Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a Sonic fan. Not the full-on “Stockholm Syndrome” kind who will defend the franchise’s most heinous crimes, or the sort you’ll find in the dark recesses of DeviantArt, but I still have a lot of love for the blue blur. While it has its ups and downs, when the franchise gets things right, the games are some of the best in class. No two titles have exemplified this more in the last decade than throwback platformer Sonic Mania, a title that was a strong contender for my Game of the Year last year, and the lesser celebrated Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, one of the finest kart racers to ever grace consoles. The latter is a game that’s rarely going to come up in conversations alongside its peers Mario Kart or Crash Team Racing, which is criminal as the gameplay was tight, visually it was excellent, the level design was well thought out and most importantly, it was great fun. With all this in mind, when Sumo Digital announced they were working on another Sonic racer earlier this year, I was excited, but after my hands-on session, my hype has skidded to a halt.
I only got to play one level, and the game isn’t out until December so it’s possible they will tweak it, but that seems unlikely and in its current state it is extremely underwhelming. Let’s start with what Sonic is best known for, speed. Sonic & All-Stars did a great job of giving you a sense of speed as you rush around in your kart, boat or plane, Team Sonic Racing, by comparison, feels slow, even when using things like the new team boost (more on that later). I tried several characters but none of them seemed to have any sense of urgency, it felt more like a bunch of Sunday drivers cruising casually down the road than a race. You’d think this is the one thing a Sonic racing game would focus on, but it seems whoever was putting the game together missed the memo on Sonic‘s key traits. Also, something about the control felt off, usually with modern kart racers while they’re not Gran Turismo or Forza, there’s a fairly decent level of precision with the analogue stick, but in this, I either didn’t turn enough and hit a wall or turned too much and hit a wall. There was no happy medium. Of course, there is drifting which normally compensates for this kind of thing, but even that never felt quite right.
I’d be willing to forgive the slower pace if the scenery was worth looking at, but the level design of the one I played (Ice Mountain) was pretty bland. Now I’ll concede that there’s perhaps not much you can do much with ice visually, but there was just nothing aesthetically pleasing about this level, and the track layout wasn’t particularly intriguing either. The last saving grace for this game would have been the new team gimmicks, and I say gimmicks because that’s all they are and nothing more, which I guess tells you how I feel about those. When choosing a character in Team Sonic Racing, you’ll also pick two other drivers to team up with. Throughout the race, you can the do things like swap items with them, or they can create a trail behind them that you can draft on and receive a short speed boost. You do all of these actions in an effort to build up your “Ultimate Meter” which gives the whole team a speed boost that can be maintained by hitting other players. In theory, this adds a level of tactical play not found in other games in this genre, but in my short time with it, I found it nothing but an annoyance having to think about team mechanics that ultimately didn’t impact the race in any significant way.
I wanted this game to be better. Maybe I went in with my expectations too high, or maybe I just played a bad section of the game because they just wanted to save the best stuff for release, but right now my confidence in this game has stalled.