Speeding to mediocrity.
It’s been a while since I last indulged in a kart racing game, so the arrival of Team Sonic Racing was a nice surprise. A property I like (as mistreated as it has been for years), and a genre I’ve had a hankering for? Perfect. I went into the game optimistic and excited.
To its credit, TSR offers some interesting twists on the kart racing formula. The focus on teamwork is truly centralised, as each team – predetermined in story mode, or fully customisable in free play – has a shared “Ultimate” meter its members all contribute to. Various co-operative actions fill this meter — power-ups can be shared or requested between team members during a race, players can ‘skim’ past their teammates to give them a speed boost or ride in their trail to gain a slingshot speed boost or a character’s rival can be taken out to boost the Ultimate meter.
When an Ultimate is activated, it provides a dramatic speed boost for all three team members, which can be extended by knocking out competitors while boosted, as well as an initial boost if multiple players activate the Ultimate simultaneously. Even with NPC teammates, these teamwork actions are activated regularly, typically leading to at least one or two Ultimate activations per track. These small tweaks really give a unique feel to the game by adding a layer of mechanics that feels complimentary rather than bolted on.
Likewise, the game makes minor improvements on traditional mechanics that set it above even mainstays like Mario Kart, such as drift-boosting which allows you to rapidly change the direction of your drift without ‘activating’ the boost. It’s a small thing, but being able to slide through almost an entire track continuously does make you feel like a master of the road.
Unfortunately, other racing staples such as rubber-banding have also been ‘optimised’. In most races I found that all the NPC racers would suddenly explode forward and end up on par with me at the end of almost every lap, which didn’t so much make the race feel challenging as just erase the lead I’d worked for.
Courses are vibrant and packed with detail (especially for fans of the series) and cars are both well-rendered and interestingly customisable in booth look and colour scheme. That said, proceedings feel more like an up-rezzed PS3 game than an entry built for today. Worse still, the layout of the title screen and menus have the design and lag of a PS2 game, making this the worst kind of cross-generational game. The soundtrack also feels very dated – or very Sega, depending on your perspective – feeling more like MIDI-based tracks than a properly orchestrated soundtrack. It all feels very arcadey, which feels out of place for a 2019 console release.
Visually, the game is a bit of a mixed bag. While each track is a lovely reinterpretation of a classic zone from the series, they don’t quite feel up to par for current-gen consoles. Some extra details have been added for the characters – Sonic’s quills have a sort-of-texture instead of just being a unified blue chunk – but it falls short after the more detailed character models of Sonic Boom (or even the truly horrific live-action movie).
A story mode, called Team Adventure, does exist and nicely provides some frame of reference as to why Sonic and company are racing in cars once more, but it’s the very definition of basic. Delivered in a visual novel style with static character images and voiceovers, it very much feels like an obligatory inclusion rather than a core element. I’m never going to expect an epic narrative from a Sonic title, but animated cutscenes would at least make the game feel more worthwhile.
Also confusing is the fact that while moving from race to race inside the chapters of the story-based Team Adventure, story segments themselves are actually sidelined. Pressing X to start each race or mission will actually skip the story scenes, which are instead triggered by starting a mission by hitting Square. All this is only mentioned in a tiny button prompt at the bottom of the screen – making the story seem like an afterthought within an afterthought.
Overall, Team Sonic Racing is… fun. I wouldn’t say it’s a top-of-the-line title by any means, but little tweaks to the formula give it an edge over others in the same field. Mechanics geared towards co-operational play make this a fun title for communal couch play or families gaming together and vehicle customisations make it feel like you’re optimising the game to your style of racing. Unfortunately, the drawbacks of archaic Sega game design do TSR no favours to the experience or the ongoing reputation of the Sonic franchise, resulting in what feels like a watered-down Mario Kart. I’d recommend picking it up on the cheap – or just waiting until Crash Team Racing arrives in a month.
Team Sonic Racing was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by its Australian distributor. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.