When looking at kart racing games there's one king of the hill, the front runner, and that's undoubtedly Mario Kart. Nintendo's series has held the top spot for years and will hold it for years to come, but there are others that are close behind, two of which are set to release this year. Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is one game that's coming this summer, but next month we're also getting Team Sonic Racing from Sumo Digital, a game that we got to take for a test drive not too long ago.
Sumo Digital should be a familiar name, since they worked on both Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, although the studio has chosen to trim the name down this time around. Team Sonic Racing isn't just about keeping the name brief though, as the first word is indicative of the core pillar that the whole design philosophy is built around, since your team means more than just a sharing of points.
Sure, it might be the case that your team score is based on your combined points total at the end of a race, but there's so much more to the team-based game than meets the eye. There are several ways this manifests itself in-game, including passing near your teammate when they've been stunned to give them a boost up to full speed; staying in an ally's slipstream to gain boost; and taking down rivals, those racers immediately ahead of you in the rankings.
Then come items, and the transfer of these items (or Wisps) is vital for success. You see, you pick up certain Wisps from boxes on the tracks, but you only get the best items if you transfer between teammates. A simple press of circle (we played on PS4) offers a Wisp to another member of your three-person team, and when they claim it, it transforms into an item appropriate for a position in the race, much like those in first can't get blue shells but often get bananas in Mario Kart, for example. Similarly, by pressing the same button when you're empty you can ask for one, and the same happens. The trick here is that you get more numerous items if they're transferred to you from a teammate, so you might get three rockets instead of one.
All teammates have a bar under their car that fills up as the race progresses, and once that's full you also have an Ultimate to unleash. This gives you a burst of speed and lets you damage the enemies you drive into, but again teamwork is key, since activating all the Ultimates at the same time makes them last longer, even if doing so isn't compulsory. If you need a crucial first place you can go off on your own and activate it, so it's about weighing up the pros and cons.
Of course, teamwork can only take you so far, as your racing skills also need to be up to par to get the best results. This game hasn't reinvented the wheel when it comes to the racing mechanics, since there's drifting, tricks with the right stick when you're in the air to get boost, and shortcuts to take. That said, there are a few extra caveats to bear in mind.
The first is that there are three types of racer - speed, technique, and power. Each team of the five included in the game has one of these types, and each brings its own advantages and disadvantages to the table. Power types, for example, can smash through obstacles, while speed has a higher top speed, and technique can go across rough terrain without losing momentum. Then, each has their own stats like acceleration, and their own drifting behaviours to consider (power types have a wider turn, for instance).
Our first session of the day saw us take on the single-player campaign, which opened with a cutscene during which Sonic and friends were invited to take part in a load of races, at which point you start to progress through various levels. A lot of these stages are regular races in which you need to claim first place with your team, but there are also other modes like one where you have to collect as many rings as possible with one racer, another where you need to smash as many targets as possible, as well as the more traditional ones like Grand Prix.
In the afternoon we got to try out the online mode a little bit more, and as you might expect with any kart racer, this is where the bulk of the fun lies - taking to the track with friends to cause chaos and get revenge on one another. There's a cooperative focus as you talk to your teammates while trying to claim victory, and it's only by communicating about when to use those ultimates and when to swap items that you can really get the best chances of success. It feels like teamwork is considered, rather than shoehorned in there as a cheap gimmick.
We got to play a Grand Prix - which of course raised the tension as teams gathered points with each passing race - as well as some regular races and another mode which saw loads of missiles thrown into the mix, taking the chaos and cranking it up to 11. It was all fun and gripping, and there's no better sign that a kart racer is doing its job than seeing a room full of journalists screaming at one another as they get overtaken and hit with items.
As for the track selection, everything we saw from Frozen Junkyard to Hidden Volcano was varied and colourful, with each having its own pumping track to match, altered only by the team-specific music that came flying in when you activated your ultimate. There are hidden shortcuts and a whole load of spectacular effects on screen at any one time, so it's a visual spectacle, especially when we played it on the PS4 Pro. Like All-Stars Racing Transformed, the whole game is rich with detail that Sonic fans should like, with a cast of characters drawn from the franchise and plenty of environmental features that take inspiration from past games.
One thing that Sumo Digital was keen to point out is the vehicle customisation, as while the transformations of old are gone, you can now tweak your motor with parts that alter not only how it performs, and but also how it looks. These work much like the parts in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and we were surprised at the visual depth, as there are various colour schemes and you can even change the type of material each piece is made out of, which could easily culminate in a garish gold car if you so wished.
All things considered, we came away from Team Sonic Racing impressed at what we'd seen and we were thoroughly engrossed throughout our time in the multiplayer races. The solo campaign won't be the draw here, but racing with and against your friends should be a lot of fun, especially since it builds upon the solid foundations already laid with the past two Sonic racing games from Sumo Digital.