Review / ModNation Racers (PS3)

Even before LittleBigPlanet paved the way for the “play, create, share” genre, ModNation Racers was kind of a no-brainer. A racer with the potential for unlimited tracks, kart designs, and character models, what’s not to love? And so here comes United Front Games with the ambition to create the little kart racer with a big heart. Do they kick Mario off of the throne that he has held for so long?

ModNation boots up right away and throws you into your first race before you have a chance to do anything else (except maybe make a sandwich during the install). Before you know it you’re sliding round a track, hitting boost pads and firing off lasers. Once that’s out of the way though, you’re free to do whatever the heck you want. Dropped into the game’s hub, titled the Modspot, you can continue with the career mode, hit up some multiplayer fun, or even jump straight into the creation.

If you’re like me, you’ll want to get into the Creation Station first and give yourself a character and kart to race with. Rather frustratingly, you’ll have to not only beat career mode, but complete specific tasks and collect tokens to get the full range of clothes, stickers, kart bodies and more. I was hoping have complete creative freedom at my fingertips right from the start but you’ll have to spend a bit of time with ModNation’s single-player first.

The tools available really are deep though. I was able to make a pretty convincing Welkin Gunther from Valkyria Chronicles, complete with an Edielweiss jeep kart, which certainly fared better than my first attempt at Isaac Clarke from Dead Space. Basic stickers allow you to make your own logos and pretty much anything can be coloured in, giving players more than enough options to get the designs they want.

Karts and characters are cool, but we all know that ModNation really opens up when it comes to making your very own tracks. The creation system here really makes it fun to design your own tracks and simple too. You only have to drive as you would in any race, and you’ll effectively be painting your track onto the land. Once you’ve created your course, populating it with mountains, trees, and a whole range of other crazy crops is as easy as dragging and clicking. Plus you’ve got a range of jumps, boost pads, and road tweaks at your disposal to make sure you can create an exciting and diverse track.

In fact, it’s almost too fun; you can have a blast thinking up all these shortcuts and road blocks etc, but racing on it can sometimes feel a little flat at first. That can be changed with a few more tweaks, but there’s a strong learning curve to ModNation, because instead of playing copycat with the best of them, it makes some interesting little changes to give it an identity of its own. For example, despite there only being about 4 attack types in the game, each of them can be levelled up to become more powerful by grabbing more item pods. It helps add a layer of strategy thinking about when you use your weapon, but there’s not much change in these attacks past their look. The boost item is the only one that separates itself from the pack, and after a few races, you begin to miss the crazy set of weapons like a banana skin, or even the dreaded blue shell.

You can also build up a meter to use as boost, or a shield to protect yourself from other attacks. It’s a great idea that – when against friends – allows you to fight back against an attack you’d usually have no chance against, but it creates problems for the game’s career mode. See, once I’d settled in with the controls and changes, I still found the career mode to be a frustrating affair, especially for a game kids will get their hands on. The enemy AI hates you, I mean it wants your blood, but not by simply being hard, oh no. It will wait for you to get confident, approach the finish line in a good position, and then pounce.

See, your computer opponents have probably the best strategy for the game; save up all your weapons and shield until the final lap. Suddenly any attack you unleash is useless, while they constantly thrash you with missiles and lightning bolts before you even have a chance to get moving again. Way too many times did I find myself going for first place to seventh on the final corner of a race, or watch as enemies blocked my attack then sped on past me. For such a cute, friendly game, ModNation’s career mode is a vicious, brutal challenge that will laugh in your face and then throw some annoying commentators at you as you slip to third place.

The career mode does offer some story, but it’s simply in the way of having the face another minute long load time. Bring a book with you, because watching the load meter slowly creep up is comparable to watching paint dry.

Move past these flaws and onto the multiplayer and I’m happy to report ModNation is a blast. You can get rid of the Nazi-AI and challenge friends to races that are now actually fun. 12 people can race online, but UFG should be applauded to including 4 player split-screen and 2 player split-screen online. It’s a great throwback to the days of Mario Kart, sitting down with friends and playing, and with the potential for thousands of tracks; it’ll stay fresh for a good long time.

Admittedly it could use a bit more in the way of presentation to help the whole experience feel a lot smoother and unique. The settings available are pretty bland, and while the graphics aren’t bad, they don’t leap out either. Given a bit more visual flair, ModNation could have gone all the way to the top, but instead it keeps holding the game back from ever hitting the wow factor.

ModNation Racers achieves its goal of being a kart racer with a tonne of creative options, but it doesn’t really strive to do anything past that. With friends there’s a lot of fun to be had, but the fact that there are a lot of tracks doesn’t necessarily make it any more fun than any other kart racer, and it lacks the character of those other games to make it truly stand out. It’s your best option for the genre this gen, but that’s kind of like saying Dead Space: Extraction is the best light-gun game on the Wii.

+ Incredibly deep and easy to use customisation for characters, karts, and tracks
+ Supports a wealth of options for multiplayer both online and off
+ Potential for unlimited tracks to keep things fresh

– Being viewed as just a kart racer, it’s a fairly uninspired and bland one
– AI makes career mode a nightmare
– Lacking variety in settings, weapons, and style