For someone that goes so fast, Sonic has rarely been considered a frontrunner. For the last thirty years he’s mostly followed a cheerful plumber around and copied his homework, whether he’s been jumping on heads, playing annoying multiplayer board games or dabbling in a bit of kart racing. There’s always been a sense that you’ve seen it all before, even if Sonic might do things a touch faster than his Italian rival.
Team Sonic Racing is the blue hedgehog’s latest shot at Mario’s genre-defining karting schtick, this time doing away with the vehicular transformations of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and instead tasks players with racing as a team. While you still want to be the first to cross the finish line, you’re part of and earning points for a team of three racers. You might grab victory for yourself, but lose as a team if your buddies are tootling around at the back, so might need to help them get further up the standings.
Racing as a team just makes sense, especially when there’s major advantages to doing so, including the ability to slingshot yourself from behind a teammate from following closely in their glowing slipstream, nipping out when you’re ready to get a speed boost. Besides that there’s also Skimboost, where you can give a slower teammate – perhaps if they’ve just crashed – a shot of speed by nipping past them at full throttle.
That’s not all though, as you can pass items – or Wisps as they’re called here – to other members of your team that can make better use of them, shuffling things around so you could take out the leader of the race with a weapon that someone in last place has picked up. If you transfer a Wisp, your teammate will get a more powerful version of it and charge your Ultimate Meter to boot. In fact, any of the team actions help to fill your meter which lets you unleash a powerful boost that’ll knock opposing racers out of the way as you head towards first place.
The racing is fast, fluid and fun, and probably a little more welcoming than the previous two Sonic racing games. That said, the team play at the heart of the game doesn’t really sell itself that well in single player; ultimately you don’t have to concentrate too much on anything other than being in first place, much like any other racing game. I definitely used the slipstreaming from my teammates to get there and shared Wisps with them from the front which seemed to help, but it doesn’t feel too much like you’re playing as a team compared with something like last year’s woefully under-appreciated Onrush.
Things take on a different feel in multiplayer though, and here playing as a team really comes together as you can talk to your teammates and try to strategise a little. It’s hardly Rainbow Six Siege, but you can feel the difference of pulling together with other players that you just don’t get from playing with the computer. You might find yourself dropping back a little to help your teammates move forwards, collaborating to extend your Ultimate time, or perhaps passing a Wisp to the player in front to give them a shot at taking out second place. Whatever you’re doing the co-operative racing works much better, even if it still feels a little superfluous.
While mechanically it can work, when you compare it with the previous All-Stars games there’s an obvious lack of character to the whole thing. Sonic’s cohorts simply don’t engender the same level of interest, or attachment, when compared to racing besides Ryo from Shenmue or Wreck-it Ralph. I’m sure there are a few Amy and Big the Cat fans out there, but they’re nowhere near as iconic.
The same goes for the different courses. Those featured in Team Sonic Racing are fine; colourful and well constructed, but lack the joy or variety that shifting from the world of Panzer Dragoon to Samba de Amigo could bring. I was left wishing that they’d just remastered the last game rather than set themselves on this new route.
The single player Adventure mode sees the suspiciously friendly Dodon Pa send Sonic an invitation to try out his super cars around some of his “punishing tracks” which all sounded pretty dodgy to get involved in, but then what do I know? What it amounts to is taking part in a series of team races and various speed or drift challenges as you work your way across the different tracks. There is a story, but it almost feels as though Sumo are embarrassed by it. Each story skit won’t even automatically play unless you remember to press Square instead of Cross when selecting a level, meaning you can completely bypass it by, whether you mean to or not.
There’s some pretty decent car customisation stuff, where you can alter your karts performance and appearance by buying parts with tokens you collect via racing – again this is something that the plumber did first. It’s nice to have some control over how your kart looks and behaves, though it’s probably not quite as straightforward and intuitive and Nintendo’s mascot makes it. The game does differentiate between different kart types too: Speed are fast, Technique can drive over grass etc. for a short time without penalty, and Power can charge through obstacles. Again though, the different types didn’t make me alter the way I played the game that much, and barring the odd save where Knuckles knocked a crab out of my way it just felt like something that could be used to a tactical advantage but which the game doesn’t actually ask you to utilise.