ModNation Racers Review

   17/05/2010 at 10:55       Phil May       10 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - ModNation Racers, Sony San Diego Studios, United Front Games, Playstation 3, Playstation Portable

Give me 100ccs of Mario Kart, Stat!

It seems ludicrous that as realistic racing games get better and better, the benchmark for karting games was set 17 years ago and still hasn’t really been equalled or bettered, even by newer iterations of the same game. Super Mario Kart was a blisteringly good game on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System combining excellent playability with a whole truckload of options, nicely tuned karts and characters and of course plenty of powerups to put the kybosh on your opponents.

Many a post-pub argument could be settled in the game’s split-screen multiplayer mode, and if you’re of a certain age you can probably still hear that bum-wiggling marimba beat that announce the game’s arrival.

Many other games have tried and failed to capture the perfect combination of addictive gameplay with superb visuals. Recent efforts like Sonic All Stars Racing are all polish and no substance. So perhaps United Front’s new entry into the annals of Kartography can finally make the grade?

Fully Packed Kebabs

ModNation Racers pulls you in with its neat streetwise art direction to start with. After a hefty 10 minute install, and several extremely slow loading screens you’ll finally get your hands on the content packed onto the Blu-Ray.

The Mods in question are cute characters that borrow liberally from LittleBigPlanet’s Sackboy idea, customisable to the extreme. Your Mod can be as individual as you are, and though like LBP you won’t get all the customisation options open to you at the start of the game, there’s plenty of opportunity to grab more as you progress through the races.

The game breaks you in with a few easy tutorials to get you used to the controls, and a race using a generic Mod just so you can get a feel for things. Before long though, you’re able to get your teeth into the core of what makes ModNation Racers stand out from the crowd, the massive amount of customisable items from the already mentioned Mods to your car of choice, right through to the tracks themselves.

Vroom Vroom Ba-da-boom

We’ll tackle the rides first. Each car type starts off with a basic Karting chassis which you can bolt various goodies onto. This spaceframe might look a bit limited but once you start browsing through the available car bodies you can strap to it, things start to get a bit more interesting. Everything from stock cars to sleek European sportsters through to cardboard soapbox derby champions are available, and once again you don’t get the full set to begin with – you’ve got to earn them. With the body in place, you can start to look at ways to pimp your ride. Engines and wheels are interchangeable, even driving seats and steering wheels can be swapped out for something more stylish.

Lastly you can slap a coat of paint, a pattern finish, loads of chrome accessories and some groovy stickers onto your creation to make it truly stand out from the crowd.
Coming up with a fantastic looking racer might benefit your pocket in the long run, as all ModNation creations can be traded online. Every Mod in ModNation can also vote on your particular vehicle, so your car will eventually build up a star rating showing you just what everyone else thinks of your efforts. The same goes for Mods too, so if you’ve built a superb looking character you’ll have to wait to see if it gets the thumbs up or thumbs down from the community.

You can’t beat Modlextric

After you’ve finished tinkering with your character and your car, you might fancy your chances at creating a racing track from scratch. I’ve said for years that Trackmania really needs to come to proper consoles (and amazingly it finally is coming out on the Wii) but ModNation Racer’s track designer is far easier to use and offers far more scope for crazy creations than Trackmania ever did.

To start with, laying down the tarmac is done in such a ridiculously cool way that you can’t help falling in love with the way it’s done. You basically drive a gigantic road making machine in real time, controlling the direction of your track and also its height above sea level. As you start to roll out your road, you’re given a mini top-down view of the layout and how it will look if you let the track designer finish it off for you (so even if you get bored half way round and decide to jump ship the track will still be presented as a circuit as all gaps will be filled in).

Shoving together a nice bumpy track is simple enough, tweaking it and making complex multi-layer stuff with huge jumps and tunnels is a little bit trickier but placement of embellishments and trackside accessories is also as easy as pie, so before long you can start testing out your creation with a few zippy laps in your car. All of the tracks in the game were built with the in-game tools so you will get a good idea of what’s possible and what’s not. The user-friendliness of the track designer should mean that even younger players can put together something worthy, and like all other user-created content in ModNation Racers, you can share your best creations online.

Pit-Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before

ModNation’s hub world is a vast interactive pit area filled with information screens and portals to the various customisation shops and online marketplace areas. This part of the game felt a bit laggy and it looks like some optimisation will be necessary before the whole thing goes network-live. It’s quite fun though, zipping around in your racer and checking out what everyone else is driving so when you’ve got a bunch of friends on board, it should end up being a far cooler place to hang out online than Sony’s Home.

As the preview copy wouldn’t connect to any of the ModNation servers, one can only guess at how the whole thing will work online but in the hub there are online marketplace goodies sold from one stand, while another stand shows off the coolest ModNation racing moments of the day. High scores and time trial statistics will also be on show if you fancy pitting your wits against the best players in the world. Like LittleBigPlanet (and I will keep making comparisons to LBP, you’ll see why later) the idea is to build a solid community feel and all the right tools and goodies are in place to do just that.

Firing on all cylinders or spluttering to a halt?

The thing is, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the game’s creative side that you soon forget about the actual racing itself. The game would be practically useless if the on-track action didn’t come up to scratch and here’s where the game does slightly disappoint. Despite the slick framerates and sense of speed there’s something not quite right about the game’s racing physics. It could be that I’ve been spoilt by a generation of racing games that try to simulate every nuance of the grip and drift of a high-octane car.

ModNation Racers does at least give you a drift button but karts feel extremely light and floaty, and prone to twitchy erratic movements in response to joypad manipulation (particular, for example, when entering or coming out of a drift). The game’s physics could’ve done with some extra work but it’s something that you get used to and start compensating for so it doesn’t mean the game’s too broken to play.

The actual races aren’t just your ordinary everyday “grab a podium position to progress” fare. Each race has a unique set of objectives that will nab you more unlockables. There are also in-race tokens to collect which can be spent on mod content later on.

Tokens compliment the game’s microtransactional stuff. Oh yes, Sony haven’t missed a trick and where there’s a game there’s a store. ModNation Racers is no exception so there will eventually be bonus premium content to pay for alongside the plethora of stuff to unlock in the game.

Time to make and do, or make do

What United Front have done here is to give you plenty of potential to fine tune and customise your ModNation Racers experience from start to finish. By rights, if the game is fully embraced by enough PS3 owners, it should see an explosion of user-created content in the same way that LittleBigPlanet gave players plenty of tools and said “go away and tinker with them, then show us what you’ve made”.

Of course, the game would be a lesser experience if you’re not the sort of person who likes to spend hours making stuff. Luckily I am, and because of that I rate the game higher than someone who just wants to race with the provided content on and offline.

Returning to the top of the review in true AATG style, it’s sad to say that once again Mario Kart can still rest easy wearing its “King of the Karts” crown. Though ModNation Racers is a brave and fresh approach to providing a racing experience that can be so finely tweaked and tuned by the players partaking in it, the actual racing is the weak lemon drink in comparison to the freshly squeezed orange juice of the user content tools.

It’s not exactly a pleasant prospect to imagine the thing being flogged to death for microtransactional content either, but at least there’s plenty on the disk to get your teeth into.

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