It's been almost seven years since we last saw Sonic and friends behind the wheel with the last entry being the excellent Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed in 2012. Team Sonic Racing sees Sumo Digital dust off the IP for a third outing and this time the devs have taken a leaf out of Mario Kart: Double Dash's book as there's an emphasis on working together and winning races as a team. It also differs from its predecessors as the focus is exclusively on the blue blur and all tracks and characters are taken from his latest adventures.
Team Adventure is the main story mode within Team Sonic Racing and it starts as Sonic and pals are invited to partake in a series of races by a shady figure known as DoDon Pa. Something seems oddly suspicious and even Team Sonic have their doubts but they eventually sign themselves up after being lured by the talk of 'supercars' and the need to satisfy their own egos. The laughable premise gets a pass in our books as it gets us straight into the action but the problem we did have is that interactions take place over animated stills. Fully animated cutscenes may have been a lot to ask for given its budget price tag, but having the characters at least move their mouths would have helped to engage us.
The adventure mode is comprised of seven chapters and sees you completing events across a classic Mario-inspired grid. You complete chapters by gaining a requisite amount of gold stars and moving from one side of the grid to the next. Most events are your typical team races and grand prixs, but there's also a handful of challenge modes exclusive to Team Adventure. These include a Destruction mode where you have to destroy a track full of targets and a Ring Challenge mode, where you have to complete drifts and collect as many rings as possible. Each event also has multiple objectives to complete adding additional challenge and these are usually required to earn keys to unlock further hidden events.
Onto the racing itself! As mentioned, Team Sonic Racing requires you to play cooperatively as your success is based on your team's performance and not just your own. Team members can exchange items, help each other recover from crashes, and can give each other a speed boost by trailing behind each other. These actions build up a bar known as the 'Ultimate' meter, which gives all members in your team temporary invincibility and a significant boost in speed (think of the golden star in Mario Kart). Chaining these actions is vital as other teams will be competing in the same way and it can allow your teammates to make progress.
There are four teams here and these reminded us of Sonic Heroes as each member has their own specific class type. Racers are either speed type, power type, or technique type and each has their own distinct advantage with speed being better for time trials and technique type being better suited for drifting challenges. We really enjoyed the emphasis on team play as this pushed us to be more tactical and to think about the race beyond just getting ourselves from point A to B in the fastest time possible. It also made things feel that much tenser as our victory could be compromised if just one team member lagged behind.
We'll just get it out of the way now, All-Stars Racing had a much stronger character line-up. Gone are classic SEGA mascots such as B.D Joe, Ai Ai (both Crazy Taxi), and Beat (Jet Set Radio) and instead we're left with some pretty forgettable minor characters from the Sonic universe. Characters such as Zavok from Sonic: Lost World feel like padding and we never felt compelled to race as them. The lineup does feel more focused though, and we get that this racer is completely separate to All-Stars Racing, but we never found ourselves playing with all 15 characters due to how bland some of them felt.
There's a total of 21 tracks within Team Sonic Racing with personal favourites such as Whale Lagoon and Pinball Highway making a return from All-Stars. Scrapped are the water and flying segments but this didn't bother us too much as we found those to break up the flow of races anyway. Each course is visual treat washed with bright colours and each has its own specific motifs and mechanics taken from Sonic's adventures. In Mother's Canyon, for example, we have to avoid rotating saw blades and propel along winding track inversions, and in Haunted Castle we had to drift our way around towering clock gears and the blows of axe-wielding knights in armour.
Kart customisation has been expanded upon greatly as you can now select from individual performance parts to fine-tune your ride's stats. By completing events within Team Adventure you will earn credits which can be placed in a pod machine to earn randomised performance and vanity parts. There are three aspects you can alter (the front, rear, and tires) and these have an effect on your kart's defence, boost, handling, and more. You can even change the look of your ride by alternating between different paint types and decals and these can be saved as pre-sets so you can use them across each racer.
Outside of Team Adventure there's online multiplayer and offline modes such as time trial, exhibition, and grand prix races (pretty standard stuff). As we were playing ahead of release, we found it difficult to enter an online race but we can report that matchmaking appears to be straightforward and there are also custom lobbies that can be set up so you can play with friends. We were also pleased that across both of these modes there's an option to play races as an individual as well as within a team. We're sure that some players may dislike having their success determined by the AI so it's great that Sumo Digital has made this purely optional.
Sonic and friends may have a bit of a fight on their hands with the upcoming Crash Team Racing remaster gearing up for release, but we feel Team Sonic Racing is a worthy contender for a spot on the podium. Racing in teams forced us to approach things more tactically and we enjoyed the added depth of being able to mix and match different parts of our rides. The character roster does feel shoddy in places, however, and we didn't feel very invested in the story segments due to their lack of animation. That being said, this is still a solid kart racer and we wouldn't be surprised if it goes on to be regarded as Sonic's finest to date.