ModNation Racers PSP Review

   20/05/2010 at 19:50       Flying_Pig       6 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
 - ModNation Racers, PSP, Sackboy, LittleBigPlanet, Mario Kart

I’m a big fan of the racing genre, whether that’s racing around real life tracks in realistic looking supercars in Gran Turismo or undertaking high-G gymnastics in WipEout.  Yet somehow the kart racing sub-genre seems to have largely passed me by, although that may be do with the fact that I didn’t own a certain piece of Nintendo hardware in the early 1990s.

So, leaving a certain Italian Plumber aside, ModNation Racers (MNR) initially appears to be a fairly straightforward kart racer, with 6 karts bombing round various themed tracks in pursuit of first place and a nice shiny trophy.  However, what MNR represents, both on the PSP and its PS3 big brother…

Hang on a sec…  Just to make it clear before we go on, this Reviewer hasn’t played the PlayStation 3 version of MNR, so my views are based purely on the PSP game in isolation...

Anyway, I digress.  What MNR represents is a continuation of the ‘Play, Create, Share’ concept kicked off by the rather wonderful LittleBigPlanet.  What it means here is the ability to create Mods (your cute little racers), karts and, most significantly, tracks and upload them for other MNR players to download.  More on this later.

Go, Go, Go!

As with any racing game, the on track action and feel of your vehicle is the beating heart of your gameplay experience.  Well, initially things don’t look great.  Somehow, in those first few races the handling feels both vague and incredibly sharp.  A particular culprit here is drift, which is essential for generating boost and thus winning races.

Initially seeming to be counter-intuitive, holding the X button starts to drift your kart, but instead of naturally gliding out to the edge of the corner, MNR uses it to spear you into the apex and usually some kind of fence or barrier.  Fortunately this is neither a terminal nor game breaking issue – just something which takes a little getting used to.  Indeed after about half a dozen races (i.e. not long) I was smoothly controlling my drifts as I wanted to and this is fairly reflective of the general handing model.  While it’s not perfect and does take some getting used to, soon enough it will be second nature.

An added complication for racing is that MNR seems to have tried to include as many common features from the wider Arcade Racing genre as possible.  The inclusion of some of these ‘features’ are no-brainers, but all together can make the game feel fiddly and complex when you’re trying to drift, boost and fire your weapons all at the same time.  I can just imagine one of the early design meetings:

Director: So, this new kart racing game; what have we got to make it a winner?
Programmer: Well, we’ve researched the genre and have discovered some common themes such as the inclusion of weapons, drifting, jumps and shortcuts on the tracks, stunts, takedowns and boosting.
D: Excellent – we’ll use them.
P: Which ones, boss?
D: All of them!

What helped things gel, for me, was switching from the default button layout - shoulder buttons to brake and accelerate, face buttons to drift, boost and fire weapons – to the alternative where X is accelerate, and the shoulder buttons are for drift and boost.  Unfortunately those are the only two options, but they should cater for most preferences.  Indeed, I was pleased to see that you can steer with either the D-pad or analogue stick with both proving equally effective.

As seems to be the standard for this genre you ‘collect’ weapons by driving through on-track tokens.  The weapons system is fairly limited compared to something like WipEout, but are broadly along the lines of boosts, lightning bolts, missile and mines.   To counteract these weapons (which your opponents will target you with on a regular basis) you can sacrifice any boost you have accumulated to generate a shield for a few seconds.  However, while the game does give you a warning of some incoming ordinance, you often need ninja-like reactions to activate your shield in time.  Personally, I think that the shield is an unnecessary inclusion and something the game could happily do without.

Push the (Jenson) Button

Your likely first port of call when starting MNR is the rather lovely career mode, racing through the various series’ of the ModNation Racing Championship.  Each series is made up of between four and seven races of 3 laps each, however rather than simply requiring you to win or come in the top three for any given race, MNR takes a smarter approach.  Each race has 3 types of objective ranked Gold, Silver and Bronze, with only a Bronze is required to progress.  Getting Silver or Gold unlocks additional Mod, Kart or Track accessories to use in the Create aspect of the game.  These objectives are usually a combination of achieving a certain placing, plus some additional activity which may range from getting 3 or more weapon hits to spending more than 30 seconds in the air.  They’re all generally something you would do in the race anyway, but add a degree of variety from the usual first, second, third requirement.  What’s also nice is that as you progress you’re free to replay any race in an attempt to unlock that fuzzy pink wig you’ve had your eye on.

Helping to drive the career mode along are some brilliant animated cut scenes, giving something of a story to the proceedings.  The cut scenes are generally pretty amusing and help give a lot of character to the game as a whole. 

The racing itself (once you mastered the controls and that nasty drift action) is fun, fast and frantic as you would hope.  Cleverly you’re never allowed to get too far ahead (or behind) and there seem to be an equal number of instances of you winning from nowhere as there are of you taking a well timed missile up the exhaust when you’re in sight of the finishing line.

The judicious placement of jumps and shortcuts helps to mix things up and track design is generally excellent, although not especially memorable or unique.  Your opponents are sufficiently ‘smart’; making the occasional mistake and varying their route round the course, although they’re never going to be as fun as racing against real people.

This is where MNR should get more interesting, however my review copy of MNR hasn’t been ‘activated’ for online play.  As such, all I can tell you are the bare facts.  The game offers full 6-player racing over both ad-hoc and infrastructure modes.  There are options to tweak aspects of your racing, such as selecting the track from any one of the ones you’ve unlocked or downloaded from the Community (I assume that all players will have to have downloaded said track), plus number of laps etc.  The three racing modes are ‘Action’ which is your standard mode, ‘Pure’ where you race without weapons and ‘Last Kart Standing’ which is an elimination-style event where the last placed player on each lap is eliminated until there is just one left.  As nice as these two final modes are likely to be, I’m sure most of the time will be spent playing the fast, furious and competitive Action mode.

Indeed, I anticipate that provided there are enough players online, racing should be a blast and could become a real favourite.  That said, there are some inherent weaknesses in the PSP’s armoury of features which will serve to hinder the development of a true community; there’s no way to invite your friends to race and no friends list, meaning that chances are you’ll be racing against random MNR players, which will never be as fun as boosting past your friends.

Hermann Tilke Fan Club
If we left the game there, we would have a charming and above average kart racer, but as LittleBigPlanet proved, the ability to create levels (tracks) and share your creations is a compelling and mould-breaking addition.  In MNR you can make use of the various items unlocked in career mode to create new Mods, Karts and Tracks.  The former two are pretty straightforward, with Karts being a simple case of selecting a chassis, body and engine.  On top of this you can select the seat, steering wheel, colour scheme and stickers of your hot new ride to suit your particular (or is that peculiar) tastes.  Suffice to say there are masses of options and combinations even before you unlock more and there are already lots of creations online (this but did work for me!) for you to download and use in any of the game modes.

Slightly disappointingly, however, is the fact that the driving modes is fixed with any changes to your Kart or Mod having no impact on handling or performance whatsoever.

Probably the most interesting element of MNR is the prospect of being able to create and share your own tracks.  Without beating around the bush, the track creation tool of MNR is excellent.  Using something which looks like a steamroller you steer around to generate your basic track layout.  The next stage is to add camber and elevation to your track, then moving on to adding various on track items, off track scenery and even general light levels.  A slightly more limited than the tool we had in LittleBigPlanet, but much more accessible meaning that any Hermann Tilke-wannabies can easily create a simple track within 5 minutes, or spend hours carefully placing each tree, sheep and crash barrier.  Creating MNR equivalents of real-life tracks is a genuine possibility.  I can also confirm that downloading other people’s creations or uploading your own is a quick and painless process.

Final Lap

Given that ModNation Racers for the PSP was announced just 3 months ago, I was genuinely concerned that this would be a botched facsimile of the PS3 version, rushed to completion to launch alongside the ‘proper’ game.  Fortunately, my fears were completely unfounded as MNR is well made, graphically impressive and is genuinely making the most of Sony’s handheld platform. 

While it may lack the instant character connection of Mario, Sonic or Crash’s karting games, MNR’s Mods are unique and charming, enabling you to create your own avatar, rather than having to race as someone else.  And while the karting aspect isn’t perfect, it is perfectly competent and with the additional community features – especially the excellent track creation – becomes an interesting and unique addition to the PSP’s gaming catalogue.  If you’re only interested in the karting, it’s probably with taking off a star, but if you’re willing to embrace the whole package, it becomes one that’s worth checking out.

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