While I generally find kart racers fun, I wouldn’t call myself a serious fan of them. Two exceptions to this are the original Crash Team Racing, which was one of my favourite games as a child, and the thoroughly enjoyable Sonic and All-Stars: Racing Transformed.
Although Team Sonic Racing (TSR) was made by the same development team as Racing Transformed, Sumo Digital, I was pessimistic about it before release. When I briefly played TSR at EGX 2018, I felt like it might be unable to differentiate itself from other kart racers. At the time, my opinion was: “Sumo Digital promise that unlockable parts will let you change your car’s looks and performance, but that’s just not the same as turning your car into an aeroplane.”
I wanted to be proved wrong, but unfortunately I can’t say that the game has done enough to change my mind. Before I follow that train of thought, I’ll explain what TSR actually is, and what it does well.
Gameplay and Story
TSR is a kart racer based solely within the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, which places the familiar characters into environments based on levels from previous Sonic games. It has the same development team and game engine as the “Sega All-Stars” cross-franchise racing games, which are Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing, and Sonic and All-Stars: Racing Transformed. However, TSR is a standalone title, and not a sequel to the “Sega All-Stars” games.
TSR contains the standard kart racer ingredients of drifting, boost pads and power-ups, which all work well. The difficulty options available seem fairer than in Racing Transformed (based on how I’ve found the first 5 chapters of Team Adventure), and the AI racers attack other teams rather than focusing on yours. TSR does nothing markedly wrong in terms of gameplay, but in comparison to Sonic and All-Stars: Racing Transformed it doesn’t feel as interesting or unique. I revisited Racing Transformed to ensure I was making a fair comparison, and found that its races had slightly more impact and liveliness than in TSR. I’m not sure exactly what that difference is caused by, although I suspect the slower top speed and the minimal kart noises in TSR are to blame.
The main single player mode, Team Adventure, contains approximately 60 events across 7 chapters. Beyond the team races and the returning challenges from Racing Transformed, there are new challenges which test your ability to drift precisely or to multitask between drifting and shooting targets. I found these challenges were mostly fair, aside from the “Daredevil” challenges which seemed to have a much lower tolerance for mistakes.
The story of TSR uses a similar style to the Sonic Rivals series, which relies on static character poses and speech bubbles rather than full cutscenes. However, TSR moves beyond the Rivals games by virtue of being fully voice acted by most of the current Sonic cast. The plot is lightweight at best, but neither kart racers nor Sonic games are known for their complex plots, so that’s an observation rather than a complaint.
The major attraction of Team Sonic Racing is of course the “Team”. TSR tries to separate itself from other kart racers by making races about collaboration rather than free-for-all competition. The character roster is split into teams of three, and Team Races pit 4 teams against each other. Each team’s total score after a race is the combined score of each player’s finishing position, so helping your teammates stay competitive is necessary. During races team members help each other out by offering power-ups to each other, provide boost trails that help out straggling teammates, and gradually fill an Ultimate bar that provides a large speed boost when activated.
While this style of gameplay is more effective when playing with human friends, the AI teamates are usually competent, and they reliably offer up items. The “Team” elements work well. However, I don’t feel like they are the racing-game paradigm change that many reviews hyped them up to be.
I went into TSR believing, from what I had read in previews and media coverage, that the “Team” elements were unique and innovative. But when I read about the Crash Bandicoot racing games in preparation for my review of CTR:Nitro Fueled, I found this description of a mode in Crash Nitro Kart:
In the “Team Race”, the player joins forces with a computer-controlled partner to win a race. When the player and the partner are in close proximity of each other, the “Team Meter” will rise. When the Team Meter is full, the player may activate the “Team Frenzy”, in which the player and partner have temporary access to unlimited weapons and power-ups.Wikipedia description of the available modes in Crash Nitro Kart.
Well, that sounds familiar! The innovative mechanic that was supposed to separate TSR from other racing games was already available 16 years ago … This makes it harder for me to understand why many reviews gave TSR such strong praise.
Graphics and Sound
TSR uses the same bright and bold graphics style as the “Sega All-Stars” games, with some additional graphical polish. The tracks are bright, colourful, and full of references and tributes to other Sonic games, while the outdoor tracks feature impressive (although fairly disconnected and static) scenic backgrounds.
One minor graphical complaint is that the team Ultimate meter has been placed right by the car’s exhaust, which obscures the colourful exhaust pops that indicate boost. For me, its now harder to see when I’ve held a drift for long enough to generate boost than in Racing Transformed. However, I’ve experienced zero issues with failed textures or pop-in, and no visual glitches. TSR is a graphical iteration rather than an style overhaul, but that seems like a wise decison.
Music is a particular high point of TSR, even by the high standards of Sonic games, thanks to the all-star (sorry!) cast of performers and composers. Series mainstay Jun Senoue is the lead composer and also performs the title track as part of Crush 40. Other artists include Sonic Mania composer Tee Lopes, and Richard Jacques, composer of multiple Sonic soundtracks including Sonic Generations and Sonic R.
Yes, that Sonic R. The polarising 1998 on-foot racing game is referenced both musically, via a remix of main theme “Super Sonic Racing”, and visually. The Sonic R logo forms the R in Sonic Team Racing and is also the symbol of the in-game currency. Given that TSR mostly sticks to tracks and ideas from the newer Sonic games, the older reference is surprising but fun to spot.
So far, my favourite song is the Market Street track, a guitar-led remix of “Rooftop Run” from Sonic Generations.
Online team-based play could have been the major selling point of Team Sonic Racing. However, online multiplayer is currently the weakest part by far. Races are fun and lag-free (in my experience), but finding and completing a race is rarely possible. When players can’t find a full lobby on the day after release, something has gone very wrong.
My online rank is just above #1600 despite me finishing fewer than 10 Ranked matches. On other attempts my game has either crashed and force-quit before loading the lobby or frozen mid-race because the host quit and took the server with them. Even stable matches are usually populated with more AI than humans, which blocks the true potential of team co-operation.
Trying to play TSR online is frustrating and I really hope that some kind of fix for how the game handles player disconnections can be pushed through soon. (Also, whoever decided that the player joining/leaving notification should go across the middle of your kart deserves a special place in game development purgatory).
TSR is competent and highly polished, and contains everything you would expect to see in a Sonic the Hedgehog kart racer. The game doesn’t have any massive mechanical flaws; its only major problem is the broken online networking experience. Its lack of a season pass, microtransactions, and complicated mulitple editions is also appealing – I really appreciate that Sumo Digital didn’t try to force monetisation into the game or to parcel bits of it off to the highest bidder.
If Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed didn’t exist, I would probably be giving high praise to TSR right now. But it’s impossible for me to play this game without comparing how it feels and plays against its excellent and innovative predecessor. TSR is not supposed to follow on from the All-Stars games, but it has the same graphical style, most of the same characters, and the same game engine. Because of all these shared ingredients, TSR can’t avoid giving the impression of being a sequel. People will understandably see and judge TSR as a sequel, and that impression will probably be the game’s downfall.
If TSR was a typical £60 AAA game, I wouldn’t recommend it. But as a £35 game, it’s mechanically solid and fun enough to recommend to kart racing fans. TSR is a good game, and a fair game that deserves praise for not forcing monetisation into every corner. Unfortunately, TSR is less memorable and less engrossing than what Sumo Digital have already shown the world they can create.