Team Sonic Racing Review: Gotta ruin friendships fast
Sega Knuckles down on fun.
Not to sledge a hog, but as we enter the ninth instalment of this racing franchise, I still can't reconcile something about it. If Sonic can leg it up to light-speed in nothing but a pair of red kicks ... then why do I even need a car? Is all this studious unlocking of performance parts truly necessary? Can he not just hop his lazy butt out of the car, do a spin dash and run literal rings around the competition? Team Sonic Racing is the furry equivalent of Usain Bolt in a mobility scooter racing against pensioners.
But I digress. What TSR represents is a much-needed turbo boost in confidence for people like me – 28-year-old fans of the blue dude with 'tude. This game is a win for Sega's beloved mascot, and he's in dire need of some good news since that live-action makeover reveal of his. Hideous.
Essentially, you'll be turning the ignition on for a version 2012's Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed that lacks the fancy reconfigured vehicles, and the roster here draws solely from Sonic canon instead of Sega's entire catalogue. TSR is a game obsessed with threes, too. Teams of three characters – who themselves are divided into three classes – race and work together to reach the checked flag by sharing and caring as much as possible.
To be honest, while I dig the game now, I sure didn't like it after my first race with Sonic. Having my victories be conditioned by two AI teammates that needed to keep pace – or two other humans in either split-screen local or online multi – got my spikey back up a little. I don't like carrying people like luggage or having my failures compounded by unlucky teammates. If you're the same, it's gonna take you some time to warm to this. Because the team concept in the title ain't lying – it's very much get along and win, or rage-quit and get your speed fix elsewhere.
Aside from some solo-racer skill-based games sprinkled throughout the main "Team Adventure" mode, the bulk of the racing lumps you with two allies that each have a certain racing style. For example, Team Sonic is made up of – you guessed it – Sonic, the Speed-type who is all about maximum mph. He's flanked by Tails, the Technique-type who handles like a dream, can skirt over grass and accelerates like a cat woken by a vacuum cleaner. Lastly, the bruiser of this group is Knuckles, the Power-type who putters along but has nastier weaponry and can bash through obstacles. All told, there are five race teams to choose from: Team Dark, Team Amy, Team Vector and Team Eggman.
This sequel gets off to a flying turbo start early by having a better story campaign than its predecessor (and it can be tackled with three players). Unlike the linear affair that was in Sonic All-Stars, Team Sonic Racing lets you pick, choose and unlock events on a 2D world map. Earning medals and nailing skill-based side objectives will earn you stars to progress through the seven chapters of a pretty threadbare narrative. It's all Saturday morning cartoons stuff, delivered via static screens and excitable VO. It's pretty pedestrian storytelling that ends with a whimper and will be forgotten as it disappears in your rearview mirror.
Fortunately, the racing itself is quite decent and is more than enough to keep you from veering off course to other games. Team Sonic Racing has maybe eight hours worth of content in it – if you only want to hit end credits with 70 odd stars out of a possible 142. The longevity doubles when you consider that each race and GP effectively has to be run twice to unlock Expert difficulty. A system I'm not a fan of.
The runtime also expands due to the fact that you'll need to (angrily) restart some events due to the odd underperforming AI pal. Because it's no use blasting through to take the gold if your overall standings are weighed down by 10th and 12th place buddies. There are ways to mitigate this. Instead of using my weaponry myself, on Expert difficulty I was forced to spam the share function to teleport my power-ups back down the line to Knuckles and Tails. When they're strapping, they place better, but the real reason you'll need to be generous is to get a reward of Team Ultimate energy. When triggered at the same time (which requires some verbal communication among human players) this ludicrously powerful invincibility mode will last longer and make you go faster.
Understandably, then, drifting skillfully, busting stunts, collecting rings and running over boost pads on your lonesome soon takes a major backseat to hoarding Team Ultimate energy. You can get it in a few other ways, too, like Skim Boosting (read: near-missing a spun-out ally to recover them). There's also Slingshot drafting à la Ricky Bobby and Cal Norton in Talladega Nights. Ultimates can become such an OP table-turner that you'll start to unquestionably follow the long yellow trail set by the front runner to siphon energy. Even if they're an idiot who takes "shortcuts" off the map.
For the most part, I like the addition of the Team system, but more time was needed under the hood to tune it better. There were times when I had my racing line or a perfect three-stage drift ruined by a teammate cutting in front of me with their "team trail". The sudden change in speed would either throw me off the track or punch me into an obstacle. Also, I'm not inherently greedy by nature, but I like using weapons in kart racers. It felt like I was forced to hand over my toys all the time on Expert difficulty.
And while we're on the topic of power-ups, it has to be said that changing the weapon iconography to wisp creatures negatively affects a new player's ability to quickly learn what each of these 14 power-ups does. This issue is compounded by Sumo Digital dialling back the Sonic All-Stars commentator so he no longer gleefully identifies what you've just picked up.
Other things that chap my exhaust include non-saveable replays and the lack of expandibility. At its peak, Sonic All-Stars had 15 odd racers to use from the get-go, which then expanded to 24 with unlocks. I'm not seeing much room here for unlocks in this game (and as of completing the game on Normal, I've not seen any new competitors offered). In truth, all of my kleptomania was geared (literally) towards unlocking better performance parts, paints and vinyls that get dispensed randomly via gatcha capsules and are paid for by race tokens.
This carrot kept me going until I lucked out and unlocked all nine unique parts for my main man Sonic by the halfway point of the story. I stopped caring after that. Pursuing further vinyls and paint schemes didn't rekindle my interest, either. The best parts in this game are legendary spec and they come in an un-editable gold colour. In order to pimp my ride and make it pretty, I'd need to downgrade my stats. Feels like quite the design misstep.
Be those downsides as they may, TSR has got it where it counts when it comes to good old-fashioned four-player split-screen and online racing (with the right people to back you up). The verbal requirement to actually communicate and collaborate towards a team victory makes this a heck of a party game. I dare say it generated more noise in my living room than our usual Mario Kart 8 sessions. This is a more complex kart racer than most, however, which means it's slightly less pick-up-and-play for casual multiplayers. That said, it's a blast with a group of people who have a few races under their belt.
My only gripe with local play is that it flat out refuses to let four people sharing a screen be on the same team. One of you has to be an outcast paired up with a rival AI group. Now, surely it wouldn't have killed the mechanics to allow three teams of four racers instead of four teams of three racers. Once again, this is needlessly obtuse game design that curtails fun instead of enhancing it.
When the checkered flag dropped on my time with Team Sonic Racing, it still placed respectably. Sumo Digital has delivered a podium finish that's definitely higher than its predecessor, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Mind you, it's also facing some stiff competition this year in the form of Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled. It's too close to call between those two at the moment as the race is still running. But if you've absolutely gotta go fast today, this definitely warrants a purchase.
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