One of the most interesting success stories of the last couple of console generations is the series of Sonic-themed racing games.
While the blue blur’s mainline adventures have had a somewhat mixed reception over the years, Sumo Digital’s Sonic Racing series (to date consisting of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and Team Sonic Racing) has been very positively received by press and public alike.
So how is the latest installment? Let’s take a look!
While I have a lot more time for the broader Sonic universe than many people online — hell, I even genuinely liked Sonic 2006 — I must confess to feeling a little disappointment when Team Sonic Racing was first announced. For me, one of the most appealing elements of the previous Sonic Racing games was the fact that they were a celebration not just of Sonic and friends, but also of broader Sega history. It was joyously absurd to be racing around the aircraft carriers of After Burner or the floating islands of Skies of Arcadia, and I worried that by making the new game exclusively Sonic-based, the game would be limiting its appeal somewhat.
Then I thought about it a bit more, taking into account my experiences with the Sonic series as a whole, and it became extremely clear that there wasn’t anything to worry about here. Yes, we’d lose a bit of that playful absurdity, but the Sonic series by itself has plenty of diverse, interesting locales in which to set races — and, moreover, many of them are already eminently suitable for use as racecourses without having to modify them too much. As such, the more I thought about it, the more I was ready to accept an all-Sonic racing game into my life… particularly with how strong the previous titles in the series had been.
Before we jump into looking at the game proper, let’s acknowledge why those previous games were so good. It has a lot to do with their developer Sumo Digital.
Founded in 2003 by four former members of Infogrames Studios Limited (better known by their earlier moniker of Gremlin Graphics and/or Gremlin Interactive), Sumo Digital has grown to be a real powerhouse of the British development scene, now encompassing three studios in England and one in India. Over the years since its inception, the company as a whole has demonstrated itself to have a real knack for producing solid, quality games with a particular emphasis on arcadey sports and driving games.
Prior to the 2010 release of Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, Sumo was probably most well-known for its excellent home conversions of Sega’s OutRun 2, including OutRun 2 for the original Xbox, OutRun 2 SP for PlayStation 2 and the expanded OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast for Windows PC, PS2, PSP and Xbox. Gremlin was previously rather well-known for its arcadey racing games such as the Lotus Turbo Challenge series on home computers and consoles, and Fatal Racing for PC, so it’s unsurprising a studio where many former Gremlin employees ended up would also prove itself to be rather good at this sort of thing.
Also worth noting is that following the sad demise of both Bizarre Creations and Black Rock Studios in 2011 after their respective arcade racers Blur and Split/Second failed miserably to make the impact their publishers wanted, many former employees of both of these studios ended up at Sumo also.
In other words, Sumo Digital is a company that very much knows what it’s doing when it comes to racing games. Particularly flashy, arcadey ones.
So what of Team Sonic Racing itself, then? Well, much like its predecessors, it’s a kart racer that, unlike Nintendo’s Mario Kart, has been designed to offer a substantial single-player experience first and foremost, with a robust selection of local and online multiplayer options also available for those who want to get competitive.
In Team Sonic Racing, the main single-player content comes in the form of the “Team Adventure” mode, which sees Sonic and his friends (and a couple of enemies) caught up in some mysterious events surrounding a strange tanuki named Dodon Pa. This affable trickster seems to be very keen to assess the gang’s teamwork in various ways, and in order to do so is more than happy to provide them all with a fine selection of high-performance vehicles. What could he really be up to?
Team Adventure unfolds over the course of a node-based map, with each node representing a particular event to complete. You don’t need to complete all events in a chapter in order to proceed to the next, but if you do you’ll unlock additional items — mostly customisation options for your cars.
Every event allows you to earn stars, which are required in various quantities to proceed beyond certain points on the map. These are typically acquired by performing to various minimum standards on an event; in a race event, you might get one star for winning the race as a team, another for placing in the top three as an individual and another for taking the top spot, while in a solo “score attack” kind of event, you typically get one star for achieving the “silver medal” score, and another for attaining the maximum possible “platinum medal” score.
Many events also have keys to be earned, too — typically five per chapter. Acquiring a key requires you to meet the conditions for at least one of the stars for the event and do something specific alongside that. These objectives vary enormously; sometimes they might be simply “finish having fallen off the track less than 5 times”, at others they might be “drive in your teammate’s slipstream for a total of 30 seconds”. They’re completely optional, but acquiring keys is one of the main ways that you unlock additional customisation options for your cars.
Much like in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed’s World Tour mode, there’s a nice mix of events here. The majority of events tend to be single “team races”, where the finishing positions of you and your two teammates are awarded points, and whoever has the most points is the overall winner, but each chapter tends to include at least one grand prix that consists of a series of four races, and a few of the aforementioned “score attack” challenges.
The races initially seem to be pretty much what you’d expect from a modern kart racer — and indeed the Sonic Racing series as a whole. Once you learn the functions of the various power-ups — each represented by the “Wisps” first seen in Sonic Colours — you’ll be able to use a variety of tactics to take the top spot.
Where things get interesting is with the titular teamwork aspect. Because victory in a race events is as much dependent on your two teammates’ performance as you, there are a number of ways you can help each other out. You can pass item boxes on to your friends, you can allow them to slipstream, and you can “skimboost” them if they’ve crashed or been hit by a weapon. And, naturally, your teammates can do all of these things for you, too.
Any teamwork like this is rewarded with an increase in your “Ultimate” meter, which floats behind your vehicle. When this is full, you can tap a button to become temporarily invincible and much faster for a short period; if you smash through your foes during this time, you extend the duration somewhat, and likewise if your two teammates also set of their Ultimates at the same time, you’ll all enjoy a bigger boost for longer.
The solo events, meanwhile, come in several forms. Traffic Attack requires you to avoid drone vehicles on the road and break “tapes” for time bonuses and points. Daredevil sees you slaloming past star posts, preferably while drifting, in order to build up combos and score points. Ring Challenge tasks you with collecting as many rings as possible in a tight time limit, though more time can be acquired by drifting while collecting rings. And Eggpawn Assault sees the track filled with Eggman’s robotic drone drivers, which can be destroyed by either ramming them or shooting missiles at them.
There’s a nice contrast between the two types of events. Races feel enjoyably chaotic and unpredictable, with the final result never feeling like it’s completely decided until the leader has crossed the finish line. That said, there’s nothing like Mario Kart’s widely despised blue shell here; the most troublesome power-up is a Wisp that causes stone columns to erupt from the ground ahead of the race leader, but the key thing here is that this isn’t a guaranteed hit; it can be avoided with careful, skilful driving, making things seem much more fair and less random. Team Sonic Racing’s races can be chaotic and exhilarating, less, but you never feel like you’ve been hit by a cheap, unavoidable shot.
At the other end of the spectrum, the solo events are highly technical, absolutely infuriating at times and incredibly addictive. While taking screenshots for this article, I accidentally spent an hour on a single event because I kept just missing the Platinum medal score, and I really wanted it. I got it in the end, though not without a fair few curse words being thrown around beforehand.
The nice thing about the different events types is that it gives you a reason to try out the different characters. Each team has a speed, technique and power character on its roster, with the former having slightly “heavier” handling but better top speed and acceleration, the second losing less speed when driving over rough terrain as well as possessing the helpful ability to collect rings and power-ups from slightly further away; and the latter being powerful enough to smash through obstacles and opponents.
While you can just pick a character you prefer to play as and stick with them, you’ll tend to find the different character types lend themselves nicely to the different kinds of races. Technique characters, for example, are very good for Ring Challenge events, because you need to be less precise when drifting through pathways of rings in order to collect them and the precious extra time they provide. Power characters are good for Eggpawn Assault events. And Speed characters are great for Daredevil and Traffic Attack events, as these demand both skilful driving and the ability to get as far as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Longstanding Sonic fans may think that this all sounds a bit Sonic Heroes, and it’s pretty clear that this is intentional. A significant number of the tracks in Team Sonic Racing are based on levels and locales from Sonic Heroes, and while the team lineups aren’t identical to that game — Vector accompanies Silver and Blaze rather than Espio and Charmy, who are nowhere to be seen, for example — the division of characters along the lines of speed, power and technique represents a very similar design philosophy.
Actually, the game as a whole feels like something of a love letter to underappreciated Sonic games; besides the obvious Sonic Heroes and Sonic Colours connections, there’s also a fair bit of Sonic Unleashed in here, too, as well as visual and auditory references to Sonic Adventure, Sonic & Knuckles and various other titles from throughout the series.
The cool thing about the Team Adventure mode is that it gradually ups the stakes as you progress, easing you into the action a bit at a time rather than immediately throwing you in at the deep end. The first chapter features just two teams battling it out, for example; subsequent chapters each have their own distinct “theme” and narrative components, and through this they introduce new event types, the extended cast of characters and an overarching storyline to uncover the mysteries of, providing plenty of incentive to keep playing.
In terms of long-term appeal and progression, Team Sonic Racing eschews the character levels and unlockable mods of its predecessor, instead featuring a lootbox-style system called “Mod Pods”. Don’t run away screaming just yet, though; this isn’t a microtransaction-fuelled lootbox affair at all. Instead, you earn credits based on your total score at the end of a racing event, and these are then spent to acquire Mod Pods from the main menu whenever you see fit. Rather annoyingly, you have to “buy” these one at a time rather than in bulk; this means if you’ve built up a large bank of credits it can take quite a while to unlock all your goodies!
Mod Pods come in two distinct varieties: Bonus Boxes, which are consumable items that either allow you to start a race with a specific Wisp or get some sort of buff such as your Ultimate charging more quickly; and parts for the various characters’ cars. Each character can replace the front, rear and tyres of their cars, with each item affecting statistics such as speed, acceleration, defense, boost power and handling.
The nice thing about this system is that no upgrade is “better” than the others — even in the case of the “Legendary” items, which are just shiny; they’re simply a way to customise both the performance and appearance of the various vehicles. In this way, you never feel dependent on the Mod Pods to make your way through the game — it’s just one way to make the various rides your own.
The other way to customise the vehicles is through cosmetic modifications. These include paint jobs, vinyl stickers and horns, each of which can be found both in Mod Pods and unlocked through progressing in Team Adventure.
The paint jobs require you to select an overall colour scheme of four colours, then select various parts of the vehicle and apply one of those four colours to that area. Initially, you only have access to colour schemes based on the central cast — though you can mix and match characters and colour schemes — but as you work your way through the game, you’ll also gain access to colour schemes based on various iconic Sonic stages. In a rather nice touch, when applying a colour, you can also choose the material and texture, ranging from smooth plastic to brushed shiny metal.
The vinyls are applied as preset arrangements rather than presenting you with the opportunity to construct a clumsily drawn knob out of stickers, but again, you can recolour these using the colour schemes as you see fit, and again, pick the material for each colour if you so desire. There are some cool designs among these, and plenty to unlock.
The horns, meanwhile, are triggered if you attempt to use an item during a race when you’re not holding one. Each character has their own distinct horn, though more sounds are unlocked, once again, through Mod Pods and progressing through Team Adventure. The horn has no useful function (and in fact is barely audible beneath the music during races!) but it’s another way in which you can make your favourite character and vehicle feel like your own.
Finally, let’s acknowledge that Team Sonic Racing as a whole is wrapped in some absolutely beautiful presentation. The game looks great regardless of which platform you play on, with detailed, colourful courses that are bursting with life. It’s a real pleasure to see classic locales from Sonic Heroes reimagined in high definition, and every track has a distinct sense of identity; none of them feel like “filler” or clones.
The music is a particular highlight of the overall aesthetic, bringing together a variety of people who have worked on Sonic soundtracks over the years. A feeling of “authenticity” is brought to the table by the presence of Crush 40 and Jun Senoue, whose previous contributions to the series are a key part of modern Sonic’s audio-visual identity, while Tee Lopes and Hyper Potions return from the Sonic Mania soundtrack to bring their distinctive, energetic, joyful audio stylings into the mix. It’s a consistent delight.
Does Team Sonic Racing have the legs to stand up to Mario Kart as a competitive game in the long term? Honestly, I don’t really think it matters all that much; the single-player offering here is so strong that it can happily coexist with Nintendo’s classic, providing a distinct experience in its own right. There’s potential for some really interesting multiplayer action here thanks to the team mechanics, but honestly speaking, I haven’t jumped online at all yet at the time of writing — and with how much fun I’m having in Team Adventure, I’m in no particular hurry to either.
So, then, while it’s true you can no longer play as Ulala flying around Death Adder’s lair, Team Sonic Racing is an excellent new installment in the Sonic Racing series, and an essential purchase for anyone who enjoys a good bit of classic Sega arcade racing — particularly if you find yourself racing solo more than with friends, as I’m sure many of us do as we get older!
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