STAFF REVIEW of Team Sonic Racing (Xbox One)

Friday, June 7, 2019.
by Chad Goodmurphy

Team Sonic Racing Box art Good, let alone great, kart racers are few and far between. That’s especially true of today’s era of gaming, which tends to prefer realism over the fast-paced, battle kart style racing that ruined many friendships during its 90's heyday. Still, that doesn’t mean we’ve been without, as Mario Kart is still going strong (at least through a very popular port), and other combatants have attempted to leave their mark on the sub-genre. Take Nickelodeon Kart Racers for instance. That’s just one of some lesser known and lower budget attempts, and was something that I not only reviewed but beat more than once within the last year.

Of course, there’s also Crash Team Racing, which comes out next month and promises to bring one of the genre’s best back to the spotlight. A 90's classic that I sadly missed back then, due to not owning a PlayStation and not having any friends that owned that particular game. I was happy with my Diddy Kong Racing, though, and still consider it to be the best of its kind.

Enter SEGA, which released the only two kart racers worth mentioning in the same breath as the greats, during the last generation of consoles. It started with 2010’s Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, then continued on through the beloved effort we know as Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. The former was a straight up, traditional kart racer with a very addictive adventure mode, which turned heads and rightfully so. Meanwhile, the latter built upon the foundations of its predecessor, but also tried to do something different in the process, ending up as a sort of spiritual successor to Diddy Kong Racing. Both were absolutely fantastic, and filled a void. Hell, some still say that Transformed is one of the best racing games of all time, as well as the de facto best kart racer ever made. Me? Although I like both a lot, the first game has more of a soft spot in my heart for whatever reason.

Enter Team Sonic Racing, the newest entry in SEGA and Sumo Digital’s thoroughly impressive series. Having just recently released, it brings with it a new approach to the sub-genre, that being team mechanics that employ the use of three teamed up racers.

Instead of racing alone, those who test their mettle at Team Sonic Racing will find that they must help and worry about the success of two other racers. The flip side to this is that the same is true of the rather solid and competent AI, which does its best to help the player whenever possible. This is important because, at the end of each race, the trio’s placing is combined to generate its score.

At first, I didn’t quite like the whole team thing. The early races pitted myself (Sonic) and two other allies (Tails and Knuckles) against three other racers, creating six driver events. Later, though, things progressed to the point where more teams of three were introduced, creating a much busier and more customary experience That is, with the one big difference: teamwork. You know what? It all started to grow on me after a while, to the point where I started enjoying myself and had a hard time putting the controller down. I never did truly fall in love with the game, but had some fun with it for sure.

So, how does all this team stuff work? Well, it’s pretty simple.

To start, each team can share items between its members, and those items are power-ups that come in the form of wisps. These wisps, as they’re called, come in different colour categories and can offer different things to different racers, based on their class. Some boil down to speed boosts, rockets and shields, while others allow you to drop boxes that hurt opponents who run into them, turn into a ghost that becomes immune to outside influence, or spin foes out with a laser. It’s a system that can be somewhat confusing despite its intended accessibility, and is one that never truly reaches the quality or memorability of the items in Mario Kart or even Diddy Kong Racing.

The most important and helpful facets of all of this come in the form of speed boosts and team powers. You see, if you’re behind an ally then you’re in luck because their wheels will leave burning track marks that can be used as a slingshot. The longer you stay within them, the faster your speed boost will be coming out of them. It’s also possible to get a boost from driving alongside a comrade, though the slingshot mechanic is much simpler and should get the most use.

As you work together, you’ll fill a meter that appears behind your kart. This meter refers to the Team Ultimate power; something that blends an elongated speed boost with what is essentially a star power-up from the Mario games. When used well, it can take you from the back of the pack to the front of it, while dealing some damage in the process. Needless to say, it’s really helpful, and the nice thing is that it’s possible to regenerate your Ultimate power more than once in a race. There’s even an achievement and trophy for doing it three times, which can take some planning and effort at the beginning, but eventually comes naturally.

When you strip away the team play, the racing becomes what it’s always been about: driving as fast as possible, using power-ups wisely, attempting to steer clear of enemy projectiles, attacks and drifting. It’s that latter mechanic that, once again, can be a big help during Team Sonic Racing. If you drift, you’ll get different levels of speed boosts depending on the length of said drift, and using them to your advantage can turn the tide in your favour. Be careful, however, because drifting can sometimes slow you down and become a disadvantage.

The racing can be quite frenetic, though, and it can also be easy to mistake your teammates for opponents during the heat of a harried event, even if they’re all outlined. At times, however, things can also feel kind of slow, eschewing the sense of speed that one would hope for. Team Sonic Racing may be pretty fast, but it doesn’t always feel or look as fast as it could. This was true on all difficulties, including normal, hard and expert. Unfortunately, there is no easy difficulty to be found here, which is disappointing given how the difficulty tends to spike during the ‘story’ mode.

It helps that the tracks are pretty well designed, with lots of different avenues, shortcuts and special factors, like balloons that can be bounced upon. That said, there are no transformations this time around, meaning that you won’t turn into a plane or a boat whenever you fly into the air or end up on a liquid surface. You’ll simply go through them by kart, with different reactions based on the substance, your skill, your path and the driver you choose. By that, I mean the type, as there are Speed (Sonic, Amy, Blaze, etc.), Technique (Tails, Chao, Silver, etc.) and Power (Knuckes, Big, Omega, etc.) classes of racers.

By picking someone from the Speed type, you’re asking for a faster and more all around racer whose vehicle prioritizes speed over defense, meaning that they stay spun out longer after getting hit. Meanwhile, picking someone from the Power category will give you a driver with better defense and boost, but slower speed and acceleration. In the middle are the Technique racers, who aren’t the fastest or the strongest, but handle better than the others. They have one big advantage over the rest, too, that being the ability to drive on any surface without slowing down.

The power drivers can sometimes feel like tanks in comparison to the others, so picking one of those might not be your best option. That said, some will prefer them because of their more powerful boosts and shorter downtimes after being hit. All of the racer types have their own perks, though, such as the speed ones emitting something that can block incoming attacks that threaten their lead.

The aforementioned tracks? Well, there are 21 of them to be found here, including some that have been carried over from the two previous games. Some are better than others, as is always the case, but there’s a good mix of environments and challenges to be found. I wouldn’t say that they’re the greatest tracks in any kart racer, but they’re certainly well above average.

All of the above is crammed into what is, in essence, a budget title, as Team Sonic Racing is only $39.99 USD ($54.99 CAD). Still, even with that appreciated discount, one would hope for more content than this game offers. Sure, its racing is pretty fun, but its list of game modes and challenges leaves something to be desired.

Upon booting this thing up, one will find a barebones menu that offers three different types of racing: Local Play, Online Multiplayer and Team Adventure. Then, below those three, there are Player Stats, Garage and Mod Pods. The last of those items refers to a casino game of sorts, where one can spend ten credits (earned from racing successes) to unlock a random car part or horn sound. These parts can then be put on their linked vehicles in the garage menu, allowing one to create different loadouts. While there, they can also change the paint jobs to customize the look of their ride of choice.

Keep in mind that Team Sonic Racing is not the type of game where, the more you play, the better your vehicles will get to the point of being unfair to newcomers. No, each new part you unlock, be it wheels or wings or even an engine, will have its pros and its cons, which will be reflected within your driver’s stats. One thing may improve your speed and acceleration, while lowering your defense. It goes without saying that, if you play long enough you’ll find the loadout that suits your play style best, but that doesn’t mean it’s not overwhelming at first, or that it’s the world’s greatest system.

On the racing side, Local Play allows you to just pick up and play Exhibition, Time Trial or Grand Prix events. It’s what you’d expect any game like this to have, and is joined by Online Play, which is also necessary in this day and age. The only problem is that, despite this game having just come out, the online lobbies seem pretty desolate. When I tried, I was only able to find three or four humans to race against at any given time, and sometimes the amount was less than that, forcing bots to enter the fray. I also noticed a bit of lag, and have seen people complain about the online on Xbox.

The good news is that Team Adventures is a story mode with Super Mario Bros. style worlds and map overlays. You start in chapter one and progress all the way through chapter 7, within a basic storyline that plays out through many dialogue bubbles featuring relatively annoying cross-character chatter. The idea is to compete in singular races, team grand prix events (which are made up of four races and factor in combined scores), elimination races and mini-games, while earning stars in the process. Each ‘stage’ or event will have its own requirements for stars, but they usually involve making it onto the podium, taking first place yourself, having your whole team come in first or finishing an elimination event without losing a member. Reaching other select parameters will also give you keys, which can unlock different routes.

As expected, you’ll need a certain amount of stars to progress from one chapter to another. Don’t worry much about this, though, because so long as you’re pretty good at the game and win almost every event, you shouldn’t have a problem. I haven’t had much of a problem, despite hearing that normal is pretty difficult. My only issues and annoyances have come from the occasional mini-games, which can be pretty unfair, even early on.

The first mini-game you’ll likely encounter forces you to collect rings (which increase your speed during regular races), while driving along a track. If you stop collecting rings, your meter will drop, and once that meter is empty it’s game over. However, if you drift, boost and drive well, you’ll be able to keep that meter full by picking up enough rings. It can be really difficult to do, though.

The worst of the bunch involves drifting past slalom type poles, and isn’t that enjoyable. The two best ones unlock later on, though, and they’re certainly more fun. One involves using rockets to shoot different coloured targets that are spread on or above the track, while the other revolves around shooting rockets at (or bumping into) Eggman’s bots in order to destroy them. Both are enjoyable diversions, but like the others they only offer two stars: one for getting a silver level score, and one for getting a platinum level score.

Be wary of level 6-3, though, because it’s a forced slalom drift event. If you aren’t able to beat it you’ll be stuck, because there’s no other route to the end of that chapter’s map. It took me tens of tries, but I eventually limped by with barely a silver medal, after several times where the game basically laughed at me and said “Close, but no cigar, buddy!”. To say that stage is an unfair and poorly designed difficulty spike would not be an exaggeration, and I’ve seen others complain about it online. It’s a poorly balanced chokepoint in a campaign that is otherwise not terribly difficult, though that’s not to say that it isn’t without other uneven aspects. For example, the grand prix events (and their four total races) tend to be easier than the one off races that make up most of the events.

You should be able to get through Team Adventures mode within several hours, and it’s not like it’s anything spectacular. The racing is pretty fun, but the story – which begins with a strange being whisking Sonic and friends off to a different planet for racing adventures – isn’t much to write home about and can be downright annoying due to its cheesy, repeated dialogue and grating character voices. Once you finish it, all that’s left is trying on a harder difficulty, going for all of the stars (kudos if you do accomplish this because of the uneven difficulty), or playing either local or online events. That is, if you can find enough people to play with, let alone a full lobby. Thus, unless you’re someone who likes to constantly better him or herself at the same game by setting new scores, or loves to challenge friends to regular kart racing matches, you may not find a lot of long-term value here. That’s the boat I find myself in.

When it comes to presentation, things are quite positive. Team Sonic Racing is very colourful and has a rather pleasing aesthetic outside of its barebones menus. The racing is also very smooth, with a near constant 60 frames-per-second frame rate to thank for that. Sumo definitely knocked it out of the park with that aspect of the game. There’s quite a bit going on on-screen, too, which makes it pretty impressive.

The audio? Well, it’s got its pros and its cons like everything else. It’s not up to par with the visuals, but that’s because a lot of the dialogue, voice acting, music and character quips can be pretty annoying. It might’ve even been better if the developers had kept voice acting out of Team Sonic Racing altogether. That said, some of the music is pretty good, and the effects are both fitting and immersive for the most part.

At the end of the day, Team Sonic Racing isn’t exactly the game I was hoping it would be, nor is it incredibly close. It’s a good, very competent and fun kart racer, but it doesn’t have as much content or as much of a wow factor as the two incredible games that preceded it. Still, I don’t want to sound as if I don’t like this game or think it’s above average, because I do. It's a good, competent racing game, but doesn't have the wow factor or staying power that I was hoping for.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we purchased. It was reviewed using the site’s Xbox One X console.**

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.1 / 10
Visuals: 7.9 / 10
Sound: 5.9 / 10


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