Nearly six years since he last sat behind the wheel, Sega's iconic hedgehog returns to the driver's seat in a brand-new kart racer, Team Sonic Racing. Developed by Sumo Digital, the same studio behind the acclaimed Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed and its predecessor, Team Sonic Racing looks and feels similar to previous installments in the series, but it also makes some dramatic changes that set it apart from other Sonic racing games.
The most apparent difference between Team Sonic Racing and past titles is its roster. Whereas both Transformed and the original Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing featured characters drawn from Sega's vast stable of franchises, including Shenmue's Ryo (who humorously raced in a forklift), Team Sonic Racing pares the roster down to racers taken strictly from the Sonic universe. Sega says this was a decision made to focus on crafting a pure Sonic racing game, and Sumo's previous expertise made it the perfect studio to handle the project. But while the lack of playable characters from other franchises is disappointing, Sega teases that Team Sonic Racing will still feature a wide selection of characters, including some who may not have appeared in a Sonic game in a long time.
Moreover, Team Sonic Racing eschews one of its predecessor's most distinctive features: vehicle transformations. Unlike in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, karts no longer change into a boat or a plane during the course of a race depending upon the terrain. Instead, Sumo says that players will be able to customize their vehicles before a race using a variety of unlockable parts, allowing them to tailor the karts' appearance and performance.
The biggest difference between Team Sonic Racing and its predecessors, however, is its focus on teamwork. While most racing games are, by their very nature, solo affairs, with each racer vying to be the first to cross the finish line, Team Sonic Racing's primary modes have players competing as teams of three. Players will be able to make a team out of any combination of characters, but in the demo we played, the teams were divided up according to their alliance; Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles were always paired together, while Shadow always teamed with Rouge and E-123 Omega, much like they did in Sonic Heroes. This similarity isn't coincidental; Sumo says it used Sonic Heroes as a reference for Team Sonic Racing's team mechanic, and it underpins every element in the new racer.
As in a typical racing game, each member of the team still competes individually, but their cumulative score at the end of the race will determine which team is the winner, much like Mario Kart 8's team races. On top of contributing toward the same score, players are able to work together with their teammates in a number of ways during a race, such as by giving each other items. This is particularly handy when one member of the team is lagging behind, as another can aid them by offering an item to potentially reverse their fortunes. Additionally, the leading member of the team will leave behind a trail on the racetrack, which will provide a speed boost to other team members who follow it.
Working cooperatively also feeds into the Ultimate meter, a shared gauge that gradually fills up as players perform different team actions during the course of the race, such as transferring item boxes to each other or taking down rival racers. Once the meter is full, it can be triggered to unleash a temporary boost of invincibility, allowing for some dramatic comebacks. This, too, depends largely upon cooperation between teammates; while any player can activate the Team Ultimate, it is more effective if all three members use it simultaneously. Its duration can also be extended by spinning out rival players, adding another element of cooperation and strategy to races.
This heavy emphasis on teamwork changes the dynamic of racing, as players need to consider not only their own standing during a race, but also their teammates'. Moreover, it affords players who don't normally perform well in a typical racing game the chance to contribute toward the team's success in other ways beyond trying to place in first. In addition to four-player local and 12-player online support, Team Sonic Racing will allow players to compete together using a mixture of the two options, which Sumo says is the ideal way to play the game.
Beyond its cooperative game modes, Team Sonic Racing also boasts a campaign in the form of Team Adventure mode. We didn't get a chance to try this out during our hands-on time with the game, but according to Sumo, Team Adventure will feature "light storytelling" that will introduce each of the game's characters and explain the reason why everyone is racing.
Despite trading many of the elements that made Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed such a beloved kart racer, Team Sonic Racing retains the look and feel of Sumo's previous Sonic racers, and its new focus on teamwork and cooperation is a promising hook that seems like it'll be especially well-suited for couch co-op. Sega hasn't announced a release date yet for Team Sonic Racing, but the game is slated to arrive for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC sometime this winter.