Developed by United Front Games and published by Sony, ModNation Racers is the latest in the play, create, share paradigm of video games. Similar conceptually to LittleBigPlanet, it’s not just a game but also a tool kit to develop your own content, publish it and enjoy the work of others in the community; only this time it’s a kart racer.
Graphics – Colour…
This is a good looking-game, perhaps not in terms of raw graphical detail but in style. What it may lack in mind-blowing visual fidelity makes up for in flair. More than just appealing, ModNation Racers is one of those few games with a truly unique and vibrant look. From the GUIs, to the characters and tracks it’s hard to mistake it for any other game. And surprisingly it manages to blend many different motifs into a cohesive whole, which is important since so much of it revolves around user-generated content. Regardless of what kind of eclectic monstrosity, be it character, kart or track you create using the many differently themed pieces, it all works.
Audio – …Commentary
The game’s sound just like it looks, fun and funky. The soundtrack is mostly a fresh mix of hip-hop and techno full of catchy loops and hooks. The music is most prominent during the menu and loading screens to its detriment, as those loops can get quite annoying due to the game’s persistent loading issues (more on that later). There’s not much in the ways of voice acting except for a few characters in career mode and the two race commentators, Biff and Gary. Their dialogue can get grating at times, especially when their jokes fall flat.
Play – At the head of the pack
Don’t let it’s cute exterior fool you, this surprisingly hefty in terms of gameplay and difficulty. At its core and the wacky fundamentals of the kart-racing genre: you race around tracks, drifting, drafting and shooting items at other racers. You have a relatively small array of weapons available: rockets, lightening, speed boosts and some kind of sonic explosive…things each obtained by running over item pods that litter the tracks. Grabbing an item pod with one already equipped increases its power and changes it’s effect. With a little patience your standard forward shooting lightening bolt can be powered up to a homing ball of chain lighting. All weapons have a secondary mode as well, that usually fires them behind you, drops them as mines or, in the case of speed boosts, consumes them to increase your boost gauge.
Maintaining a full boost gauge is important as it powers some of the game’s more interesting mechanics. Besides giving you a short speed boost consuming the boost bar allows you to sideswipe opponents or raise a shield. By flicking the right analogue stick to either the right or left you can sideswipe other racers to slow them down, giving you some offensive options even when there are now item pods around. And then there’s the shield, which often is the only thing that stands between you and destruction at the hands of a hail of rockets.
This broader range of gameplay mechanics than the standard kart racer is indicative of the fact that it’s more serious or (for a lack of a better term) hardcore than others in its genre. For example, the controls are surprisingly tight and responsive and in terms of difficulty, it’s quite unforgiving.
The single player career mode is tough, almost frustrating at times. Your opponents are mostly competent drivers, especially the special “boss” racers. The tracks are demanding, requiring a fair amount of exploration and practice to find all the short cuts and properly navigate all of the hazards. The end result it that it’ll invariably take you at least a few tries, a mastery of the mechanics and a little luck to come in at least third to proceed to the next track.
On top of that though, the developers have added a few things to keep you interested. Each track contains 5 tokens that can be collected to unlock some of the content used in the character and kart builders. There are always at least two, extra objectives that if fulfilled during the race, unlock additional character/kart/track building items. Now here is when things fall of the rails, the vast majority of these objective are easy enough to clear while racing normally, but some have been insidiously designed. Not to mention that all of these bonus goals also require you to finish first, a feat that is hard enough as it is.
Ordinarily something like this would not bother me as much but the fact is that it the only way to unlock the vast majority of initially inaccessible content for the part of the game that really makes it special, the Creation Station (the various content building tools). The end result is that it feels like you’re being force-fed these challenges, if not the entire single player experience itself, just so they can fully enjoy the best parts of the game: creating your own characters, karts and tracks.
Create – Whatever your twisted heart desires
What makes this game standout is how powerful and easy to use the content generating utilities are. Making a character or Mod, as they call it, is pretty easy. You start with a blank body, add a skin colour or funky pattern and choose some features like eyes, hair or clothes. You can even add some extra doodads sticking out of their heads like dynamite or thumbtacks. This can all be done using the game’s preset items and within minutes you’ll have a half-decent looking racer. Creating your own karts is just as easy.
But if you so desire, there’s a whole other level of detail for you to explore. Just about anything that you can add can be modified in some way, by colour or size or position using the advance edit options for each item. And then there are a whole slew of little patterns, designs and logos that that are collectively called stickers. Stickers can be placed on just about any surface, positioned and edited to your liking. But then you can layer and group stickers together to make your own patterns. There are even a set of simple geometric stickers and letters that can be layered and grouped to form just about any custom design you can think of. Want to recreate that awesome “Go Petunias” shirt you saw in a movie? Go ahead!
The track designing tool follows the same philosophy, its easy whip together something great but the power is there to make something truly unique. But its design results in the most innovative and impressive aspect of the game. You begin by choose a theme of your track, forest, seaside resort, desert, whatever you’d prefer. Laying out your track is simple; you drive a steamroller that just paves a road behind you. Tired of laying track? Just hit done and the program will finish for you. Now its time to fill your track with item pods, boost pads and nasty hazards. Don’t want to do that manually? Have the CPU auto-populate the course with features, and while you’re at it let it auto-populate the sides of the track with buildings, trees and signs so things don’t look so sparse. Again, within minutes and with minimal effort you have a perfectly drivable course.
But for those obsessive compulsive types, you have the ability to edit the nitty-gritty using some of the more advanced features. There’s the terrain editor, the ability to add branching routes, big jumps or off-road short cuts. Just about anything that is available in the developer made tracks can be re-crated in the editor. As well, every individual object can be positioned, rotated and scaled at will. Even objects laid by the auto-populate can by changed or removed allowing you to use a combination of both manual and automatic editing which saves from the tiresome minutia placing trees down just to fill in gaps. So now that you have all these great Mod, karts and tracks, its time to share them with the world, whether they like it or not!
Share – Just like the New York Times bestseller list
ModNation’s next big attraction is the ability to flaunt your creations online, publish them or partake in others’ work. This is done primarily though the Publishing Station. There you can upload your creations and track how many times they’ve been viewed, downloaded and rated. It’s also where you can search through the collective works of every other user. Search can be done by highest rated, top downloads or tags set by the creator. There you also, rate and download the ones you like quickly and easily.
Custom tracks are also distributed in some other interesting ways. Naturally, you’ll download any that you play while racing online, but the weeks best, as decided by the developers, are posted for trial.
The Last Word
Generally ModNation Racers accomplishes what it sets out to do, provide a solid online kart racing experience bolstered, by the ability to create your own content using simple but sophisticated tools all with a great visual flair. The fundamentals of the game are fun and fast with great mechanics and controls. Online play is consistent and smooth. Using the Mod, kart and track creators are easily most satisfying parts of the game. Unfortunately, the overall experience is stained by two minor problems. Firstly, the single player career most is the least engrossing of all the game modes yet you’re forced to play it just to unlock most of the content for the Creation Station. Secondly, everything is mired in pretty severe load-times that harm the online, single and local multiplayer experiences. Having to wait around a minute before each race can try the patience of most any gamer. But if you can get past these issues, get ready for one of the best user-generated content powered games yet.
ModNation Racers was developed by United Front Games and published by Sony. It is currently available for the PS3 exclusively for $59.99 CND. Review copy provided courtesy of Sony. Game played for 30+hours.