Review: ModNation Racers

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You have to hand it to Sony. While other major publishers seem afraid of trying new and innovative things for fear of alienating the mainstream consumer, the PS3 platform holder isn’t afraid to publish some ambitious titles in the name of diversity. Modnation Racers, part of Sony’s “Play Create Share” umbrella, is the latest big idea to hit the market. 

ModNation Racers is, essentially, LittleBigPlanet but focused on kart racing as opposed to platforming. It’s all about building your own racers, cars and tracks, before taking them online to indulge in Mario Kart style madness. It’s a fantastic idea, and undoubtedly a huge undertaking that sets the PlayStation 3 from the crowd. 

However, we all know by now that gameplay is the frame upon which ambition and innovation must hang, and without it, all you have is a pile of ideas without a worthwhile form. With that in mind, is Modnation Racers worth picking up? Is it one of those rare gems where ideas and gameplay meet head to head, or is it another case of ambition draped on a wonky frame? Read on to find out. 

ModNation Racers (PlayStation 3)
Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Released: June 1
MSRP: May 25, 2010

ModNation Racers is a game of two halves. One half is pure creativity, as players build not only their own personal racer, but their car and even the tracks upon which to race. The other half is, of course, taking these highly customized creations into a competitive arena for some good old fashioned kart racing fun. Set in a bright and vibrant world full of cute and stylized characters, Modnation‘s world is a charming one indeed. United Front has crafted a game that’s just great fun to “be” in, and that’s before we actually do anything. 

The game starts out by telling the tale of a young racer called Tag who dreams of joining the ModNation Racing championship. After passing the test race, players are let loose into a world of customization and silliness, able to scrap Tag in favor of Iron Man, or Optimus Prime, or the Chatterer from Hellraiser (I made that one!). Customization is king, and it’s a very wonderful king indeed. 

ModNation’s creativity is, in short, amazing. It’s partially helped by just how cool the characters themselves look, with a fantastic super-deformed design that leads to all manner of hilarious and impressive creations. It’s also incredibly easy — Simply choose a skin and pop on facial features, clothes, hairstyles and accessories however you see fit. Although more items for modding can be unlocked, the core provisions are enough to create a huge amount of varied and striking characters. In short, if every player were to use their own original creations, there would be no reason for any two racers to look the game. 

The customization of cars is just as easy, although I found that placing accessories in the right place was a little slow and difficult to judge. For example, if you want two symmetrical spikes jutting from each side of the car, placing them correctly requires sluggish movement and a little bit of guesswork. Nevertheless, creating cars is great fun, and again there is no reason why any two vehicles would be identical. Unless of course you’re downloading cars other people have made, which we shall get to in a moment. 

The final, and perhaps biggest, part of ModNation‘s creation process is the building of actual racetracks. Unlike modding racers and vehicles, track creation is a far more involved process, and while there are helpful “autocomplete” and “autopopulate” features to speed through the system, dedicated architects could happily spend hours, if not days, crafting the ultimate track with which to confound their friends and foes. Placing the track itself is just the beginning, with terrain to be be scaled up or down, trees to be placed, hidden tracks to add, items to drop, traps to trigger, and ramps to provide. While you can bolt together your own Batmobile in a few minutes, it’ll take considerably longer to craft, say, a picture perfect version of a famous Mario Kart track. 

Players can share their creations online, uploading cars, racers and tracks for the enjoyment of the ModNation community. In doing so, you can also browse, review, and download the creations of others. Looking at what other player have created truly hammers home how awesome ModNation‘s customization is, with deformed yet frighteningly authentic caricatures of Mario, Spider-Man, Goku and more proving to be the most popular creations. Other players can download and customize the work of others if they feel that certain creations can be improved, and there is potential for huge collaborative efforts, with credit shared by all who had a hand in it. 

The modding is terrific, but what about the racing? This is, sadly, where the game fails to hold up. ModNation Racers makes no effort to break from tradition with its kart racing and, at its core, there is a very solid Mario Kart clone that provides just enough of a fun platform for players to show off the things they have created. That’s the main problem, though — the racing aspect feels like it was put together simply to show off the creations and nothing more. What this leads to is a rather unbalanced and buggy affair that is in dire need of a patch or two. 

Like all good kart racers, of which I am usually a huge fan, it’s all about scoring power-ups, finding shortcuts and otherwise engaging in all sorts of silly behavior to win the match. Controls are solid with the drift mechanic being especially commendable. However, whereas as Mario Kart often balances and tweaks its power-ups (or certainly used to before the Blue Shell ruined everybody’s lives), the items scored within ModNation can seriously screw up the game and lead to intense frustration. Imagine a Mario Kart where blue shells were the only power-up available. You’ve just come pretty close to imagining ModNation Racers

There is some form of trade-off, in that powers need to be leveled up in order to become devastating. Breaking a box for the first time rewards players with a weak power-up. Breaking a second box will make that ability more powerful, while a third box bestows racers with the fury of a God. In theory, this is a nice way to introduce risk and reward, in which players must choose whether to use a weaker power to score a quick advantage or save up for a potentially huge one (don’t forget that you’ll lose your powers after falling prey to an enemy’s). Unfortunately, however, boxes tend to be liberally spread around so the game devolves into a mess of lightning bolts and missiles. It’s not uncommon to be in first place, only to fall foul of several enemy power-ups in a row and get blasted down to last place. 

The boost mechanic also provides some risk and reward and does go a little way to softening the blow of power-ups. Players earn the ability to boost by scoring points. Drifting, drafting, spending time in the air and annihilating opponents all contribute to a boost meter. However, this meter can also be spent on a protective shield which renders players immune to those God-like power-ups. This is a wonderful idea, but sadly shields drain the meter so quickly that you still rely on vast amounts of luck. Once you know a deadly weapon is coming your way, you have to guess when it will hit you and put up the shield accordingly. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 

The frustration isn’t helped by the game’s infuriating rubber-banding in Career Mode, where the AI does all it can to kill the fun. I actually stopped playing the Career Mode and focused on playing online once I realized that AI couldn’t be tweaked in any way (weird for a game based on personalization) and the races started demanding first-place wins in order to progress. This is despite the sheer volume of power-ups and needlessly aggressive rubber-banding making first place wins a rare treat. Considering the fact that Career Mode plays some embarrassingly unfunny cutscenes between each race, blowing it off is recommended for all but the most obsessed of gamers. It’s just a shame that Career Mode also has tokens hidden on each course which can be spent on new mod items, so hardcore creators will be forced to play it. 

Online makes the problems far more bearable, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in launching missiles at strangers via the Internet. As well as casual races, players can race for XP and advance in rank, or take part in tournaments, not to mention enjoy special challenge tracks and indirectly compete for time-attack scores. It’s a disappointment, then, that the online element has its own unique problems, mainly in the matchmaking department. For example, it’s not uncommon for XP matches to throw you into an empty lobby and keep you there. It takes an incredibly long time to get XP races started much of the time, and impatient players will find the waiting unacceptable. The matchmaking issues seem to affect the XP races only, with casual racing lobbies easily found. It’s a strange bug, and one that will surely be patched, but right now it’s not really acceptable. 

This is all before we get to ModNation Racers‘ biggest issue, one that permeates the entirety of the game — loading times. ModNation Racers is more about sitting through loading screens than it is about racing, with every menu, action and match accompanied by at least one, sometimes two, loading screens. In fact, to just get the game started, you have to sit through one hugely lengthy loading screen, two unskippable developer splash screens, and then a second loading screen. This is all before you start the actual game, and once you start, you then have to sit through more loading screens before you get to do anything. Not only are the loads absurdly frequent, but they are infuriatingly long. They also glitch out sometimes, just to make matters worse. On more than one occasion, I have had the game get “stuck” on a loading percentage and not complete, or take twice as long to do so. At one point I couldn’t actually start Career Mode because it wouldn’t load from the game’s hubworld. It could load online matches fine, but it would “stick” with a disc logo spinning at the bottom of the screen whenever I tried to get a Career race started. Another time, the game just refused to load any online match menus whatsoever, despite the game being connected and other players appearing the hubworld. 

ModNation Racers‘ biggest problems can be sorted out with a patch, but we’re a week removed from the game’s release and no fixes have been forthcoming. Besides which, it would be disingenuous to review the game without mentioning these huge flaws just because I think they might be fixed in the future, not to mention encourage the “release it now, fix it later” culture that has grown up around console gaming this generation. ModNation Racers has a number of glaring faults on a technical level that do great damage to the overall fun, and it’s very sad to see. 

It’s a shame because the game is well made outside of these issues. The community aspect of creativity and sharing, the special challenge modes, the ModSpot hubworld that proudly displays the week’s most popular downloads, is all crafted with definite love and care. However, racing accounts for one half of the overall experience and it’s currently not pulling its weight. Once you get over the “OMG SOMEONE MADE THE JOKER” aspect of ModNation Racers, you’re left with a poor man’s Mario Kart. It most definitely deserves credit for the amazing stuff it does, but once you shear away all the extras and boil the game down its core mechanics, there’s a disappointing and uninspired racer. It’s just lucky that ModNation does have all the amazing modding flavor, because that turns a mediocre racer into a solid one. The “experience” of ModNation Racers is superior to the “game” of ModNation Racers, that’s for damn sure. 

Taken as an experience, ModNation Racers is pretty damn decent. The sheer fun of character customization and indulging the online community aspects should never be downplayed. This is, however, the perfect example of a game of two halves, where one half clearly isn’t as good as the other half. ModNation Racers has all the potential to be a great game, or even a delightfully fantastic one. Unfortunately, the racing half of ModNation Racers is a bit of a let-down and the frustrating nature of the game’s technical faults, most of which have no excuse for existing, really encroaches on the overall fun of the experience. Like LittleBigPlanet before it, ModNation Racers is full of big ideas, most of which work, but framed around dodgy gameplay. This is not to say that ModNation Racers shouldn’t be played — on the contrary, anybody with a PS3 ought to check it out. I would, however, recommend that players rent it first just to see if the game’s issues are a big deal to them. 

If you can stomach the long loading times, and you’re more than happy to wait for matchmaking to be patched in the future, and if you don’t mind excessive rubber-banding in your single-player modes, then ModNation Racers is for you. More discerning players may want to stick with the rental, or wait for the inevitable patches to arrive before diving in. Whether you dive or not, you really should dip your toe in the water at least. ModNation Racers does do some great things and deserves all the credit in the world, but it also deserves a healthy dose of criticism for those things it just couldn’t get together properly. At the end of the day, there’s no justification for a game that forces two loading screens on you before it even begins.  

Score: 6.5 — Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)

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