Team Sonic Racing is publisher Sega's and developer Sumo Digital's third go-round at making a Sonic-themed race car game, and this time, they've excluded all of Sega's older mascots and figureheads to focus solely on the blue hedgehog and his cohorts. It's a dangerous move on the companies' parts, but then again, considering the $40 launch price, reused content from previous titles and omission of major features from those same games, everything about Team Sonic Racing's core design philosophy is pretty darn dangerous.
Having said that, Team Sonic Racing still delivers a good time despite its shortcomings. Let's dissect this game piece-by-piece to see where it sinks and where it soars.
A new Sonic adventure
Adventure Mode is the premier single-player component of Team Sonic Racing. It's a mode that eases you into learning the mechanics of the game while also telling a bite-size, kid-friendly story about the power of teamwork.
Adventure Mode is structured so that you can choose between standard races or quirky car mini-games to progress through the story, granting players a little freedom in how they want to complete the mode's seven chapters. TSR's mini-games ask the player to do things like drift through tight goal posts and blow up robots, which help players sink their teeth into the game's mechanics while also providing a break from the usual three-lap racing formula.
Couple these varied missions with a story that, although told via static character images, is fully voice-acted, and Adventure Mode is a good time. As an added plus, the story features decent writing that somehow manages to infuse more lore and personality into each of Sonic's friends than main series games like Sonic Forces ever came close to. So if you want a Sonic title that gives Big the Cat some depth, calls out Omochao for being annoying and introduces an interesting new tanuki character, you'll walk away happy with the tale TSR's telling.
The issue with Adventure Mode isn't that it's a few hours long (under six if you're not worried about completing optional objectives) but rather, that it doesn't incentivize replayability. Though there are branching paths in its chapters, the story never changes depending on what you pick, and more important, there's no meaningful reward for going through all the races.
There's no real reason to replay levels on higher difficulties or complete the challenges you passed by on your first run-through. No secret tracks or extra characters can be unlocked by doing the game's optional tasks, which is a big disappointment considering its predecessor, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, had a similar mode that encouraged you to replay a ton to get loads of awesome bonus characters.
Reusing a collection of Sonic gems
Speaking of characters and tracks, it's important to note that Team Sonic Racing lacks in both departments (but again, keep in mind its $40 MSRP). It lifts many tracks directly from the first Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, at least five by my count, and lightly remixes a few other old tracks. Since there are only 21 in the game, that means roughly a quarter are content you could have been playing since 2010. And the new tracks, though cool, don't feature any major set pieces or lap-to-lap transformations like Transformed's did, meaning what you see during your first lap is what you get, and not a drop more.
As for characters, there are only 15 on Team Sonic Racing's roster, so there aren't any deep cuts or fan service characters on deck. There are, however, some bizarre choices. Zavok, from the overlooked Wii U game Sonic Lost World, is here, as are Big the Cat and a team of chao, for whatever reason. The fact Vector the Crocodile doesn't have his fellow Chaotix around and has to explain their absence in the story mode is sad, given TSR's devs supposedly drew inspiration from Sonic Heroes.
And where are the Babylon Rogues, a trio of characters specifically designed for Sonic racing games centered around class-based teams of three? If Zavok, some gumdrop pets from the Adventure games and a fat cat could get primetime treatment, then the Rogues' absence is proof that TSR's missed opportunity of a roster is targeted less at Sonic fans and more at a nonexistent demographic that pays actual money for memes.
Outside of Adventure Mode, there are grand prix, exhibition, and time trial modes. But none of these offer meaningful rewards, and are just more empty races against AI. The only way to truly get the most fun out of them is by playing split-screen locally, or hopping online to race against real people. If you don't plan on buying the game while the online community is still active, and you don't have any friends interested in playing TSR on the couch, you might not get your money's worth in raw singleplayer entertainment.
One last thing worth mentioning is the customization component, which is what all of the game's "mod pod" loot box rewards revolve around (sans any real-world currency, thankfully), awarding new tools to change the look and feel of characters' cars. However, very few performance customizations are competitively viable and the cosmetic options, though plenty, weren't deep enough to engage me. Still, for folks who love customization for its own sake, this inclusion could incentivize many hours of playtime.
Super Sonic racing
Regarding gameplay, Team Sonic Racing sticks close to the formula established by the first Sonic & Sega All-Stars — it's a bouncy, speedy kart racer. However, TSR's physics feel a bit different from Sumo Digital's previous two games. Cars seem a little heavier and slower across the board, though speeds increase on harder difficulties.
Beyond physics, the structure of races has changed as well. In Team Sonic Racing, you're often bound to teams of three, wherein you and two other racers can exchange items, gain speed by riding each other's slipstreams, and use one another for speed boosts. Your victory status is determined by cumulative placing points, meaning even if you get first place, if your compadres land in 11th and 12th, you're screwed. Similarly, a last place finisher can be carried to victory if the other two teammates did well.
The team system's aforementioned gameplay mechanics work well and are incredibly fun when playing with smart allies. However, therein lies an issue: online partners are random, and the AI is incredibly hit or miss, meaning no matter what mode you play, you'll often end up dragged down by subpar teammates.
The occasionally brain-dead AI teammates are especially infuriating on the higher difficulties of TSR, wherein you'll claw your way to first place by the narrowest of margins just to have your teammates' poor performance destroy your almost-perfect grand prix run. Once, I was even stuck with a glitched AI teammate who got caught on some terrain and ended up getting lapped by everyone. He finished 2 minutes after the other 11 racers. There are standard non-team racing modes that avoid all this, but they're not the focus of the game, meaning the team system's woes are front and center.
On a related note, enemy AI seems to be equipped with the strongest rubberbanding superpowers I've ever seen in a racing game. It doesn't matter how fast you go or how flawless your driving is; the AI will be hounding you until the finish line no matter what. Considering most online lobbies don't fill to the brim, these same AI will haunt you there, too.
When you add all of this to the fact that certain tracks are terribly narrow and congested, meaning your dumb AI teammates and rigged-to-win opponents are all firing off items within inches of each other every other second, it feels like some races take skill out of the equation and all but randomize your victory odds.
World-class Sonic jams
It's worth mentioning that there is one element of Team Sonic Racing that's beyond reproach: the soundtrack.
Featuring the otherworldly work of Jun Senoue, Tee Lopes, Hyper Potions and a whole bunch of other all-star artists, there isn't a creature with ears on this green Earth of ours who won't be rocking out to the tunes on offer. There's a jam for everyone! Egyptian beats, wintry Sonic Unleashed EDM homages, a track with a single guitar riff that lasts half the freakin' song; if not Game of the Year awards, some Grammys should be in order for TSR.
Team Sonic Racing certainly isn't a contender for best kart racer of all-time, like Transformed was, and even at the end of this review, there are plenty of additional things to grouse about. Like, for example, how on PC there are a few small graphical shader and loading-time bugs, as well as semi-frequent network errors and subsequent crashes to desktop when playing online.
But for all my gripes with the game's systems, content and general execution, there's a lot of fun to be had with Team Sonic Racing. It's more of the Sumo Digital racing goodness you remember, with an ingenious team-based twist that single-handedly elevates the game past "average," as long as you get lucky with AI and online partners or have a solid crew ready to play with you on the couch. And when you consider the God-tier soundtrack by Jun Senoue and a host of other talented artists, if nothing else, TSR's an outstandingly fun interactive music video.
In fact, I'd go so far as to call it a good game, on the whole. Its flaws simply keep it from being a great one. At a launch price of $40, though, and with sales sure to come, it's a solid option for anyone in need of a new kart racer or Sonic experience.