It's incredible to think about how much of a monopoly Nintendo has own the kart racing genre. Mario Kart has been the dominant force in kart racing genre for the last 20 years, making mushrooms synonymous with speed boosts. Most standards we judge other racers by come from Mario's time behind the wheel and few games have come close to matching his prowess.
Fast Facts: Team Sonic Racing
Release date: May 21, 2019
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Sumo Digital
Unfortunately for Sega, Team Sonic Racing falls short in almost every way. Its driving is stiff and clunky, race tracks are nonsensical in their design and decoration, and small elements - like cutscene presentation and item design - feel uninvolved and boring. Some parts of Sonic's road trip are enjoyable, like the team mechanics the entire game is based around, but not enough to make me want to stay behind the wheel longer than I have to.
Like it or not, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the standard for kart racing today and Team Sonic Racing can't compare. Sumo Digital's (the minds about the great Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing) attempt at creating their own catchy weapon and cart designs, adventurous levels, deep customization options, and character roster all fell short. There's a bit of fun to be had, but not nearly enough.
Watch our Team Sonic Racing review video below:
Sonic's grown stale
At its core, Team Sonic Racing doesn't feel as fun as it could. Vehicles make blocky turns, drifting feels unimportant and unresponsive, and the various karts don't pick up a ton of speed. No matter what other elements work, the lack of quality driving makes everything built on top of it lacklustre.
The focus on team mechanics over individual performance is the main redeeming quality here, you can still lose even if you finish in first and that makes coordination more important than anything else. When I spoke to game producer Takashi Iizuka at E3 last year he emphasized that Team Sonic Racing was more like Overwatch or Splatoon than Mario Kart. That's probably the design choice that doomed Sonic's latest kart racer, team mechanics were placed over the individual racing experience.
Team elements include using your teammates boost trail to slingshot yourself ahead of the pack, transferring items to your partners when you don't need them, and building up a meter to use an team ultimate move that's incredibly effected. They're all exciting elements that make races feel like coordinated efforts rather than a ferocious free-for-all.
But after taking a few spins around the track I knew the team mechanics weren't particularly deep. Outside sharing items and boosts, there isn't much more you can do to work as a team. No racing formations, versatile items that benefit having two teammates near each other, or bonuses for working together on a higher level. Combined that lack of depth with the rigid driving and you've got a recipe for a boring kart racer.
It doesn't help that the tracks themselves are just an abundance of poorly rendered themes plastered over each other. Each course feels colorful in all the wrong ways with far too much to look at and nothing that catches the eye. The set pieces that made Sunshine Airport, Toad Harbor, and Mount Wario unique in Mario Kart 8 are missing here.
Where are the chaos emeralds?
Team Sonic Racing's campaign includes seven chapters of races, as well as other types of modes like ring collection, target smashes, and elimination rounds, tied together by horribly boring cutscenes made up of static character art. If you're looking to handle the majority of this one alone then the campaign will be your only option. Outside time trials, local play, and online multiplayer, there isn't much else you can play through when you first start out.
The variety in mission types was nice, but the inability to play them right away ruined a lot of my enjoyment. The standard races with the same teams, especially since you can't mix and match members of each squad, got stale fairly quickly. I often didn't want to play through the grand prix at the end of each chapter.
Nothing felt meaningful once I finished the story mode either. While online and local multiplayer modes gave me more challenging opponents, the issues with the driving mechanics, level design, and everything else makes it hard to invest myself into each race.
The in-game currency (credits and not rings for some reason) you use to buy car parts, bonus blocks, and cosmetics didn't give me enough incentive to keep playing either. These unlocks, including different wheels, bumpers, and other items for each car were one of the positive elements of the entire game. The different wheels, car colors and styles, and various other parts did make my kart feel unique. However, Sega did shoot themselves in the foot by limiting items to one character rather than allow any character any type of kart part—a missed opportunity considering the wide range of kart designs among the character roster.
Last Place Finish
Nothing I point out will make Team Sonic Racing a better game, because the core of the driving experience isn't where it needs to be. It joins the ranks of other racers like Diddy Kong Racing, Crash Team Racing, and even Garfield Kart in trying to build off of what Nintendo has perfected.
Sonic is in a rough space with it's latest game, movie, and spin-off all failing to meet the low expectations given them. Team Sonic Racing could be a fun experience if it's core mechanics were tweaked to be tighter, fluid, and far more arcadey. There are bits of polish than shine through every now and then, but the entire game feels like it was rushed through development.
Reviewed on PS4.