It’s funny really. The first half of 2010 has been almost completely devoid of high profile racing games, but within the space of a week we now have not one, but three significant racing releases to choose from. A hearty round of applause goes out to the moronic marketing men who didn’t foresee that.
This has caused congestion on the roads of the racing class, particularly as each title has the potential to offer a fresh take on the increasingly stale genre. There’s both the eccentric Blur and the downright loopy Split/Second: Velocity vying to capture your attention, but it’s the Sony exclusive ModNation Racers that has been the most publicised after it debuted to warm reception at E3 last year, a gleeful kart racing title that adopts the same “Play, Create, Share” philosophy that brought LittleBigPlanet into the limelight.
I could even go as far as to say that this is one of the most anticipated kart games since Mario Kart. I’m sorry, but you know it’s impossible not to allude to the granddaddy when it comes to kart racers; even the resident Ashley King and Steven Shepherd of Gamer Limit are guilty of it, but then it is after all the undisputed benchmark of the genre. So then, can United Front’s driving debut do for kart racers what the loveable LittleBigPlanet did for platformers?
On the surface, ModNation Racers has all the hallmarks of a formulaic kart racer that has been in ready supply over the past two decades: cutesy characters race around a variety of vibrant environments that only an infant child could have dreamed, with diminutive karts and an arsenal of fantasy weapons to spice up the proceedings. This, however, is where the similarities abruptly end.
Rather than utilising a host of recognisable mascot characters, ModNation invites you to create your very own, and it’s this notion of unparalleled creativity, where the game really comes into its own. Everything is managed via the Modspot, a central lobby that has you drive to each game mode. As you navigate amid fellow online bystanders, top creations are proudly displayed on the podium, but it’s in the Creation Station where the creative juices are able to flow.
From here, you can assign a broad arrangement of details to your quirky character, or “Mod” as they are called, such as skin colour, facial features and clothing. Things really become interesting however when you start to experiment with stickers and accessories, allowing for new possibilities of personalisation – you can even stick on individual letters, for example. Think of the things you could spell out to the community.
ModNation’s community aspect is equally impressive, as is evident from the wealth of content that has already been uploaded by passionate players. With the tap of a button, any of your creations can be published for the community to rate, comment and hopefully download. Predictably, the most popular downloads are those that represent pop culture characters – everything from Mario, Pac-Man, Optimus Prime and even Mr. Bean are all present, and some of these early accomplishments are truly inspiring. A word of warning though: if you don’t want others to be able to edit your creations and re-upload them, don’t forget to uncheck the remix option. There are already over 30 pages of duplicate Stigs alone.
It’s a similar story with the karts, too. While you sadly can’t modify the shape of your kart, which is restricted to premade frames and bodyworks, imaginative usage of a wide range of decals and stickers can produce some surprising results. Think Lego Racers but with the broad scope and sharing facilities of LittleBigPlanet.
With practice, it’s possible to produce authentic replicas of your favourite licensed cars. I, for example, am hopelessly besotted with Eleanor from the original Gone in 60 Seconds (no not the shabby Nicholas Cage remake) and, after hours of labour, managed to churn out a fairly faithful replica of her. Mmm. Although, it’s a shame that the handling characteristics for any vehicle are always identical.
ModNation’s most touted feature however has been the track creator, and it certainly delivers on its promise of being able to construct your own track within minutes. In a nutshell, the tools are staggeringly easy to use – simply drive the construction vehicle as you would a kart to pave out your track and hit auto-populate to have the game magically generate props, speed boosts and hazards on the fly. As a result, it’s an altogether more accessible system than LittleBigPlanet‘s comparatively daunting creator canvas.
If, however, you’re not a bone-idle buffoon and have OCD, you can go into a lot more depth by painstakingly adjusting the very sculpture of the environment, refining every corner, incline and crust of land before lavishly decorating it with your choice of props until your heart’s content. To their credit, United Front has created the perfect balance here for both passive players and control freaks alike.
With all of these powerful tools at your disposal, it’s all too easy to spend more time tinkering away with your creations than actually racing. Progression in the game’s single player career mode is key however, since new items are unlocked after each race. Your custom-made Mod plays the role of Tag, a voiceless rookie racer competing for the elite ModNation Racing Championship.
The loose storyline is presented through a series of short animated cut-scenes. One-liners range from chuckle-worthy to cringe-worthy, although I’ll admit I did snigger a few times at the ongoing abuse of poor commentator Gary, and the tongue in cheek car commercials reminded me of Pixar’s Cars. But yet, no matter how hard it tries, it doesn’t quite match the innate charm of LittleBigPlanet. The Lego-esque characters will inevitably be cute to some, but they lack any real personality and, likewise, the cartoony visuals lack the vigour you come to expect from a game of this generation.
At first, the vehicle handling feels a bit too erratic, but you should expect nothing less from an arcade-friendly kart racer. The controls and racing dynamics are similarly simple, as holding the X button will initiate an instant drift which in turn earns you boost. Success lies in your ability to drift and boost as much as possible in any given race, whilst collecting power-ups to obliterate your opponents with weapons such as rockets and devestating sonic booms. Bonus race challenges such as taking out designated rivals also add to the longevity: trying to beat the challenge and finish first can be a tough task indeed.
Achieving first place is certainly no easy task when the AI is utterly ruthless, either. One minute you could be miles ahead in first position mere metres away from the finish line, the next you are languishing at the back of the field after an ill-timed rocket blast. Such is the unpredictable nature of the genre, but it’s undeniably frustrating and seems to happen far too frequently.
If you have enough boost, you can generate a shield to counter these attacks, but it’s rare that you will either have enough boost or time to react. Still, these nuances can at least be partially solved by playing against a real human being in either split screen or online multiplayer, and the chaotic nature can make for some very enjoyable races if you can get past the frustration.
That is, if you have the patience to wait for the game to load. To say the least, the loading times are agonisingly long and make you wish they included a more interesting loading screen to stare at – don’t be alarmed if you find you’ve grown some fresh facial hair in the time it takes to load. There is also a mandatory install, which makes it all the more baffling considering they are designed to cut down load times.
ModNation Racers is a solid, if unremarkable kart racing experience, but it’s the creation tools that stand out here, making for another shining example of community-driven content. If you invest the time into letting the community aspects fully immerse you, then you will undoubtedly get a lot out of it.
Smooth and steady, but the uninspiring cartoony graphics lack any real sparkle.
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The punishing AI can spoil the single player somewhat, but the pleasingly flexible creation tools and online functionality more than make up for any downfalls.
Cheesy voiceovers are abound, but they compliment the goofy vibe it set out to achieve.
The constant stream of community content and bonus challenges will keep you compelled for some time.
ModNation Racers successfully revitalises the kart racing genre into the next generation with a big cheesy grin stamped on its face. A few niggles aside, this is fun and frantic racing with a sterling set of tools that will have you returning on a daily basis just to see what the kooky community will cook up next.