Game review: Team Sonic Racing attempts to outrace Mario Kart
Sonic The Hedgehog tries to beat Mario Kart at its own game but does Sega’s latest racer have what it takes to win pole position?
There was a time, in the PlayStation 1 and 2 eras, where seemingly every media franchise imaginable had a Mario Kart clone. Never mind spin-offs of existing video games, there was The Muppets, The Smurfs, Star Wars, South Park, Shrek, M&M’s, Woody Woodpecker… no matter how big or small, if you had a set of recognisable characters you wanted to appear in a video game, and especially if you didn’t want them to seem overly violent, then a Mario Kart clone was viewed as the best and most cost-effective way to do it.
Mario Kart today is still as popular as it ever was, but nowadays cheap mobile tie-ins are the format of choice for those who want to promote their brand in video game form. But thanks to the success of the Crash Bandicoot remakes Crash Team Racing is about to enjoy a comeback and all of a sudden it feels as if there’s a mini-renaissance going on for Mario Kart clones.
Team Sonic Racing was going to come out either way though. As the spiritual successor to the same developer’s Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, the basics are very similar. But this isn’t a direct sequel. Team Sonic Racing doesn’t have any Sega characters in it that aren’t related to Sonic The Hedgehog, but what it does have instead is a genuinely new idea.
There have been many Sonic The Hedgehog racing games over the years, from the straightforward Mario Kart clone Sonic Drift to the bizarre Sonic R (both of which are referenced in this new game). Team Sonic Racing is exactly what you’d expect of a Sonic-themed Mario Kart, including the fact that, while it’s perfectly in keeping with the Sonic aesthetic, a lot of the time you end up driving around upside down or on the walls, just like Mario Kart 8.
Why Sonic would want or need to drive a car is something that, predictably, is not dwelt upon, or at least we don’t think it is. We blanked out on the story halfway through the first talking heads cut scene, so we’ve got no idea what the plot is about. The story campaign is thankfully more engaging though, as you work your way through a variety of single races, Grands Prix, eliminations, and bonus stages. There are 15 race types in total and while they’re not all winners the variety they offer is very welcome.
The big new gimmick for Team Sonic Racing is that you compete in every race as part of a three-man (well, animal) team. Inspired by Sonic Heroes, the various heroes and villains are paired up appropriately, with each team having someone that specialises in speed, power, and technique. Power drivers can smash through barriers, technique drivers don’t suffer any slowdown when driving over rough surfaces, and speed drivers can destroy enemy missiles with their boosts.
The team aspect comes to the fore when you see one of your team-mates on the track and either slipstream behind them or help them recover. You can also swap power-ups between each other and build up a team-wide invincibility boost. Some elements are more or less easy to organise depending on whether you’re playing with human team-mates or not but it’s a neat idea, even if it doesn’t always make that much difference.
It may be far from realistic but one of the key strengths of the real Mario Kart is its driving model, with tight controls and a hugely satisfying powerslide. Sumo’s Sonic games have never been quite so solid, but this Team Sonic Racing is their best effort so far. The drifting is still strangely underplayed but the handling feels generally good and everything now runs at 60fps. Although not consistently so, especially when it comes to the split-screen mode which frequently suffers from slow-down.
Although the driving is a small but noticeable step up from previous games the power-ups, most of which are based around the Wisps from Sonic Colours, are disappointingly undercooked. Apart from it not being immediately obvious what each of them do they’re all rather wishy-washy in effect, with underpowered equivalents of everything from green shells to screen-obscuring bloopers.
The level design suffers similarly, as while each one is inspired by elements of famous Sonic games and stages too much of it is just generic roadways or biomes that would appear in any game no matter the branding – from snow to desert. Mario Kart’s Grand Prix races may be unimaginatively structured but at least you know you’re getting four different courses in each one. In Team Sonic Racing they quickly start repeating and you’re left trying to remember whether this is a new one or one you’ve seen before.
This is all a particular shame because the previous two games had stages based around other Sega franchises, which made them all seem much more distinctive. That goes for the characters as well, not to mention the transforming kart gimmick from Transformed. Apart from the driving itself Team Sonic Racing is a backwards step in almost every regard, and all for no obvious gain – other than presumably little kids don’t know what Golden Axe or Shenmue are.
Team Sonic Racing is not only a poor man’s Mario Kart, it’s a poor man’s Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. That doesn’t mean you can’t still have fun with it, and there are some interesting new ideas, but in the race to win gamers’ hearts this struggles to even get on the podium.
Team Sonic Racing
In Short: A spirited attempt at innovation and some competent driving mechanics are not enough to escape the shadow of either Mario Kart or the previous Sonic & Sega racers.
Pros: The team mechanics are a good idea and the wide range of race types are welcome. Decent driving model.
Cons: Forgettable stage designs, dull power-ups, and too many superior alternatives. Noticeable frame rate problems in split-screen.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Developer: Sumo Digital
Release Date: 21st May 2019
Age Rating: 3
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