Teamwork plays into the item system too. If you pick up a missile, bomb or boost, you can choose to use it yourself or trade it to a teammate in need. Grabbing a traded item can result in powerful variants you won’t find on the track on your own, and the three different types of drivers (speedy, technical or powerful) can pick up exclusive items that other types can only get from trading.
All of these team actions fill up a meter that will eventually let you activate an ultimate power, which means brief invulnerability and increased speed for your whole squad. Your place on the podium is decided by adding the results of each member on your team, meaning it’s no good coming first if they get lapped, so constant use of team actions is generally the best way to ensure victory.
Aside from teamwork, the other big change from the rest of the series is that TSR is focused purely on the Sonic franchise, meaning there’s nothing from other classic Sega games like Alex Kidd or Golden Axe, and so only four of the 15 playable characters will likely be recognisable to anyone who isn’t a die-hard hedgehog fan. (Sorry Zavok.)
But while it’s true that some of Sonic’s characters are plain bad (Big the Cat, Rouge, actually everyone from the Adventure games) or painfully forgettable (Silver the time-travelling hedgehog), there’s also a lot of charm here. The game leans on Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Eggman, but the likes of Blaze and Vector are great designs that don’t get as much love as they deserve. I also appreciate that the characters all banter and address each other directly as you race, playing off their established relationships and rivalries.
The game’s marquee mode is called Team Adventure, and it’s a neat collection of races and objective-based challenges that also follows a cute (but, if you like, totally skippable) Sonic narrative. The levels actually offer a serious challenge at higher difficulty levels, while a star-based rating system means you don’t need to win every race to proceed (but you might have to come back later). It’s a great alternative to the standard Mario Kart setup of just plowing through the levels, and it’s playable co-operatively with friends, which is a nice touch.
Playing nets you credits you can turn in for “mod pods”, a very lootbox-esque system that thankfully doesn’t take real money. Pods might include consumables (i.e. starting a race with a special item) or new car parts and paint jobs for one of the racers.
Fans of Mario Kart will find a lot familiar in Team Sonic, despite the teamwork gimmick. Most of the items you can pick up are directly inspired by similar items in Nintendo’s franchise, while the Grand Prix, Exhibition and Time Trial modes work near identically. But this is certainly a less polished game than Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
The tracks here can feel very generic (there are 12 new, nine returning tracks), and the mix of racers, enemies, items, effects and speech bubbles can make the levels difficult to read at times, which is only worsened when you activate the ultimate boost. For something that is supposed to be a reward for good teamwork, it sure does send me careening blindly into walls and off platforms a lot.
But the biggest disappointment is that, while the game performs well in single-player, playing with two to four players in split screen mode takes a huge toll on the framerate and makes the game uncomfortably juddery. I found this on both the PS4 and Switch versions of the game. Hopefully this is something that can be fixed down the line with an update, because the team focus makes this a great option for couch co-op.
Performance issues aside there’s a lot to enjoy here, and I only liked the game more as I dove into the deep vehicle customisation, refined my strategies for keeping AI teammates out of last place and explored the surprisingly varied online multiplayer modes. It’s not perfect, but as a racer for Sonic fans or a multi-platform alternative to Mario Kart, it’s a really good time.
Team Sonic Racing is out now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Switch and Xbox One.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.