Since its announcement at E3 last year there’s been a lot of interest in Modnation Racers, United Front Games’ addition to Sony’s line of “Play, Create, Share” toybox games that aims to do for racers what LittleBigPlanet did for platformers. Does it hit the racing line, or bound off into the tire wall?
MNR is a kart racer in the mold of every kart racer that has gone before: a heap of diminutive cutesy characters get behind the wheel of dinky go-karts that match their wicked cool style and set about using all manner of speed boosts, missiles and shields to try and beat each other around tracks themed around things such as professional race tracks, jungles, crumbling temples and bustling cities. So far, so very normal.
Creating Mods and Karts like this takes minutes.
BUT WAIT. What makes Modnation Racers unique is that everything is customisable, tweakable and generally shake-upable by you, the dear gamer, with the DualShock slobbed there on the sofa, with the Mountain Dew and the Fritos. From your kart to your character — and naturally, tracks — you’re able to create the lot from scratch, tailor it to your exact likings and then upload it all to the net for others to download and try out for themselves.
This is all well and good, but if the karts don’t drive well then it’s all a bit of a waste of time. Thankfully, Modnation‘s petrol-powered pipsqueaks are all well and good, responding deftly to a flick of the stick to zip across the game’s 30-odd pre-made circuits and drifting in wide, dramatic arcs with a simple press of the X button. Drifting is key to going places fast: chaining together slides, hangtime on jumps and mid-air spins builds up a boost bar at the side of the screen.
This boost bar can be used to, erm, give your kart a speed boost, but it can also be used to go on the offensive and sideswipe opponents, or create a shield around your kart to deflect incoming attacks. These attacks range from lightning bolts, which disable your kart, to full-on swarms of explosive missiles and sonic booms that throw your driving off (and usually into an explosive barrel or off of a cliff).
As a balanced mechanic, the boost bar is a little off. Sideswiping or using your shield requires a specified minimum amount of boost and Modnation Racers has a very bad habit of giving you just below this amount whenever you need it most. Boost ahead of the pack and you’ll probably find yourself desperately needing your shield as the entire pack unleashes weapon-based hell on you from behind. If you manage to survive that by somehow having enough boost left to deploy your shield, someone else will decide to shoot at you and you’ll end up at the back of the pack again. It’s not the most balanced mechanic but it’s not entirely broken and can be tolerated with a gentle grimace each time it happens.
The plentiful career mode forms part of the Modspot hub that Modnation Racers calls home, with other modes such as online play, hot lap scoreboards and four-player split screen multiplayer (yes!) accessible from the open-ended menu. In the style of LittleBigPlanet‘s Pod, you can also invite fellow racers (or Mods, as the game christens them) to your Modspot and from there embark on races together online. Well, presumably anyway, because the servers aren’t online yet.
The Modspot hosts access to racing, creating things and checking out scoreboards.
As for the Modnation bit of MNR? Creating your ideal Mods, karts and tracks is a piece of cake from the confines of the game’s Creation Station. Karts can be customized from a base body model by changing engines, seats, spoilers, wheels and suspension and then utterly ravaged with your choice of stickers and additional accessories such as mirrors, big fat GPS devices and, um, giant satellite TV antennae.
As for Mods, you can customize skin colours and patterns and then move onto facial features, hair and headgear, followed by clothing down to the last detail (seriously, whoever thought it was a cool idea to let you change the colour of the stitching of your jeans, THANK YOU). As with karts, you can then decorate everything with stickers to your heart’s content, and even apply effects such as a metallic sheen to each sticker to make your Mods and karts truly unique. With just a few days of MNR experience under my belt I’ve managed to create some seriously cool-looking karts and I’m pretty proud of my self-portrait Mod too…Hellraiser-style hat full of pins and all.
Then there’s the Track Editor. If the already-deep kart and Mod editors weren’t enough, the track editor runs so deep that it might as well hit the center of the Earth and then just KEEP GOING AND REFUSE TO STOP. This fantastically flexible editor allows you to be as in-control, or as passive as you like: basic track editing allows you to drive out your ideal track with a giant road-laying truck and then auto-populate it with props, speed-boost pads and pick-ups in the space of five minutes, immediately ready to race and publish. Easy peasy.
Wait, there’s more! You can sculpt the entire landscape to your pleasing, place every prop yourself — ranging from buildings to animals and trees, along with race items such as power-ups and ramps which launch racers high into the air — and reshaping the track’s height, width and banking block by block. On top of that, you can create branching pieces of track or create off-circuit shortcuts which the AI can even drive on using what MNR calls Breadcrumbs.
Races vary from multi-car scraps to one-on-one duels.
As a result it’s easy to lose yourself in Modnation‘s track editor for hours at a time, tweaking every curve until it’s perfect. Dismiss any cynical ideas that the racing genre is more restricted than say, the platforming game style that LittleBigPlanet embraced so well; Modnation‘s track editor can lay waste to days of your life in a bid to get everything just right before you publish that perfect circuit to the net.
Combine these frankly deliciously deep customisation options with a solid handling model and the potential — emphasis on potential, as the servers are as dead as Elvis — for frantic online mayhem and you’ve got the PS3′s own answer to Mario Kart and a steadfast addition to the “Play, Create, Share” range that Sony are so eagerly promoting, and rightly so.
If you’re looking for a solid kart racer you’re sorted; but with the powerful tools you’ve got at your disposal, you’ve got the potential to do so much more. As far as console exclusives go it’s up there with Uncharted 2, LBP and God of War III, and as racers in general go it’s hanging around at the top of the charts too. Highly recommended to PS3 owners of all shapes and sizes.