If you’ve played LittleBigPlanet you’ll instantly feel a home with ModNation Racers. Not only does the humour and colourful design mimic the customisable platform game, but your avatar in ModNation Racers is pretty much a SackBoy clone, a blank canvas on which you can sticker, layer, colour and accessorise to personalise and customise before sending him whizzing off around courses to compete in chaotic Mario Kart-style races.
However, being artistically creative with your avatar doesn’t affect your skills on the track at all. Just like the kart customisation tool in ModNation Racers, pimping your character is probably going to appeal to the type of person who enjoys dressing up their avatar in PlayStation Home and buying stuff for their pad, or someone who spent hours on Nintendo Wii trying to create a Mii that looks identical to Hitler, rather than those people who just want to get on with the racing.
Nevertheless, avatar and kart customisation is very deep and accessible thanks to the excellent tutorials. You can randomly generate a character, spend a few minutes creating one, or spend hours really delving into the tool-set to create works of art. You can create intricate patterns by layering, and with skill and time the only limits imposed on you are those by your own imagination, or lack of. Already there have been dozens of impressive avatars created in the beta phase that look like famous people, so there’s obviously fun to be had out of what others may deem to be a pointless process.
These customisation tools are here if you want them and if that’s what floats your boat you can’t fail to be impressed by how simple they are to use, yet how incredibly in-depth they are. But quite frankly, this stuff is really just a side dish. It complements ModNation Racer’s main course quite nicely, but you’re just as likely to leave it on the side as you are to indulge in it. The good news is that the serious kart racers out there, those who will spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to shave seconds off their lap records, are also catered for extremely well.
ModNation Racers uses a genre-standard blueprint. You’ll be speed boosting down straights, drifting around hairpin bends and picking up power-ups and launching them at competitors, but the meat of this latest kart racer lies in its hefty online, community and customisation features. ModNation Racers is no Super Mario Kart, the accolade of being the best kart racing game is probably going to remain with Nintendo for many years to come, but it does lays down a new benchmark for the genre in terms of this new feature set.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say that the weakest aspect of ModNation Racers is when you play it offline, yet still the 28 tracks and the lengthy career mode offers variety and challenge – that’s despite none of the pre-built tracks really having the same sort of appeal and magic as the likes of Moo Moo Farm or the iconic Rainbow Road had in Super Mario Kart. Quite simply, they’re just not as creative or innovative aesthetically speaking, yet the actual track layouts still provide plenty of thrills and spills.
The creativity in the career mode comes mainly from the cast of characters and the storyline that runs adjacent to it. This has been jazzed up LittleBigPlanet style with colourful and quirky presenters that make wise cracks, some funny and some quite irritating, and do a decent job at building up the history and culture of the Mod Racing Championships (MRC.) You start off as a rookie and enter the Mod Racing Tournament and as you win races you unlock rewards and gain access to more challenging tracks, taking on elite racers from each course that you visit.
Despite there being some enjoyable and well-designed tracks to race around, working your way through career mode can feel like a bit of a drag due to the long load times between courses and the irritating jabber of the presenters. The bonus challenges and unlockables are therefore a welcome inclusion. You might be tasked with firing a weapon a certain number of times, for example, or pulling off as many stunts as you can against the clock. There’s plenty of variety in the challenges that provides some respite from the frantic action of the tournaments and you’re rewarded well with the likes of accessories and track parts to keep you interested.
Quite frankly, however, career mode is really just a tutorial that prepares you for racing against real opponents online. As you progress you get introduced to everything you’ll need to learn in order to put up a decent challenge online, plus you’ll get to mess around with the track editor for the first time. It’s not long before you realise that despite its cutesy look, ModNation Racers isn’t just a game for kids; it’s also a hardcore kart racer that requires just as much skill as it does luck.
On the track ModNation Racers feels reassuringly familiar. You can drift, draft and attack other racers gaining boost in the process to be used tactically whenever you see fit. There are power-ups dotted around the courses and in true kart racing fashion that means you get to unleash some over-the-top weaponry which you can shoot ahead or behind you to catch your opponents off guard, hopefully just before they’re about to smugly cross the finish line.
So, for the most part ModNation Racers offers a standard, no-thrills no-spills kart racing formula. There’s nothing innovative about the power-ups that we haven’t already seen before, but there’s enough variation to ensure that each race relies on tactics as well as driving skills. Among the power-ups available there are sonic attacks that knock any opponents in your vicinity off course, or guided rockets that slow down their progress. Each of the pick-ups can also be powered-up to 3x its strength if you hang onto them until you’ve gone through three other power-up crates. It adds a further tactical element to the races as you try and second guess what other racers are going to do while making tough decision on when to unleash your own weapons.
Races are fast and chaotic and the karts perform and react impressively as you drift around corners and jostle for position on track. You can also put your opponents off by nudging them with the d-pad or by putting up a shield to protect yourself. It’s disappointing that you can’t fine tune your karts as much as we’d like and make one perform totally different to another, but this is still an enjoyably aggressive kart racer that is made all that more exciting by the range of power-ups available and the speed that you travel around the tracks. However, like any modern day racing game the fun and challenge really begins when you get online.
ModNation Racers is really all about the community, multiplayer and customisation features. Online, there’s a central hub that you can drive around where you can meet up with other drivers and jump into online races. It’s also the place to gain access to the Creation Stations where you can customise your karts, avatars and tracks. The first two have no impact on the gameplay whatsoever, but as soon as you start creating tracks you really get to see where ModNation Racers longevity lies. Beyond the 28 tracks in career mode you’re going to have access to hundreds, nay thousands, of user created tracks. If you’ve got the talent and the patience you might even get thousands of people downloading your own creations.
Once again, the tutorials are extremely easy to follow, yet very in-depth. There’s a choice of five backdrops, including ‘Alpine’ and ‘Jungle’ and you use a steamroller to create your course. Once you’ve created the basics you can elevate the track and make dips wherever you want to. You’ve got an auto population tool available if you want to use it, which adds trees, chevrons and other objects, but you can also spend a lot of time individually placing them to build the course of your dreams. Once done you can then test it out with an AI opponent before uploading it to share with other people, or inviting to friends to race you on it.
There’s sure to be some fierce competition outside of the online races too. In the central hub there’s a podium where everyone can see the best user created mods (most downloaded mods) for the avatars, karts and tracks. You can also browse through the many hundreds of user creations that will undoubtedly be online very shortly after release, watch a race go by on the big screen, or check the latest leaderboards. There’s more than enough to keep you coming back for more.
LittleBigPlanet paved the way for this kind of user-created game on PS3 and ModNation Racers embraces that community feel spectacularly. After spending a few hours messing around with avatars and karts the appeal dwindled slightly for us because no matter what we created it actually had no bearing on the race, so we deemed it pretty pointless. Sadly, the likelihood of anyone seeing our poor attempt to create Ghandi is slim because anyone with any sense will be concentrating far too hard on the race in question than glancing around at other people’s karts and avatars –the action is far too quick to even notice. Nevertheless, it’s there and it’s in-depth for those who want to use it. The track editor on the other hand is exactly what every kart game from this point forth needs. It puts the creativity firmly in our hands and is going to increase the longevity of ModNation Racers indefinitely.
ModNation Racers is an accessible, aggressive and enjoyable kart racing game that brings with it all the “how the hell did I lose that race” frustration that we love and hate about the genre. The incredible, and partly pointless, customisation tool-set is part of the appeal, but the accessible control scheme and the smooth, fluid races around the track are equally as impressive. If the community embraces ModNation Racers, and we’re sure it will, there’s a lot of great tracks to look forward to and some great times ahead. If you see an avatar that slightly resembles Ghandi give us a wave!