Sonic the Hedgehog’s been through a lot in the last twenty-five years. Repeated, flavourless sequels that cast a wide genre net have dogged the old blue blur, from 3D platformers to endless runners and puzzle games, and the less said about his upcoming movie the better. Team Sonic Racing is the third in Sega’s series of Sonic-branded kart racing titles, a competitor in an increasingly crowded arena overshadowed by genre titans like Mario Kart. Team Sonic Racing has a point of difference though, one you might not expect for a game about Sonic the Hedgehog — winning in TSR is about efficiency, not speed.
As the name suggests, Team Sonic Racing isn’t about winning races solo. Instead, you form an alliance (or team) with two other racers and play to each other’s strengths to win the race. The most efficient synergies will put you further ahead of the pack, increasing your odds for success. Items are picked up using the ancient techniques, but can be passed back and forth between teammates, meaning what isn’t necessarily useful to you in the moment may be crucial to one of your teammates. Getting behind an ally will grant a significant burst of speed well above a regular draft, and they will call out hazards on the course or rivals to be wary of.
In this sense, and as trite as this is going to sound, Team Sonic Racing borrows from teamplay flavours of the moment like Overwatch, classing each of its racers by Speed, Technique or Power. It’s less about brute force item deployment than it is about working together to achieve an optimal run. Points are awarded based on how well you worked together and this contributes to your overall standings. This means you’re much better off trying to pull your weakest link up with you than you are planting the accelerator and gunning it for the line by yourself. It’s trying something different in the kart genre and for this alone, it deserves your attention. The last time anyone implemented a real team-play dynamic of any kind in a kart racer was in Mario Kart: Double Dash, a game that featured two-players-to-a-kart multiplayer and still favoured out-and-out aggression against your opponents. That was in 2003.
A core component in any kart racer is, obviously, the track design and Team Sonic Racing doesn’t disappoint. A game like this is the perfect opportunity to employ many of the Sonic series already race-like tropes — loop-de-loops, sweeping turns, intertwining and overlapping design — and developer Sumo Digital goes for it. Indeed, the track design may be one of my favourite aspects of the entire game. These are smart, economical and often surprisingly restrained. Where Mario Kart has leant more and more into a certain amount of spectacle, TSR knows where to draw the line. There are moments of high concept, Big Wow track design but they’re using sparingly and this is actually a strength. Big Wow moments only ever work the first time, and then you have two more laps to complete.
Race modes are your standard kart racer fare, with Grands Prix, Time Trials and Exhibition where you can customise races to your heart’s content. Further, you can make certain tweaks to your karts in order to maximise their output. It’s not on the level of Forza Motorsport or anything but it does give you a sense of ownership over your vehicle’s contribution to the team.
Team Sonic Racing does encounter a few stumbling blocks, however. While its character selection screen features a wide array of Sonic characters with different stats and abilities, anyone who isn’t a Sonic fan won’t really know who any of them are beyond Sonic himself, Tails, Knuckles and maybe Eggman. Characters like Amy, Big Cat, Vector and Rouge will mean nothing to audiences who haven’t stuck with the franchise in all its forms over the years. Additionally, the single-player campaign is little more than a glorified tutorial that wears out its welcome very quickly. Its purpose is to explain why all these characters are racing go-karts around. It makes such a meal of this one narrative task that you’ll be skipping cutscenes within minutes.
Team Sonic Racing is a solid kart racing experience. For those driven mad by the brutal rigours of your average Mario Kart session, it may provide the co-operative balm you’re looking for. As a single player experience, you will likely find it wanting. As a multiplayer offering, it’s well worth checking out.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Smart co-operative play; Less about item domination and more about strong, optimised racing
Lowlights: Baffling story; Huge roster of characters you couldn’t identify if your life depended on it
Developer: Sumo Digital
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
Review conducted on Xbox One X with a retail key provided by the publisher.