Last week I went to Sega’s UK offices to go hands-on with Team Sonic Racing for the first time. To be frank, and having played the previous Sonic racing games, I wasn’t expecting any big surprises. I thought this would be a kart racer that largely followed the lead of the ever-popular Mario Kart, with a Sega-centric roster and that key detail of multi-platform support.
More fool me, because what I saw of Team Sonic Racing was a pleasant surprise. Mario Kart, as polished and tight as it is, represents something of a pinnacle for the genre: you can copy what it does, and do a decent job, but the chances you'll ever actually top it are low. The previous Sonic racers were hugely influenced by Nintendo's series, but Team Sonic Racing shakes up the kart racing formula with a few core gimmicks that make the game feel unique.
Team Sonic Racing is a 12-player kart racer where racers are split up into four teams. Where kart racers typically reward players for their personal performance and own finishing position, Team Sonic Racing gives each player on a team points based on their finishing position, then adds up those points for an overall team score. Simply put, you can't win as an individual by just being the best racer; if the team doesn't do well, then nobody does.
Team Sonic Racing gives players a number of tools to help out their fellow racers, none of which I have really seen employed in this sort of cooperative racing game before. If you pick up an item (called Wisps) while racing around the track, but are considerably further up the pack than your teammates, you can press a button to offer that item to your team. If one of your team members accepts and takes the item, it'll warp over to them, allowing them to catch up more easily (and hopefully knock a few people off your own tail). If you're the player falling behind, you can use that same button to request items from your team, and any players with an item available have the option to pass theirs over. By passing items between your team, hitting enemy racers with items, or pulling off collaborative racing moves like slipstream boosts, you can slowly build up a team energy meter too which, when full, can be activated to give every racer on your team a short but substantial speed boost.
This focus on racing collaboratively, and providing the tools to do so, is the core of what makes Team Sonic Racing feel new. There are some nit picks I have with the systems as they currently work: the biggest is the interminable wait for the random chance item wheel to stop spinning and show me what item I've got, before I could offer that item to teammates. In multiple races I was in first place, picked up an item box knowing my team could use it more than me, rush to offer it, and accidentally request an item rather than offer one because the randomiser was still mid spin. Over the races I adapted to that, but it always felt just a little bit awkward and fiddly, and something minor that actually pulls against the high-speed co-op fun you're trying to have. If I already have an item spinning in the corner of the screen, I do not need an item from my team.
This preview version of Team Sonic Racing was marked as the E3 build of the game, and had some restrictions. We were told that the game supports 12-player online or four player split screen, but were only able to play the game in single player, preventing us really putting the synchronised team moves to the test. That said the AI racers in the demo seemed 'smart' and fun to race against, knowing how best to make use of the co-op racing features to ensure the team did well rather than just the individual player. I didn't notice any AIs doing silly things like asking for items in first place, or giving them away in last, so at least that side of the game seems well-tuned.
During the demo, there were six playable characters available: Sonic, Tails and Knuckles for Team Sonic, and Shadow, Rouge the Bat, and Omega for Team Dark. Each of these teams featured one character built for acceleration, one less manoeuvrable but better at high max speeds, and one that had more support techniques for the team. Picking a character from Team Sonic gives you the other two team Sonic characters as your AI team mates, and ditto for picking a Team Dark character. It is unclear if, in the final game, you'll be forced to play as these pre-made teams, or will be able to build a team of three racers of your choice.
After around an hour of playing Team Sonic Racing, I wanted to play more. The Sonic racing games have hit a high standard in recent times, even if the spectre of Mario Kart always loomed large over their efforts: competing against something as iconic and established as Nintendo's kart racers is the ultimate uphill climb. It feels like making co-operative play the core of Team Sonic Racing is the kind of distinguishing factor that it really needs, and the mechanic makes this racing experience feel quantifiably different to what Mario Kart offers. The friends I play kart racers with have a wide range of skill anyway, so it will be nice to play a competitive racer that has room for the co-operative element and the fun of helping and encouraging each other along.
Team Sonic Racing releases on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch this winter, and what I've seen certainly has me intrigued.