Though SEGA seem to have waved the white flag in the platforming war as of late, over on the racing grid, the Mario vs Sonic battle lives on. With the latest Mario Kart now being some five years old, and kart racers in general seeing a bit of resurgence thanks to Crash Team Racing, there's never been a better time for the blue blur to hit the asphalt - and for the most part, Team Sonic Racing delivers.
Despite what the title might suggest, Team Sonic Racing actually has nothing to do with Sonic Team. Developed instead by Sheffield-based Sumo Digital, the studio behind the original (and in our opinion, still the best) Sonic All Stars Racing, and its slightly disappointing sequel, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sonic Team Racing is a kind of "third time lucky" approach for the studio, where the gimmick this time is (you guessed it) all about teams.
And if nothing else, it's actually a pretty cool idea. Rather than racing on your own, you instead have to choose your character from one of four teams (plus one secret one) - the usual suspects of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles; the pink team of Amy Rose, a car with four Chaos in, and our hero, Big the Cat; the "who?" unit of Silver the Hedgehog, Blaze the Cat, and Vector the weird buff crocodile thing; and one final one made up of Sonic's rival Shadow, Rouge the Bat, and E-123 Omega, a kind of spiritual successor to Sonic Adventure's E-102 Gamma. In each race, rather your final position being determined by your ranking alone, your whole team will instead receive points based on where they finish, with the winner being the team with the most points, rather than the individual.
Still, the veterans amongst you will no doubt have spotted the problem here. If you're playing on your own, it's entirely possible that you could come first, while the rest of your team stuff up on the first corner and burst into flames, dragging your team's performance down with them. Though the team at Sumo have obviously done some sort of AI balancing here, as your computer controlled friends almost never end up in front of you, it is still possible for them to end up miles behind - although in our experience, it happens rarely. Instead, much like a rising tide, your performance tends to carry that of your teammates - if you're doing well, you'll drag the rest of your team up with you.
As you skid your way around the game's outlandish, boost filled tracks, each of which is loosely based on (or inspired by?) a level from recent Sonic games, you do have a few more direct ways of helping your team catch up. Collecting power-up boxes will let you use a wisp - in Team Sonic Racing, essentially the game's weapons - which you can either use yourself, or choose to pass on to your teammates. And though that may sound like it could be really useful - pick up a decent weapon, or a boost, and you know one of your team mates might want to make use of it - it's actually much less handy than you'd think. Weirdly, rather than sending the actual weapon you got to your friends, the game instead gives your buddy a random item - meaning they could get something that's nowhere near as useful as what you sent.
Passing on weapons isn't the only way to help your team out, though. Whoever's furthest up the grid out of your team will leave a golden trail behind them - and if your team mates try and follow the same path, it'll boost their speed. If they brush against you as they overtake, they'll get another little boost too. Everything you do that helps your team out - including taking out your rivals - will charge your Team Ultimate gauge, which essentially turns you invincible, and gives you a massive boost.
And though we certainly had our reservations about it, the races in Team Sonic Racing are a lot of fun. Well designed, and for the most part obviously signposted courses offer plenty of variety, with jumps, branching sections and shortcuts waiting to be found. Perhaps the best part of the game, though, is the story mode, which ties together a hundred or so events into a branching world map of all things. And better yet - the whole thing's playable in split-screen co-op.
Perhaps the ultimate get-out clause for dodgy AI partners, the fact Team Sonic Racing lets you bring a buddy or two along for the ride (or three, if you just want to take each other on in four player competitive split-screen) is easily one of the best bits about it. Letting you actually co-ordinate with your team mate, and shout out when you've got an item to offer makes the races a lot easier than they otherwise would be - especially in the game's challenges. Breaking up the bog standard races (which make up the vast majority of the courses on offer here) are a variety of smaller, more skill based challenges. One asks you to pass a variety of checkpoint beacons as close as you possibly can, as you try to earn a high score (it's a lot harder than it sounds). Another, which is much more fun, simply sees you smashing as many of Eggman's bots as you possibly can, with each one wrecked earning you a few more seconds on your time. Better yet, the target scores you need to reach in these challenges don't actually seem to change when you're playing in multiplayer. If you were playing on your own, you'd have to take on the challenge all on your lonesome, without any AI help - but if you've got a friend playing along, it'll effectively half the score you need to get.
That's not to say there aren't still balancing issues here. While there's no real difficulty spikes, as scuppered Sonic & SEGA All Stars Racing Transformed, the standard difficulty here still feels a lot harder than it should be - especially in a game that ought to have a large younger contingent. With no "easy" mode on offer, the game starts at normal, and you can feel it. With each event offering up to three stars for achieving certain things - like coming in the top three, coming in first, and winning the event as your team, you don't actually have to finish first to move on to the next event (or even win it as your team) - but even that can be a tough ask on some tracks.
The problem seems to be a mix of poor balancing and the usual issues that affect kart racers. On the one hand, while each team's characters come under one of three categories - speed, tech or power - only the speed class really seems to be any good. Tech has really twitchy handling, and just doesn't go fast enough to reliably challenge the front of the pack, while power has a great top speed, yet loses almost all of its momentum with a single hit. And with the game sometimes falling into the same annoyed trap of making it so whoever's out in front is almost untouchable, while a single hit with a weapon is enough to take you from 2nd to dead last in 12th, it can be a real challenge to make any of the other characters really work for you. Speed is definitely the easiest for rookie players, anyway - you'll need to know your stuff to pull the other two off.
But despite its shortcomings, there's obviously something that Team Sonic Racing gets right, as we keep finding ourselves coming back to it. Yeah, the balancing may be off, and the learning curve might put more than a few players off - but the more you stick with it, the more you find yourself enjoying what's here. With a fantastic soundtrack (even including a remix of Super Sonic Racing from Sonic R), a great selection of courses, and best of all, the co-op friendly story mode, Team Sonic Racing is well worth picking up if you have someone to play through it with you - perhaps slightly less so if you're going to be taking a gamble with the AI.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4