'Team Sonic Racing': Game Review

Team Sonic Racing -Publicity- H 2019
Courtesy Sega

Sega's new kart racer adds an interesting team-based dynamic to the classic formula.

The past month has been a strange time for Sonic the Hedgehog. The first trailer for the video game icon's upcoming live-action movie was met with shock and confusion, the hero’s new, realistic look throwing people through a loop. Now, we have Team Sonic Racing, another Sonic property that will initially cause a lot of head-scratching.

Team Sonic Racing’s main draw is “team-based racing,” in which a single player is racing as part of a three-character team. The higher each member of the team places, the higher the entire team ranks at the end of a race. There are also team-based moves to perform during a race, like a Slingshot boost achieved by following a teammate for a brief period or the ability to exchange item boxes after picking one up, that factor into the finish.

While the concept sounds simple enough, it also leads to a strange phenomenon: a player can cross the finish line first, yet still “lose” the race if the rest of the team underperforms. Once players become comfortable with the game's team rules, however, Team Sonic Racing becomes one of the most unique racers available.

It’s not enough to perform well alone: There needs to be constant checking on the two other racers on one's team. This dynamic heightens the excitement and strategy of a race. Thankfully, the interface does a good job of providing information, displaying both a map showing every racer’s placement on the course as well as icons for teammates with a number representing their current position in the race at all times. It’s an interesting presentation which is different from other kart racers, but not such a drastic change that it becomes frustrating.

Luckily for players that just can’t wrap their heads around the team-based gameplay, the game does offer a standard race format where the first driver across the finish line wins. Offering something for everyone is one of Team Sonic Racing’s smarter moves, as it means any racing game fan can pick it up and enjoy.

Every car in the game can be customized with parts bought with in-game currency called Credits. Credits are earned simply by completing races and Adventure mode chapters. Ten credits will purchase a random part for one of the cars. Customization occurs in the Garage, where players can take those earned parts and add them to their favorite racers and vehicles. For those wondering, there is no option to purchase Credits with real-life currency, so there are no microtransactions or loot boxes to worry about here.

Other ways to hit the race track include online play, time trials, and a “Team Adventure” mode that explains why Sonic and his pals are in this team-based race to begin with. The Adventure mode feels reminiscent of Super Mario Bros 3 with an overworld map displaying specific paths to stages spread across it. Some stages are single races, others are four-race grand prix, and a few are special challenges. It’s a straight-forward and serviceable story mode, but it’s not without its hiccups.

First are the special challenges, which are easily the most frustrating part of the entire game. One such challenge tasks the racer with collecting as many rings as possible in 15 seconds. The twist? Collecting rings while using the drift mechanic adds time to the clock, thus meaning precious more seconds to gather more circular gold. The problem, however, is that rings are spread throughout the entire course, so there are plenty of moments when time is draining, while drifting toward a line of rings often sends the car skidding away from the objective, thus wasting any time gained by pulling off the slick maneuver. The game's controls aren’t nearly precise enough for these types of challenges and the result is a lot of frustrating repetition.

Stranger still is how the Adventure mode presents its story to the player, and, specifically, how the entire narrative can be unwittingly skipped. Stages are selected with one of two buttons, the main button used to select everything else in the game (X on a PlayStation 4 controller, for example) or a secondary button (like Square on PS4). One of these goes straight to the race, the other includes the cutscenes and exposition. The problem lies in the main button (X) being the option that cuts straight to the race, so by pressing the standard button for selection the story is skipped. What’s the point of having a story if skipping scenes is the primary option? Giving the option to skip scenes is fine, but making it the primary option is baffling.

Team Sonic Racing makes some interesting decisions, but none of the more questionable choices spoil what otherwise is an enjoyable racing experience. Customization and the lengthy Team Adventure give plenty of reason to keep coming back, even if the entire story can be unintentionally ignored. While there may be some growing pains for newcomers (particularly those coming from other kart racing franchises not expecting the team-based format), they’re quickly remedied and make way for simple racing fun.

Team Sonic Racing ultimately does the Sonic franchise proud. At least Sonic’s got something going for him in 2019.

Team Sonic Racing is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC on May 21.

This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4.