For all his talk about speed, and gameplay focused on speed, and generally being the anthropomorphic personification of going quite quickly, Sonic hasn’t had the best of luck when it comes to racing games. Sonic R seems to have gone down in history as such a big trash mountain Sweden is trying to buy it for fuel, and Sonic Riders was met with an unbrided “meh,” even though I quite liked it – how could Dr. Eggman putt-putting around on a hover-Vespa not be considered the pinnacle of gaming?
Since then, the expeditive erinaceus (look it up) has had slightly more success by bringing all his mates (and NASCAR superstar Danica Patrick, Wreck-It Ralph and whoever else would return his calls) in on the racing action. Sonic & SEGA All-stars Racing, and the sequel Sonic & All-stars Racing Transformed, as well as taking home the “most convoluted name in gaming” award two years running, were lauded for their focus on speed and inventive course design, celebrating some of the more obscure recesses of SEGA’s warrenous history. Now, with Sonic firmly back in the spotlight, can SEGA and Sumo Digital deliver a similar experience, tailored especially for the blue blur? Well, mostly.
Let’s start with the good stuff. As much as I was worried about how the team aspects of Team Sonic Racing (which would imply they’re fairly important) might mess with the simplistic pleasure of the racing from the last two games, they work really surprisingly well – they’re a rare instance of a good idea actually being implemented well. When you’re behind a team-mate, you can draft in their slipstream to charge up a sizeable boost quickly, leap-froggying ahead so they can do the same. Equally, when an ally gets spun out by, say, careening head-first into a thousand-ton rock spire, you can get them back up to speed by overtaking closeby, which feels really good to pull off. You can also send and request item boxes you don’t need, meaning you can funnel rockets to your ally in last place like Nikita Khrushchev funnelled rockets into Cuba. Finally, by being the best of friends and doing all of the above, you earn your team ultimate – which also feels really good but mostly because it’s massively overpowered. Expect to see lots of these saved for the second half of lap three, and expect it to decide the race. Outside of that though, layering these team mechanics on top of the ones from the previous entries (the drift-boost system, stunts, etc) creates an engaging and very enjoyable core gameplay experience, with not just your own position to worry about, but helping your team to the podium as well. There’s a lot of solo experiences if you don’t feel up to the team aspects, however (you probably play as Shadow don’t you) – drifting challenges, demolition derby-esque races and ring-collecting challenges to name a few, all of which are a satisfying change of pace.
Each member of the team (who fulfills the role of either Speed, Technique or Power) has their own unique abilities too. Speed characters give off a “radial burst” which destroys projectiles (allegedly, it’s finicky and I couldn’t get it down consistently even after several hours), Technique characters have no respect for the property of others and can drive over grass, sheet ice and the slightly darker colour of sand without experiencing slowdown, and power characters also have no respect and can just drive straight through stuff. They also have access to unique items, and the items themselves are more fun than the typical “reskin the Mario Kart items” fare you see from most kart racers. In short, the gameplay is really fun, the archetypes really compliment the team-based focus, and you feel rewarded for picking your favourite character. Good, good, and good.
Beyond good, however, is the soundtrack on offer here. While even the naffer Sonic games tend to knock it out of the park in the music department, this is a high point for the franchise even by its own lofty standards – this game’s soundtrack makes Sonic Forces’ soundtrack sound like Sonic Chronicles’ soundtrack. Trust me, that’s a burn. Multiple artists, pulling from multiple games to remix across multiple genres, all with a bombastic, hyperactive energy that’s perfect for the game – and perfectly soundscaping a bunch of multicoloured animal mascot characters driving futuristic hypercars around an alien planet is probably not easy. Particular favourites of mine are the Egg Carrier remix from Sonic Adventure, full of electric guitars wailing like the 90s never died, and the individual remixes characters have when they pop their ultimates – Tails’ is his theme from Sonic Adventure 2, Omega’s is Team Dark’s theme from Sonic Heroes, generally some really fun fanservice to be found in these itty bitty little ditties.
I only wish I could say there was more like that – alas, outside of the music, Team Sonic Racing plays it disappointingly safe with its source material. With a history as long and scattered as the sonic series’, you’d think there’d be lots of variety on show, but instead the inspiration for the tracks is incredibly shallow. 9 of the 21 tracks are directly inspired by Sonic Heroes, another 9 seem to take most of their elements from Sonic Unleashed (Spagonia obviously, but while Sandopolis may take its name from a Sonic 3 & Knuckles it very much resembles the desert stages from that game – and Glacierland is made up but the stage music is a remix of Holoska, another Unleashed zone), and the last 3 are set on Planet Wisp, which Sonic has done to death lately. There are some deep cuts within these courses – like Mother Wisp, who was only in the DS version of Sonic Colours, and King Boom Boo from Sonic Adventure 2 showing up (who scared the bejeezus out of me as a child), but generally it feels like a missed opportunity.
The same could be said of the character roster. If the oodles of Sonic Heroes references were to emphasise the similarities between the two games (namely gameplay based around three-player teams), then why is Vector randomly shunted onto a team with Blaze and Silver, with Espio and Charmy only getting paid lip-service in the story mode? Why is Cream from Team Rose out-and-out replaced by the (albeit thoroughly awesome) Chao Pod? Of all the secondary villains you could’ve picked, why Zavok? Again? The character who looks like he got dragged through a Blue Banana backwards and speaks like Benedict Cumberbatch and the Hulk had a disgusting baby? This would’ve been the perfect opportunity to learn from Sonic Mania and really please some fans, but it all feels so thoroughly, frustratingly by-the-numbers.
Ranting aside, however, and despite a few other minor nitpicks I have – there’s a weird audio glitch that semi-breaks the sound effects, the story mode is good but the story itself is not (and in other news hell is still quite warm) – I don’t have anything else negative to say about Team Sonic Racing. It’s a fun, unique kart racer with its own identity amid a sea of copycats, that embraces its ideas fully and reaps the rewards.