When it comes to a new mascot-focused racing game, it's hard not to make comparisons to Mario Kart, undisputed king of the genre. Still going strong since its first iteration in 1992 (!), most of the kart racing conventions we take for granted either came straight from Nintendo's series, or were at least popularised there.
If a game is focused on a cast of existing video game characters, collecting boxes filled with items, and chaotically fighting to the front of the pack, then Mario Kart looms large. To stand out, you need something unique. Sega and Sumo Digital are putting its faith in co-operative mayhem being that special ingredient for Team Sonic Racing.
After several hours playing, I feel they might just be on to something.
At its core Team Sonic Racing still owes much to the Mario Kart template. It's chaotic, there's light customisation, and there are various items to help you speed up or screw over other racers. The team racing mechanic, however, makes it a fundamentally different experience to play – providing you're playing with other humans, that is.
In Team Sonic Racing you race as part of a team of three. While your individual finishing position in the race is recorded, it's a team that wins, based on the amount of points they've accrued (awarded based on each member's finishing position) rather than the individual player. It means that you could come first, but if your teammates come 11th and 12th, then your team's probably coming last overall. The team is everything: leaving your friends behind is penalised more heavily than losing a few positions yourself.
To this end the game has some smart new ideas for team mechanics. As you drive along the race track, you leave a glowing trail behind that's visible only to your teammates. If they drive through it, they'll be rewarded with a speed boost. If you're in the lead, you can lay out an optimal path for them to follow, demonstrate where shortcuts are located, and provide the team an extra burst of energy. If you race too far ahead, however, your fellow racers will lose out on this benefit. By driving closely past another member of your team you can also get a bit more of a boost.
Basically, if you race as a pack then you'll all go much faster.
Additionally, players within a team can share their items, offering them to another team member, or requesting them if needed. If one teammate is considerably ahead, they can pass items back to others lagging behind in order to give them help climbing back through the pack.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly than either of the above, each team has a shared meter that allows for a massive boost of speed. Driving in that slipstream, passing close to your team, or sharing your items builds up this meter and, when filled, it can be triggered to give the whole team some serious oomph. The way that these co-operation mechanics are incentivised beyond just their base utility, and build towards something greater, makes their use in every race pretty much essential.
At a recent preview event I played a build of Sonic Team Racing that seemed pretty feature complete. There was a wide variety of modes unlocked, as well as the game's full roster of tracks, racers, and kart customisation components. There were a couple of modes of particular note.
I got to play a little of Team Sonic Racing's story mode campaign, which was a little light on narrative depth but did offer some reasons to play. The plot of the game basically seems to be that a mysterious stranger invited Sonic and his friends to a big car racing competition, with the winning racer being allowed to keep their car as a prize. It's all a bit suspect: you can see from the start something's up. The narrative of a kart game isn't enormously crucial, of course, but it's nice that there's at least something pulling forward story mode progression.
Story mode races are played with two AI teammates, and each race has three specific bonus objectives which can be completed to earn stars. These might range from boosting a certain number of times, to passing a certain number of items to other players, and seem designed to help encourage both smarter play and a deeper understanding of the importance of the team mechanics.
Additionally, I got to take a look at time trial mode, which does something interesting. Rather than the Mario Kart style of time trial, where you do a set number of laps, see your score, and try again from a menu, Team Sonic Racing drops you onto a track to race around it infinitely. You can just keep trying again and again without any pause, which really helps in terms of getting in the zone and getting a good flow to your track practices. I found I played time trial mode longer than I normally would have, simply because there was nothing breaking the flow.
While many of the game's teamwork-based mechanics worked well playing the game at a press event, where my teammates were sat within shouting range of me so we could coordinate strategies and player needs, I was curious how the game would play online, where players may not have or wish to use voice chat to communicate with other players. I chatted with Derek Littlewood, studio design director at Sumo Nottingham, and Ben Wilson, a designer at the studio, to see if they had any insights on how the game holds up without voice chat online.
"Allowing players to effectively communicate without needing to use voice chat was definitely a conversation we were having pretty early in development," says Wilson. "A lot of our gameplay revolves around co-ordinating skills with other players, and we knew we didn’t want to have online communication be the be-all and end-all of success."
"I think, in general, we’re seeing games having a better awareness of not requiring voice comms for top end online play," Littlewood added. "If you look at what Apex Legends has done with their pin system, they’re allowing players to have all the communication tools they need without needing to use words to achieve that".
Once explained, it's easy to see what they were referring to. When you request an item from another racer, not only does an on-screen prompt show who is offering the item (and what item it is), but audio cues in the form of in-character dialogue act as non-visual cues to check your UI and see what's on offer from your team. When you're trying to synchronise your teamwork boost with your teammates, there's an on-screen indicator letting you know that your friend has used theirs, and a window of grace given for you to see that prompt and reactively use yours without being penalised for not being at the exact same moment.
I was also curious how competitive online play meshed with the idea of teamwork. While in a perfect world players would help each other out and win or lose together, there's always potential for one player on a team to do really well, but get a lower team score because a teammate lagged behind, which seems like a source of potential animosity. I asked Takashi Iizuka, head of Sonic Team, about this potential clash between game design and player motivations.
"When we talk about games like Mario Kart and other kart racing games, they’re all usually a one versus everyone competitive environment," says Iizuka. "It’s more about trying to finish and be first without thinking about everyone else in the race. The fact we’ve focused on racing as a team is obviously our big differentiating factor. We didn’t want to just make the game 'play as three individuals and each do your best to win'; we wanted to change up the racing style those racers played."
"Team Racing changes that style of play because it’s not enough to just focus on getting to the goal fast enough, but you need to work together, think about how the rest of your team is doing, and enjoy racing as a group rather than individuals."
"When we talk about online multiplayer, there’s a lot of elements which we’ve included to make it so that it’s not just about racing as a team and winning," concludes Iizuka. "At the end of the race we have voting and appreciation for skilful players and their accomplishments, whether they or their team ultimately won or lost. This could be most rings collected, person who went the fastest, person who hit the most enemies. It’s there so that even if you don’t win, you might still feel good because you did something better than your opponents."
"If someone on your team is doing poorly you can be doing things to help them, and if they come in a low position you need to ask yourself if you did everything you could to help them, not just ask if they did everything they could to help themselves," Littlewood adds.
"There’s also the flipside I should mention which is that if you play online, you might not be the best player in the world but if your teammates do well you might get to be on the winning team," Littlewood says. "In any other racing game if I’m not great, I’ll always finish further down the ranks, I’ll never get that experience of winning".
Before finishing up my time with Iizuka and the team from Sumo, I had a couple of lingering questions which were less about Team Sonic Racing itself. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to finally get to the bottom of why the fastest creature in gaming even needs to race in a car in the first place when he can run at hundreds of miles per hour.
"I think the whole narrative wrapper of the game, the narrative conceit in story mode that you’re taking place in a tournament where one of the rules is that you race in a car, is enough justification for us," explained Wilson. "Sonic isn’t a rule breaker, he’s not that kind of character, so he’s going to follow the rules and race in a car."
"For us the team aspect of this game helped us to justify why Sonic would race in a car," added Littlewood. "It is an important thing to Sonic fans, to understand why this fast character isn’t running, the thing he’s known for. Believe me, we expended a lot of time talking about why Sonic would possibly drive rather than running. Hopefully our answer we settled on is satisfying to fans."
"Sonic has been running for 25 years, he’s just tired. Let him rest his legs, drive places from time to time. He’s just tired, give him a break," laughs Wilson.
Lastly, considering developer Sumo Digital also developed previous Sonic Racing titles, including Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing, I wanted to get some insight from Iizuka on why this particular Sonic Racing title pulled back to instead only include Sonic characters as racers rather than including Sega's history as a whole.
"Sumo did a great job with the All Stars series, but when we started work on this title we specifically wanted to make a new Sonic title. We had Sonic Mania, Sonic Forces, and we wanted this to be the next title in our Sonic series."
"We called up Sumo and said 'we want to make a Sonic title, we want it to be a racing title, and we want to work with you guys'. The whole idea, and where it fits in our roadmap, was we want it to expand our brand, and give players who might not enjoy action platforming games a chance to enjoy a Sonic title."
"We wanted this to be primarily a Sonic title, not necessarily a sequel to the All Stars series. It’s just about where the idea came from and what we wanted this to achieve."
Having now put several hours into playing Team Sonic Racing, and gone hands-on with a near complete version of the game, I really do think it sets itself apart from those easy Mario Kart comparisons – at least when played locally with friends in the same room. It's fun to work together as a team, but in practice whether the promise of online collaboration without voice chat will work out is something only time will tell. The story mode seems pretty easy and shallow, at least in the early levels I played, which is also something to note. It's entirely possible that single player mode will make unexpected story beats and ramp up in difficulty, but I didn't see enough to be sure of that.
When Team Sonic Racing releases in a few weeks on 21st May, I'll be on the starting grid for sure. I can't tell you at this stage if it's amazing, but it's certainly looking to be a great kart racer with a unique angle that, in the right situation, can be enormous co-op fun.