Team Sonic Racing preview: can it knock Mario Kart off the podium?

Team Sonic Racing is a formidable karting game with a lot of potential. Here are our hands-on impressions...

This article originated on Den Of Geek US and is based on a demo build of the game from E3 2018.

For the last few years, Mario Kart 8 has been the undisputed champion of video game kart racing. It’s for good reason: the game is basically perfect, a showcase of everything the series has done right since it first appeared on the SNES. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been other landmark karting games to give Mario a run for his money. Diddy Kong Racing and Crash Team Racing specifically come to mind, and now Sega’s latest Sonic endeavour, Team Sonic Racing, may be joining that list. 

It’s difficult not to make the obvious comparison. On the surface, Team Sonic Racing may very well be a Mario Kart clone with all the bells and whistles offered by Nintendo’s racer – including power-ups, weapons, and even a drifting ability – but with the Sonic family of characters. Yet, there’s something really charming about Sonic and friends zipping through race tracks inspired by Zones from the platformer series, this time in teams of three that protect, boost, and help each other to the finish line. 

To be fair, Sega offered a relatively short demo: one race on one course (inspired by the Planet Wisp Zone from Sonic Colors), lasting three laps. It’s enough to pick up the flavour of Team Sonic Racing‘s gameplay, though. And enough to make it clear that this game is familiar in all the right places.

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Drifting, for example, feels really good once you get the hang of it, a smooth way to get a speed boost during a winding turn. Power-ups, which involve a combination of projectiles and speed boosts, are less successful due to the fact that there’s just not enough variety. Items, which are also based on Wisps, simply lack the gusto of Mario’s dreaded blue shell or the impervious star power. That said, since it was a limited demo, there’s a good chance we didn’t experience everything that the final product will have to offer.

As a solo experience (and the game’s Team Adventure campaign looks like it could be delightful), the team gameplay really works. You’re at the centre of the team and your teammates are largely there to offer you support, although racers are ranked by both individual and team-based performance. Actually, your team’s position in the standings is ultimately the most important factor overall and decides whether you’re going to win the cup or not.

Luckily, your AI teammates won’t fail you.  In fact, they’ll offer you items when you need them most. The AI will intelligently throw you a speed boost when you’re on the last stretch of the race or a weapon when there’s another team of racers in front of you. Your teammates are perhaps the most useful when you’re drafting behind them, which offers a considerable speed boost and is key to staying ahead of your competition.

There’s also a handy Team Ultimate move, which you can use once you’ve filled up your team’s power bar. It mostly amounts to a star-power-like boost that can help you get from last to first place in a bind. You’ll have to be smart about when to unleash this ability, of course. 

Team mechanics add an interesting new twist to kart racing, but it’s a concept that’s more exciting in theory than it is in execution. While playing with a team of AI is pretty delightful, only time will tell how these features translate to online play, especially when you don’t know your other two teammates. Will random players cooperate or end up racing each other to the finish line? It might be wise to find friends to play with.

The game’s limited demo only featured six characters from two teams: Team Sonic consists of the beloved hedgehog, Knuckles, and Tails while Team Shadow is made up of Shadow, Rouge, and E-123 Omega. Developer Sumo Digital has promised 15 playable characters in the final roster. Each race features 12 participants, which make up four teams, so there’s a fair bit of variety overall. 

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Characters are also categorised by the kind of racers they are. Sonic and Shadow are Speed-focused characters, while Tails and Rouge are Technique racers and Knuckles and E-123 Omega are Power-focused. Your racing strategy will change based on what character you choose. Playing with Sonic and going for pure speed seems to be the easiest way to get started.

You’ll be able to participate in the usual mix of modes and challenges, including Grand Prix, a story mode, time trials, and exhibition races. Of course, online play will be the real trick. If Sega and Sumo can get the online element of team-based karting right, Team Sonic Racing could ultimately offer up a more complex experience than the more straightforward Mario Kart 8. Only time will tell if that ends up happening, though, and Mario Kart is still sitting pretty atop the kart-racing podium for now.

What Sonic’s new racing game lacks in flash, it more than makes up for in spirit. And it already has the most important quality of all: it’s addictive. We can’t wait to play it again when Team Sonic Racing launches on 21 May for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC.