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Unleashing creativity with PS3-exclusive ModNation Racers

11:00 AM on 11.20.2009 // Nick Chester

A surprise announcement at E3 this year, the PlayStation 3 exclusive ModNation Racers looks to redefine the kart racing genre with its ridiculous level of customization and community features.

With a beta being launched soon, Sony and developer United Front Games invited us out to its Vancouver-based studio to get an early look at what players can expect. As it turns out, a whole hell of a lot. Kart racing fans, you are not prepared. 

More after the jump.

While it's the high level of customization that truly makes ModNation Racers unique -- and I'll get to that in a bit -- fans of kart racing should rest easy. United Front Games hasn't forgotten about core gameplay, focusing first on creating an easy-to-pick-up-and-play, yet deep and satisfying, eight-player kart racing experience. With a PS3 controller in hand, the game doesn't feel like the current king of kart racing, Mario Kart, or really any other kart racer, for that matter. Basic race controls are tied to the left and right triggers, brake and gas respectively. Simple enough, right?

But in the words of game designer Matt Thomas, the goal was to create a game with lots of "physicality," an in-depth racer designed to offer "more experiences." ModNation does this in a number of ways; the first of which is in how it encourages drafting, drifting, tricks, and player-versus-player combat by rewarding it with boost.

The game's drift mechanic is dependent entirely on its own button, however -- by pressing and holding X, you can drift around corners with ease, while still maintaining control over the kart with the analog stick. This defies expectations -- the "hop to drift" of Mario Kart is already so familiar -- but after a few races, I had gotten the hang of it, holding drifts long enough to shoot flames from my tires and pick up the maximum amount of boost to speed ahead of my competition. 

Simple spin tricks can be done in mid-air using the right analog stick, your only real goal being to keep your kart facing the right direction before hitting the ground. The result is a quick boost pick-up, and finding and nailing trick jumps across tracks can mean the difference between first and seventh place.

The right analog stick can also be used to nudge other kart racers as you pass them, using a little of your boost in the process. This is particularly useful when you haven't picked up any of the weapon power-ups that can be strewn about the track, and a successful nudge can result in earning even more boost, and sometimes knocking a driver off of the road. Another interesting use of the nudge, Thomas explained, would be to edge into and out of tight paths or shortcuts, or even evading weapons. 

Speaking of which, ModNation features a similar weapon system to other kart racers -- you'll pick up "orbs" found along the track -- with an interesting twist in that the weapons are upgradeable. Take the standard "rocket" weapon, for example -- picking up one orb will allow you to fire one rocket, but holding on to the weapon and picking up two more orbs will upgrade it to a triple rocket blast.

The game features a wide range of these abilities, from the kart-racing staples (like the aforementioned rocket) to the unexpected and unique. One example was an offensive-style power-up that created a warp on the track in front of you to launch you far ahead in the track, or a black hole that would rip through and disrupt an entire pack of racers at once. 

Those looking to avoid pummeling from other drivers have an option -- using the game's shield. Provided you have enough boost to power it, you can press the "circle" button to surround your racer in a bubble. This is particularly useful against weapons like the rockets, and it even provides a bit of protection against a nasty racer's side-swipe.

We had the opportunity to race on five tracks -- "Village Run," "Farm Frenzy," "Miner's Rift," "Market Run," and the tentatively-named desert track, "Sandstorm." Of the five, "Miner's Rift" was easily my favorite. The track featured a twisting and undulating track, including a slick jump into a miner's tunnel. While UFG wouldn't commit to a specific number when asked how many tracks would appear on the final game disc, the opening cinematic we were shown very specifically mentioned the number "28" when referring to the game's single-player story, "ModNation Racing Championships."

Thinking 28 isn't enough? No worries, that's where the game's track editor, called "Track Studio," comes into play. Simply put, the level of control ModNation Racers will give players over track creation is jaw-dropping. You'll be able to choose from a number of templates to start; we were able to play with a rustic village-style template, with at least four more "mystery" templates unavailable in our demo. These templates give you a large area of terrain to work in, along with a huge set of tools and "brushes" to work within. 

I started by manipulating the environment's terrain, using a number of "sculpting brushes" to deform the terrain to my liking, adding mountains, craters, and more. The number of "brushes" available was staggering, ranging from simple mountain styles to curious shapes like hearts or skulls. Brushes can be made larger or smaller, giving you more control over the types of terrain you can create -- the variety you can get out of a single brush is truly impressive.

Once I had set my terrain, I was also given the option to manipulate other environmental options, like cloud cover or position of the sun to create different effects, the lighting changing in real time before my eyes. The water level can also be set, filling craters to form lakes or even larger bodies of water. 

After manipulating the canvas to my liking, I popped open a simple circle menu and plopped a kart into the large environment. I then navigated to the point at which I wanted to begin my track, and clicked open the menu once more to begin my road, which brings up a "steamroller." Using standard and familiar racing controls (right trigger/gas to move forward, left trigger/brake to move back or erase), you can drive around the environment and lay track, moving left and right in real time.

By default, the steamroller will follow the environment, adding hills as it goes up a mountain, for example. But by detaching the steamroller and going into "free drive" mode, it's possible to create steep hills, for example, wherever you choose, with the game auto-generating bridges or plowing right through mountains. 

Once I finished designing the track (you can hold the "triangle" down at any time and the game will auto-complete the track loop for you), UFG showed us its "auto-populate" feature for this first time. This feature automatically generates various environmental elements (trees, fences, road surfaces) and on-track props for you, allowing for a quick finish so you can then test drive your track.

Getting into a race with the new track was as simple as selecting the "test drive" option from a radial menu, which, after a short load time, put me into the race alongside seven other AI kart racers. Even on my first try quickly throwing a track together, it felt like a full and completely playable race -- power ups, "boost strips," and more were all placed appropriately by the game's AI. Within ten minutes of using the "Track Studio," I had a complete and fully functional track. 

If for whatever reason you're not happy with the track, it's possible to go back and tweak it. The word "tweak" I don't use lightly -- the advanced options in "Track Studio" allow you to manipulate every damned thing, from prop placement to the splines of a track to the angle of jumps... you name it, you can do it.

In fact, these very same tools being offered to the player were used by the track designers at United Front. We were shown one example of one of the game's later tracks, an insanely complicated roller coaster-like experience, with a spiraling road that took players high into the air. Complete with moving platforms and robot environmental hazards (called "ModBots"), it looked more like a level from Ratchet & Clank than anything you'd see in a traditional kart racer.   

The level of customization doesn't stop with the game's tracks, as ModNation Racers also has full-featured kart and character customization as well. Character creation and design is largely influenced by vinyl toy culture, giving all players a blank, white canvas to start with. From here, it seems like just about anything is possible.

Dozens of parts are provided for players to mess with, from eyes to hair styles, skin patterns, and more. While it's possible to create a unique-looking randomly generated character (I did this a dozen times, and not one looked alike), the real fun comes from taking your time and playing with some of the game's deeper customization features. 

While UFG will be providing a ton of stock parts, each one can be manipulated in so many ways -- color, size, angle, material properties, and more -- that the possibilities seem endless. Instead of sticking to the basics, and inspired by nearly two weeks of playing Left 4 Dead 2, I decided to spend time creating a zombie character. Sounds easy enough, and the parts provided definitely simplified the process -- jagged monster teeth, squinting and bloodshot eyes (it's possible to use two different eyes... and I did) all helped me get closer to by goal. But something just wasn't right, and I knew I'd have to dig into some of the deeper options. 

On top of the standard parts (clothing, noses, eyes, hair, helmet, props, etc.), the game also gives you a number of stickers and decals to play with. If you're familiar with Forza Motorsport's deep customization options, and the kind of stuff you can do with a little creativity, you're on the right track. With a little help from some of the designers at UFG, my zombie was looking deliciously gory in no time. I added facial wounds by creating one layer using a sticker of a tear in black. I then duplicated the latter, changing the color to a deep, blood red, and made it just slightly smaller than the original. 

The result looked good, like someone had drawn a scar on the character's face, but something was not right. Here's where the next layer of advanced options came into play -- changing the material's properties. I added an "emboss" style to one of the layers, and then changed the material properties of the underlying "red" layer (sliders allow you to control the cloth, metal, and plastic properties of layers). I then linked these scar layers together, duplicating and changing the size to create unique-looking wounds. I even used a similar technique to create rips and tears in my character's shirt. The final product, after a bit of tweaking, was pretty amazing -- I had, with some ingenuity, created a unique and convincing ModNation ghoul that looked like no other character in the game. 

Maybe you're not as morbid as I am; perhaps you'll want to create a bunny, or maybe even a ModNation replica of yourself. With the tools I used, I have little doubt that that will be possible for most players. Even those who aren't artistically inclined will be able to design something completely unique -- the tools really are that easy to come to grips with. Looking around the room at other journalists who had been playing with the editor, no two looked alike, and it was interesting to see how each had his or her own idea of how the tools provided could (and should) be used. 

Of course, creation and design would be mostly pointless if you couldn't share it, and ModNation Racers addresses this with what sounds like some impressive community support. All creations can be shared and downloaded for free across the PlayStation Network. The influence of LittleBigPlanet is easily spotted here -- ModNation will allow players to rate creations, with the custom designs getting the spotlight as "top rated" so they can be found easily.

The potential here is incredible, with the longevity of the game truly being linked to the amount of effort the community puts into supporting it with original, creative designs. Based on the time I spent with it, I have little doubt that creativity will be sparked, and it won't be long before the PlayStation Network is flooded with wholly unique fun track, kart, and character designs.

A public beta for ModNation Racers, complete with the customization and sharing tools, should be launching soon. Talking with the folks at UFG, they were hopeful we'd see something before the year's end. You can get your beta codes in the currently-available-at-retail LittleBigPlanet: Game of the Year Edition; nothing's been confirmed, but it's likely the beta access will be granted through other means as well.

It would be a shame if it wasn't -- described, ModNation Racers sounds like a neat idea, but it's only in getting your hands on it that will you realize its full potential. With its built-in creative toolset, all Sony and UFG need to do is continue to support its community. It may very well be the last kart racing game you'd ever need to own.

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Nick Chester, Former Editor-in-Chief (2011)
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