There aren’t a lot of contenders in the kart racing genre, so I think it’s fair that whenever I pick up something new like “Team Sonic Racing” I immediately compare it to the fantastic “Mario Kart 8”. As I raced through a Planet Wisp inspired track I couldn’t help myself as I kept trying to hop into drifts before using the thumbstick to generate a larger boost– something that’s become a habit for Mario Kart fans.
Both mechanics seem like small tweaks that don’t affect the gameplay drastically, but they actually make the kart feel much lighter as you turn corners and avoid obstacles. Having those movements ingrained in my head only made “Team Sonic Racing” feel stiff when I played it at this year’s E3. It felt so jarring that I had to ask SEGA’s head of Sonic Team Takashi Iizuka about the direction of Sonic’s latest racer.
“We didn’t take any notes from other kart racers like Mario Kart 8, we didn’t want to make a network game. We wanted teamwork to be one of the key elements,” Iizuka told Variety. “Team Sonic Racing is more like ‘Splatoon’ or ‘Overwatch’ where you get that good sense of collaboration.”
Lizuka’s explanation sat with me as I spent more time with the game, it felt like the cooperative elements shared among my team of three had replaced tight mechanics that made games like “Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed” so frantic and fun. Drifting, items, and special abilities had all been designed to encourage teamwork among four teams of three. Drifting was more effective if you positioned yourself directly behind a teammate, items could be given to one another to help friends who were falling behind, and the ultimate meter that triggered a short bit of invulnerability and extra power filled up faster when your team worked in unison.
It makes sense in theory and was actually the most interesting part of the demo, but it made the racing feel rigid. Positioning and communication, two things that usually work alongside player skill, overshadowed how the karts controlled.
This disappointment hit especially hard when you consider that “Team Sonic Racing” ditches the usual all star roster that has come with previous games. This title takes all of its items, stages, and characters from the Sonic universe and they must be digging deep since I can only name Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Shadow. I’m not sure if the 11 other characters could be nearly as memorable as the roster in previous SEGA racing games.
The full game, which releases sometime this Winter on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch, includes a classic arcade mode, an adventure mode, individual challenges, as well as local and online co-op. It also features a progression system that’s tied to rings you collect while racing, although the development team wasn’t ready to elaborate on what that progression might entail.
It’s likely that those rings will go towards the virtual purchase of different customization options for your kart, which Iizuka highlighted as an important part of the game. “We’re supporting extensive customizable options for the vehicles since it is an online racing game at its core,” he said. “Players can customize the look and the performance parameters of their vehicles and take their unique cars and play with other people.”
It’s unfortunate that “Team Sonic Racing” hasn’t hit that sweet spot that other kart racers have since there is a kart racing void that Mario Kart can’t fill due to it’s Nintendo exclusivity. A lot of online communities are voicing their concerns with what they’ve seen so far and I’m hoping SEGA and development partner Sumo Digital take the feedback to heart before launch.
“We’ll be tweaking, polishing, and balancing as long as we possibly can up until the game goes gold. You can never do enough really,” said Sumo Digitals Derek Littlewood. “We’ve added a ton of depth that players haven’t been able to see, like extra levels of boost. We’re excited to see what people do at a higher level of play online.”