It’s somehow been seven years since Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed – as much a dewy-eyed celebration of its publisher’s back catalogue as it was a kart racer.
The all-stars are gone from Sumo Digital’s long-awaited return to the genre; absent, too, are Transformed’s morphing vehicles. The latter aren’t missed too much, but the loss of that wider Sega library and the natural variety it brought is certainly felt in Team Sonic Racing, and its intriguing co-operative hook isn’t enough to prevent it from feeling like a step back.
As the title suggests, you’re not just here for personal glory. Competing as a trio means it’s not just about passing the chequered flag first, but ensuring you also help your teammates secure a high-placed finish – if not a spot on the podium alongside you.
Rather than hitting the front and trying to stay there, you might perhaps be encouraged to drop back into the pack to give stragglers a helping hand. It’s not hard to see why it might appeal to parents with young kids (even if it’s more likely that hapless mums and dads will need assistance from their prodigious offspring).
Squint a little, and you can see elements of competitive cycling in its systems. Take the way you’re encouraged to tuck in behind one of your buddies, just as team sprint Olympians draft to reduce aerodynamic drag. Following their glowing yellow trail charges up your boost, before you pull out and zoom forward to pull off what the game calls a Slingshot. And when you’re the team leader, you’ll hear them shouting for you to maintain your current course so they can do the same.
Then there’s the Skimboost, whereby you can nudge a teammate when they’ve slowed down or spun out to get them back up to speed; naturally, you can also benefit from these bump-starts if you’ve taken a hit. Finally, you can send and receive power-ups, which is presented in a strangely inelegant way – a text pop-up lets you know you’ve either offered or requested an item box, with a button prompt giving you a couple of seconds to change your mind.
All of this gives you something extra to think about. Can you really afford to streak ahead when your friends are struggling among the back markers? But that’s only ever a consideration when you’re in first. Sure, you can help one another more effectively when you’re in the middle of the pack, but when playing with computer-controlled teammates you’re beholden to the whims of a mostly competent but occasionally inconsistent AI.
“The loss of that wider Sega library and the natural variety it brought is certainly felt in Team Sonic Racing, and its intriguing co-operative hook isn’t enough to prevent it from feeling like a step back.”
It works better when you’re coordinating with human players, but consciously dropping back a couple of places inevitably increases your chances of being hit, particularly after you’ve all passed through a row of item boxes.
One advantage is that restarts aren’t as annoying when you can rely on a friendly nudge rather than slowly building up to top speed, but that doesn’t do enough to ameliorate the sometimes staccato pacing. In theory, this is balanced out by the way team actions steadily charge up an Ultimate meter, which gives all three of you a boost in speed as well as temporary invulnerability – and which can be extended by smashing into rivals. And yet if you’ve chosen to mix it with the chasers, you’re all the more likely to be struck by a rival’s Ultimate.
As if to counter this, tracks are often quite wide, with several offering forking paths – and when you’re not worrying quite so much about being hit there’s plenty to enjoy here. Though not quite as instantly memorable as those in Transformed – mainly because they’re all based in the Sonicverse – the courses are attractive and well designed, whether it’s the Mediterranean holiday vibe of Whale Lagoon with its leaping orcas or the gaudy Las Vegas trappings of Bingo Party.
Elsewhere, you’ll weave between piles of chips on a roulette table while pool balls clack along rails overhead, while one course sees you racing across clouds and stunting off hot-air balloons for an extra boost upon landing. If that sounds reminiscent of Mario Kart 8’s Cloudtop Cruise, there are a few other moments where Nintendo’s influence is apparent – a lava-themed circuit with a track that splits around a giant statue is very Bowser Castle.
You’ll visit them all several times in a single-player campaign with a story so bad Sumo Digital naturally assumes you’ll want to skip it: the default ‘X to continue’ bypasses the preamble, which is easily done even if you’re actively trying to follow the flimsy plot. Put it this way: a Trophy pop-up related to a returning villain from Sonic Lost World – ‘Between Zavok and a hard place’ – is a vastly better joke than anything in the script. At least it’s easily avoided, which can’t be said for the frequent chunnering from Sonic and friends during the races. It’s useful to know when your allies need a boost, but we really don’t need to hear Sonic warn us not to text and drive for the umpteenth time.
Completing bonus objectives for each event unlocks optional challenges, but it’s here where the caprices of the AI begin to rankle. For example, in a Survival mode match, where the three back-markers are eliminated after each lap, you might be asked not to let a single teammate drop out. Invariably, you’ll glance at the standings with one of them in fourth place out of nine, crossing the line seconds later only to realise that four cars somehow managed to overtake them.
“The courses are attractive and well designed, whether it’s the Mediterranean holiday vibe of Whale Lagoon with its leaping orcas or the gaudy Las Vegas trappings of Bingo Party.“
At least you don’t need to complete them all to progress, letting you focus on the ones you’re best at – whether that’s Daredevil, a kind of drift slalom which invites you to skim past star posts for points, or Destruction, which gives you circular targets you can either shoot or drift through. Eggpawn Assault (which shouldn’t ever be said aloud, lest people think you’re talking about some kind of weird fetish) asks you to blast robotic vehicles with rockets, each one you destroy extending a rapidly-depleting timer.
There’s plenty of choice in the casual and ranked modes of the game’s online multiplayer component, too, with standard and team races plus variants besides. King of the Hill is all about staying in first and holding it to gain points, though if you find yourself among the chasing group you can sabotage rivals to keep a teammate in first – making this one of the better showcases of cooperative play.
In Vampire race, you’ll collect rings and leech them from your rivals, while the curious Lightning race is built around the invincibility power-up – you’ll need to trigger it at the right time to shield yourself from getting zapped. Nor is Team Sonic Racing lacking in customisation options. The coins you earn from events can be cashed in at a capsule machine, where you’ll randomly unlock vehicle parts with colour schemes and decals besides – not to mention the chance to start a race with a specific item already in hand.
Even so, none of this quite compensates for what’s been lost in terms of character and variety from Transformed. Team Sonic Racing’s one big idea never entirely convinces – beyond that, it’s a perfectly enjoyable kart racer, but rarely is it anything more.
Fast, colourful, robustly made... but Team Sonic Racing’s seven-year-old predecessor was more transformative in every sense.
- Good-looking, good-feeling arcade racing
- A single-player component with meat on its bones - as long as you skip the story
- Co-operative racing is a good idea when it comes off...
- ...but it’s not the game-changing idea it promises to be
- Limited character roster will only appeal to die-hard Sonic fans