Sumo Digital ditches the wider world of Sega for its latest kart racer, but for all that's lost a new focus and inventiveness is found.
Here's hyperbole for you. Just as Sonic Mania saw a group of talented fans going wild with Sega's icon to create something as good as, if not better than the very best 2D Sonic games, then the enthusiasts at Sumo Digital have worked similar magic here. Not that it's saying particularly much, but this might well be the best 3D Sonic in a generation or two.
Maybe that shouldn't come as much of a surprise - not if you've been paying attention, anyway. Some seven years ago Sumo Digital made, in All-Stars Racing Transformed, an arcade racer worthy of the greats, helped in no small part by how it leaned on so many of Sega's legends. Panzer Dragoon! Skies of Arcadia! Burning Rangers! For players of a certain vintage, it was pure heaven.
Team Sonic Racing is a very different game led by a different team, with development primarily handled by Sumo's Nottingham studio, staffed in part by former Free Radical team members. For Sumo Digital's third kart racer for Sega, it sees the biggest departure from the formula yet. There are none of the rich, broad references to Sega's past - instead, this is a pure, dedicated Sonic game (a reverse trajectory to that of Mario Kart, funnily enough, which with the eighth instalment became a Nintendo all-stars series). Jet Set Radio's Beat is out, in other words, but Big the Cat is in.
If you're from a certain strand of Sega fandom there are still plenty of deep cuts to be found here. That telltale R in the title font is a not-so-subtle nod to Sonic R, while you can find more subtle call-outs in Team Sonic Racing's impeccable soundtrack. It really is a top-tier soundtrack too, seeing Jun Senoue return to the series for the first time since Sonic Generations, and with his band Crush 40 also providing the title song. And good lord does it all sound great, full of the upbeat, spunky and summery energy of Sonic at its absolute best.
It looks and plays great, too, with the colour and zest of peak Sonic. Circuits - of which there are 21, with a handful returning from previous games - draw beautifully from classic Sonic levels, with levels staying true to the series tenets of speed, style and flow. The fundamentals, of course, are lifted wholesale from Mario Kart - it offers elastic and pliable drifts, all overstated in classic Sega fashion - and in tandem with tracks that boast impossible cambers and gravity defying corkscrews, it can be easy to forget the trappings and think that you are playing Mario Kart 8. That's a compliment, I think, and besides Sonic can lay claim to having conquered corkscrews well before Mario did anyway.
Really, though, the biggest imprint on Team Sonic Racing comes from an unlikely albeit very welcome source. Here's one of those most cherished of things; an arcade racer with a big idea, the idea here being about team racing - working together as a trio, sharing out pick-ups and ducking in and out of slipstreams, taking turns to lead your small pack or dropping back to scoop a lagging teammate up and bringing them back to the front of the field. It's a neat idea, served by a multitude of mechanics.
There are three kart classes, each with strengths and weaknesses and with team composition outside of the solo mode entirely up to you. There are slingshots and slipstream trails, ultimates that can be unleashed once you've reached a certain threshold and points doled out for working together as well as placing high up the field. Finish first and you won't necessarily finish first, in other words, a slightly counterintuitive feeling - though you can play with vanilla rules both online and off across various modes - but it makes for a neat twist on the formula. It reminds me, if anything, of cycle racing, where you're busy managing your own miniature peloton, serving as the ultimate domestique as you corral the group into the best possible position.
Team Sonic Racing is a game of surprising depths, though for all it throws at the player it can end up incoherent - whether that's the wisps that serve as power-ups and never seem particularly distinct, or the ultimate that does a poor job of communicating how it's being charged, there's a wooliness to much of it that you just wouldn't find in a Mario Kart. Team Sonic Racing simply can't boast that same elegance of design, but then perhaps Sega's identity would never be really found that way - here, it's more about energy and inventiveness, even if it doesn't always necessarily land.
And there's some wonderful Sumo Digital DNA in amidst all that too. There's offline and online, of course, and four-player split screen where the frame rate - which typically sits around the 60fps mark - takes a hit, but there's also a handsomely presented, fairly generous single-player offering. There's a story, and mercifully a skip button too (the writing is heroically bad throughout, though I guess that's all part of the Sonic brand) as well as a healthy selection of modes and challenges that bring to mind how this developer once made its name pulling and pushing OutRun 2's core mechanics in fascinating ways in the brilliant Coast2Coast.
If it is in parts a little slim - the character selection feels paltry and without much by way of variety, though that's always going to be the way coming off the back of Sumo Digital's last kart racer - it's at the very least always dense with ideas. Here's a racer that feels steeped in the spirit of Split/Second, Blur or Onrush before it as much as it is a Mario Kart clone. That doomed trio were all indebted to the Sega classics of old - your Outruns, Daytonas and Scud Races - so there's something warming about Sega paying its dues the other way around.
What's more, Team Sonic Racing at least has the chance to break the cycle and see some success, wrapping its madness in something more palatable for the masses. Bacon with cornflakes was what developer Gareth Wilson once brilliantly said of Blur's eccentric mix of real cars and special powers. In Team Sonic Racing, everything clicks together that little bit more harmoniously; it's cornflakes with jersey milk, served with a spoonful of sweet Sega sugar.