GameCentral takes a look under the hood of Sega and Sumo Digitals follow-up to Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
Driving sim games are often developed with two core audiences in mind: those who love racing and those who love winning. Sure, it can be fun to best the computer or your mates to be crowned the undisputed champion, but that winners pedestal can be a lonely place when youre racing alone.
Team Sonic Racing, the third arcade racer developed by Sumo Digital and Sega, is looking to end that sole winner ethos.
The spiritual successor to the franchises two previous titles – Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed – Team Sonic Racing is looking to build on their relative success with a unique angle. The games co-op gameplay mechanic, which sees teams of three racers work together to win races and trophies, is the major attraction being pedalled, and one that Sumo Digital hopes will lure racing game aficionados from the tried-and-tested formula.
I think the initial idea was very much about How can we make the racing experience more accessible to people? Sumo Digitals design director Derek Littlewood explained at EGX 2018. And one of the ways you can play is that you can be the more skilled player and help the people youre playing with.
The brainchild of Takashi Iizuka, Team Sonic Racings unique team-based trope came from the legendary Sega game directors desire to play and win races with his children. Allowing them to feel the thrill of winning and contributing to that success even in a gaming format, was a key component behind developing a positive experience for gamers of any expertise, age, or background.
Despite Iizukas idea being born from a wish to enjoy games with his kids, and Team Sonic Racings colourful, child-friendly look, Littlewood was keen to stress that theres plenty under the hood for players who are masters at arcade racers too.
We know that a lot of Sonic fans are hardcore players, he stated. Theres a lot of depth to the team play so, whilst its a good way to play with less skilled or casual players, theres also a lot there for hardcore players. Think of three expert players co-ordinating as a team – from our recent play testing, weve seen how you can tap into that and see teams rocketing around the track and helping each other out. So I think were kind of helping out at both ends really to get something new out of a racing game.
To its credit, the co-op aspect of Team Sonic Racing works really well. During a demo where we played alongside two computer-controlled characters, the team aspect felt polished and natural. Teammates shared their weapons to help you move through the standings, new boost-oriented mechanics such as the slingshot and skim-boost allow for teammates to get back up to speed after being struck by a weapon or falling off the track, and each character and kart has their own strengths and weaknesses that offer different play styles and strategies based on individual tracks.
Sumo Digital and Sega also took the bold decision to reduce Team Sonic Racings roster down to a core group of 15 Sonic characters. This pales in comparison to the amount of playable personalities in previous Sonic racing titles, but Littlewood explained why it was important to service Sonics immediate fanbase for this iteration.
It gives us the opportunity to give something specific to the Sonic fanbase and give them the sorts of characters, locations, and fan service that theyve not had before in these games, he said. Theres so much Sonic history to tap into, but it was never a case of we might run out of things to reference or characters to include – theres lots for us to dig into.
And tap into that illustrious history they have. Characters like Vector the Crocodile, Rogue the Bat, Blaze the Cat, and others make their Sonic racing debuts. Each anthropomorphised being is divided into sub-classes, with top speed, acceleration, handling, and other stats all playing their part in providing a balance to proceedings.
These three categories – speed, technique, and power – come with their own positives and negatives, and add another layer to what players should consider when making up teams of three, particularly for online multiplayer grand prix races. Meanwhile, the implementation of a co-op mechanic may have created an issue with friendly fire, but Littlewood nipped those concerns in the bud.
As we were aiming for something that was quite an accessible experience, weve left friendly fire off, he reveals. You can fire weapons without worrying that theyre going to impair your teammates and obviously theyre smart about if they might do. If theres a crimson eagle – a homing rocket – it will avoid hitting your teammates and go for other teams instead.
Comparisons to Mario Kart will always emerge when a new arcade racer is released. Littlewood admitted that this was always at the back of Sumo Digitals and Segas minds when they were developing Team Sonic Racing, but he revealed that Mario Kart was used as a source of inspiration, rather than something to compete with, to help push the boundaries of what their upcoming title was capable of.
What Mario Kart gives us – and Mario Kart 8 in particular – is that youve got that quality bar there, and it makes it very easy to point at and say were not doing well enough as were not comparing to that, so we need to be on a par, or innovating a way to be better, he said.
We did know though that going head to head with Mario Kart was something we didnt want to do, not just commercially but because, as developers, you dont just want to clone that game. Were always looking for something that can be positively compared, because of the new things were bringing to the genre, which is where the team racing part came from.
We have that whole strategic layer that doesnt exist in Mario Kart, so it feels like a very different experience. I hope people can see the two sitting alongside each other as different entities but equally interesting experiences.
Team Sonic Racings aim to entice newcomers to video games, as well as appeal to established players, is very welcome. Attracting both will be vital to its success, and that will depend on how well the development team manages to iron out the niggling aspects of the gameplay. Some of the karts did feel a touch heavy-handed and the characters charm and charisma need a bit of fine tuning – kids wont mind so much, but adult players may view their in-race comments as gimmicky.
And the controls can be fiddly until youre used to the games controller layouts. Littlewood hopes, however, that Team Sonic Racings unique gameplay mechanic, smaller roster of characters, and strategic depth will ensure that it is a hit when the game launches in December.
For people not so familiar with Sonics cast, I actually hope that theyll grow to like them. Theres some I didnt really know a lot about, and now playing I really love those characters, he said. There have been a lot of nips and tucks in there, and also add this new strategic layer onto the game, which is the team gameplay, and that involves choices and decisions that most people wont have encountered in a racing game before, and that for us was the most compelling thing about doing Team Sonic Racing – making a new arcade racer is never going to get a no from us, but we always want to try something a bit different. It gave us the opportunity to do both of those things.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Developer: Sumo Digital
Release Date: December 2018
By Tom Power