers went round a loop simultaneously, every time. When it works, however, the team mechanic makes races far more enjoyable than I’d expected. Passing items along (which also gifts the receiver with more powerful versions) and slip-streaming makes it feel like a true co-op experience, even if playing with randoms. Online also allows mixing of teams, with each player choosing whoever they like, then being paired up at random. This doesn’t really change much, just that you’ll need to time your ultimate activation with others to yield the best results.
But whether online or offline, the racing here is about as good as you could want from an arcade racer. Controls are slick and responsive, the sense of speed is brilliant and the power ups are all well balanced and fun to use. Their inspiration is obvious to anyone who has ever played Mario Kart, but that’s no bad thing. Here they take the form of Wisps from Sonic Colo(u)rs, with your typical speed boosts and rockets complimented by fun takes on other weaponry – I’m particularly both taken with and frustrated by their take on the blue shell.
Here, it will block the path with giant stone columns, not only affecting first place, but everyone ahead. It’s a little too powerful perhaps, the columns often making it not just difficult, but impossible to pass without incident. But, that’s part of the fun right? Track design is another standout too. All taking inspiration from Sonic games across the years, there’s plenty of eye candy on show here. Giant squid and whales flailing about and across the track, a giant casino filled with background movement, and a huge volcanic level all look great, while still keeping the track ahead clear. Levels loop in and around themselves, with plenty of alternate routes to keep an eye out for.
The audio that accompanies them is of typical Sonic fare too – that is to say, bloody amazing. Crush 40, along with Richard Jacques, have knocked it out of the park. Themes are catchy, with hidden references to games of old in there for long time fans. When the game was first revealed with that R logo ripped straight from Sonic R, my first hope was that we’d see some references to that game’s brilliantly cheesy soundtrack. While not quite as many as I’d have liked, when they appear I had a smile from ear to ear. I know modern Sonic soundtracks are not for everyone, but chances are, if you’re interested in TSR, you’ll appreciate this game’s audio too. Another one for the playlist for sure!
All in all? Sumo have made some stellar efforts in the past in All Stars Racing and Transformed, but Team Sonic Racing is their best effort by far. While I did miss the other franchise’s characters and levels, what’s here is a love letter to all things Sonic, not just in character choices, but stage design, audio and little nods here and there. And while I was initially skeptical of the team mechanic choice, having played it now, it adds a much needed uniqueness to things, even if the AI can sometimes let you down in single player. Online play is a bit of a let-down – both in performance and modes – but when things worked smoothly I had a great time teaming up with other racers. Overall though, I don’t think you’ll find a better Kart racer this side of a Nintendo system.
Sumo have made some stellar efforts in the past, but Team Sonic Racing is, needless to say, their best effort by far. What’s here is a love letter to all things Sonic, not just in character variation, but stage design, audio presentation, and much more besides. Despite some online teething issues, some questionable AI behavior, and the odd poor design choice, you’ll not find a better kart racer this side of a Nintendo system.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.