Developer: United Front Games
Released: 21st May 2010
The ethos behind the 'Play, Create, Share' brand is excellent. Allowing users to easily design, edit and publish such content burgeons originality, creativity and provides a platform for brilliance. Following on from Media Molecule's platformer LittleBigPlanet, ModNation Racers puts the comparisons to Mario Kart behind it and delivers a unique and fresh approach towards the kart racer of old.
Dropped into ModNation's central hub world, 'Modspot', you'll begin to appreciate the beautiful, colourful and expertly presented output of the game. It's cute and charming, reflected further in its character design- of which can be crafted to your specific likening, with a stack-load of options to choose from, whilst being slightly over the top. Succinctly tailored for a younger and more casual-orientated audience than the likes of LittleBigPlanet, ModNation is at times alarmingly annoying for someone like myself to care for. Its news anchors Gary Reasons and Biff Treadwell doing little to alter my perception of the title, instead doing their best to be the most irritating characters ever devised, infusing the career “story mode” with cheap slapstick routines and a whole bout of childish humour. It's not the game's best hand, but then, it's not supposed to be. Perhaps someone ought to have passed the message to the race design department about the game's accessibility, because whatever it fails to match in my expectation of presentation, it more than makes up for in its deceptively tricky career mode, which manages to escape the shackles of its cutesy exterior into a much more daunting and unforgiving experience. I hope you're ready to restart time and time again for a position in the top three, because this will test your skills to the limits.
The career mode, or 'MRC'- the “ModNation Racing Championship”, is split into five distinct 'series' of races, each of which ending in a 'series' race where you will need to finish 1st to progress to the next tier. The rest of the time, races can be completed if you finish anywhere in the top 3- although the three tiers of racing finishes (“Advance”, “Payoff” and “Bonus”) add further re playability in that they each require you to match specific goals to unlock extra items, whether it be extra clothes for your character or new bodywork for your kart. Such goals add another layer and complexity to what could have been a simple racing championship platform, perhaps requiring you to focus your attacks on a specific opponent or drifting a certain length of time- the variety is nice to see and deeply rewarding for the collectors amongst you.
Of course, presentation and structure can all be for nothing in a game such as this if the racing mechanics fail to match the expected quality. However, United Front Games can be applauded in outputting a simply excellent racing system- easy to pick up and play yet complex enough to appeal to the more discerning palette. The handling feels exceptionally tight and responsive, whilst the game's emphasis on the drift mechanic can be appreciated since it works so well. Activated by holding the 'X' button, drifts can be executed easily, with more boost awarded for longer drifts, where the loosening and tightening of the drift angle using the left stick, is much needed.
The weapon and power-up system is also well thought out and surprisingly deep. In addition to a shunt-like attack, enabled through a flick of the right stick, each weapon type (the expected rockets, electric bolts, speed bursts etc.) each have three distinct stages of attack. Stage one for the bolt attack, for example, is a simple straight electric bolt fired from the front of the kart. However, holding off from firing and choosing to wait until you next drive over a weapons drop will see a much more effective attack to be used (“Chain Bolts”) and so forth, until the third and final attack can be unleashed, the “Bolt Storm”. It's a neat little idea, giving apt opportunity for diverse tactical play- choosing to fire straight away can be effective in the short-term but will have a lessened impact whilst choosing to wait can reap huge benefits, although you'll have to be sure not to be hit by an opponent's attack in the same breath- you may see your item disappear or, instead, drop down an attack level.
Another pleasant design choice is the option to use the boost meter (that fills through drifts, successful attacks on enemies, tricks, and air-time) as both a method to earn a boost through a hold of 'L1' or instead, as a gauge for activating the shield (holding 'Circle'). There's none more satisfying a feeling in the game than when rolling to victory when a last-ditch rocket is fired your way, only for you to deflect with the last ounce of boost bar saved for just that eventuality- others who are more offensive and go for short-term speed increase will not have such a luxury afforded to them. Again, it adds a nice risk/reward strategy and succeeds where other games of the type, such as Mario Kart and Crash Team Racing, fail- often relying more on doses of luck than any keen strategic thinking, not that ModNation ever truly breaks this trend!
At times more than keen on irking excessive amounts of frustration, the game often seems bizarrely unfair in delivering its heightening difficulty curve. Opponents often seem to have unlimited amounts of shield power still stocked away somewhere, shaking off any attack you are willing to let go, or unleash an explosive attack you're sure they didn't have as you approach the finishing line. The genre speciality of “rubber-banding” is also there, although it is much less intrusive than I have seen before.
With each track offering unique differences thematically and stylistically, ModNation's variety of track design is excellent. The nuance that comes with the game's territory seeing such locations filled with an abundance of obstacles to overcome (pits, falling blocks, explosive barrels), enemy bots to avoid, as well as exhilarating jumps and speed pads promising thrilling races and fun aplenty. Ranging from frenetically fast levels such as “Drift Paradise”, which uses its smooth curvaceous asphalt to inject fluidity, speed and lots and lots of tyre smoke, to trickier and tighter tracks such as the tropical island paradise of “Rickety Bridge” and its devilish drops. The description of the excellent “Launchers Rush” perhaps summing up ModNation Racers in the best possible way, promising “big jumps, big drifts and big flames”. The only down-side to the feel of the tracks is the fact that all have the same track width, which can not be changed. It's a strange choice in how obscure and diverse the rest of the game often feels. I'd have loved to have seen broad expanses of tracks inter-cut with single-file type canyons or something of the sort. It makes the pace sometimes feel slightly slow and sluggish- kart racers' tendency to sometimes dismiss the sense of speed shown once again here!
If none of the featured tracks take your fancy, however, you can always create your own or download other users' efforts. The central 'ModSpot' hub does its best to promote the very best created and rated tracks, mods, and karts (in the “Top Tracks”, “Top Mods” and “Top Karts” stations, respectively) that can be driven up to and displayed sufficiently well. It's one area where the game super-cedes LittleBigPlanet in its community aspect- which often struggled to promote the cream of the crop, as it were. You can also choose to search with text, by user, tags, or specific qualities to find the right thing for you.
From the lazy output of some user tracks that suffer from the same trophy-gathering hunt as a lot of the LBP levels also suffered from (“100,000 Drift Points” tracks, for example) to the incredible and ambitious designs of such tracks as the “Modcoaster” (rickety and all), and a Star Wars “Tatooine” effort. Such classics from a certain other successful kart racer are also present and accounted for, “Waluigi Stadium”, “Yoshi Circuit”, “DK Mountain”- naming but a few. The exquisite mods that re-create a number of the Mario Kart crew also complement such tracks, with the Mario and Luigi designs going quickly to the top of the mod pile on day one! The same exceptional quality in user content, like LBP, propels the game to something more than the standard title. It means that the game will be totally different in the years to come as even more tracks flood in, and although the same level of complexity can not be seen within the track creator as Sackboy's 'Pop It' tool, it doesn't need to be, there is something to be had for the insane amount of brilliant tracks that are already available to race on. Requiring the creator to first select a theme (from “Desert”, to “Jungle”), the track creator is manageable and simple to navigate. Upon insignificant alterations of the position of the sun, water level and even the speed of clouds, the track can easily be layed through driving the cement-mixer, altering height with the right thumb stick. The creator will also 'auto-complete' the rest of the track if you decide you just want to get on with populating it with an insurmountable array of power-ups, weaponry and jumps. Landscaping objects and trees can also add to the overall theme of your level, with tracks quickly coming up to an impressive level of sophistication without you realising! A joy to withhold for those who found LBP's creation tools much too overbearing, a nice track can be created in around 15 minutes!
Overall a resounding success and a superb addition to the kart racer genre. The level of complexity afforded with the help of neat tactical racing and superb handling physics is a joy to see, with only those who successfully rely on all their acquired skills ending up completing the career mode. Online multiplayer (featuring a levelling up, experience-based system) and split screen for up to four players is also available and will make ModNation substantial in offering a great alternative to the Mario Kart-ers of you out there.