ModNation Racers Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted May 13, 2010

ModNation Racers definitely has a lot in common with LittleBigPlanet. It has plenty of quirky design and humor, emphasis on user created content, and a series of intuitive mechanics that keep the game accessible yet always challenging. In other words, it's a great combination of elements that, when lumped together, result in one hell of a fun, if occasionally frustrating, experience.

The Pros
  • Racing is a blast for the most part
  • Endless amounts of creative potential
  • Quirky, hilarious writing/design
  • Seamlessly integrated online features
The Cons
  • Rubberbanding AI issues = infuriating
  • Some frustrating design decisions regarding weapons
  • Easy to get stuck in the environments

It’s impossible to make a kart racing game without drawing some influence from the seminal Super Mario Kart. It just is. The biggest reason why is that Mario Kart has always combined simple driving with ramped-up the madness via weapons and environmental hazards. ModNation Racers follows this template to the letter, while also adding plenty of its own flair into the mix to give it a personality and identity all its own.

The style and tone of the game are established immediately with the game’s opening cinematic which tells the tale of the world famous ModNation Racing Championship, the premier racing event for the boldest and bravest kart racers in the land. This sequence also introduces the game’s two ESPN-inspired commentators, Biff and Gary. The duo’s banter is genuinely hilarious -- even if Biff’s unending disdain for Gary does go just a tad too far at times -- but the humor doesn’t stop there.

ModNation Racers

The game’s single player career mode tells the tale of Tag, an inexperienced punk of sorts who is given the chance to compete in the MRC. The story is told over a series of cut scenes throughout the course of the 28 races that comprise the five-tour career. The cast of characters are across-the-board fantastic, from the voice acting to the character designs.

Another fantastic demonstration of just all around smart design is the game’s ModSpot, which is basically the menu system built out into in-game objects. Every mode (career, online, customization center, etc.) is represented in building form built, all placed within a virtual town square. You can drive around the square and pull up to any feature and open it up. You could also access all of the modes by a standard menu system, but what fun is that?

Leave It All On the Track

Without fluid driving mechanics and satisfying over-the-top weaponry, your kart racing game isn’t going to go far. Fortunately for ModNation Racers, it has both of these covered in spades, and stickers, and paint and anything else you might want to toss in for good measure. For the most part, the karts handle well, but there are moments when the handling can be a bit slippery, which can cause you to fly off the track in unexpected and unappreciated ways. It’s even possible to get stuck on the other side of the track wall if you hit a jump the wrong way, which not only looks ridiculous, but is also infuriating.

Like too many other racers, ModNation Racers also includes some serious computer AI rubberbanding. Racing flawlessly is never really enough to ensure victory, and that’s doubly annoying because the computer is able to pull off one perfect maneuver after another while you have to fight for every inch of track. Throw in some perfectly-timed computer attacks, and you have a recipe for some Dual Shock-chucking scenarios. But as maddening as slippery handling and rubberbanding are, they’re still not awful enough to destroy a fun and well-designed kart racer.

ModNation Racers

Vehicle weaponry obviously plays a huge part in the game, and for the most part, each item does its job well. Each device has three tiers of potency, which adds even more strategy to the game, since you have to decide whether to hold onto the level two rockets in the hopes of nabbing a third weapon pod, but at the risk of losing the rocket entirely. In terms of performance, the rockets in particular seem a bit fickle as they don’t always behave the way you’d expect. A lot of times, they don’t take out anyone, even though there are several karts right there in front of you. That being said, it’s immensely satisfying to watch as your adorable kart unleashes a hell-storm of missles that blows apart every other kart on the track, or watch as poor fools run directly into your EMP mine that you placed perfectly on the inside of the final turn.

The weapon setup is a bit frustrating at times. It can be hard to tell when a projectile is about to hit you. The genre-standard warning beep you get when one is locked onto you doesn't speed up to indicate proximity, so you’ll have to carefully time your shield or it’ll expire too early and still leave you vulnerable. The projectile does appear on the track map, showing you how far away it is, but it’s too risky to take your eyes off the road for even a second, and even then, it isn’t always clear how far away the in-coming weapon is.

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For the creatively inclined, ModNation Racers includes a ridiculous amount of customization options that extend from your character to your kart and to entire tracks. Changing your character’s every detail is a snap, as are the kart and track builders, and there are enough parts and options to ensure that no two characters, kart or track ever look the same.

The track builder includes everything you need to make your own super sweet kart track. You can alter the terrain to build mountains or lakes, throw in trees, buildings, or any number of countless items and objects to bring your vision to life. The auto-complete feature is a brilliant addition, as it lets you quickly finish your track at any point during the building process. In short, expect to see plenty of amazing user generated content to come out of this game, assuming the community responds to it the way they did with LittleBigPlanet.

ModNation Racers

Multi-kart Madness

Most of the game lives online, and thankfully, every online feature is seamlessly integrated into the experience, and can be accessed at any time from the ModSpot. Character mods, tracks, karts, and best laps of the day all appear as giant kiosks that you drive up to to open. Like that Spider-Man mod that’s on display? Just set it up to download, and boom, it’s yours. Want someone’s pimped-out rocket car with Tesla coil engine? One click and it’s yours too.

The online races are just as slick and intense as the single player portion, but is all the more satisfying because you’re playing again imperfect human players. The framerate didn’t dip once during my play session, even with 12 other racers onscreen and all unleashing massive amounts of kart-to-kart destruction on one another. It can be frustrating when you get hit with four separate rocket blasts within five seconds (because after all, human players are much more vicious than computer AI racers), and if you’re not in the top four karts for most of the race, you’re not going to win, so don’t expect any late comebacks here. Overall though, it’s a very fun time.

Face the ModNation

A lot of ModNation Racers's success will come down to whether PlayStation 3 owners embrace the idea of an LBP on wheels. Although I’ve noted some of the frustrating moments in the game, the core kart-racing is still satisfying, it includes an unending amount of customization options and the online features are deep and accessible. So many elements, from the interface to the level of detail you can devote to your racer and tracks, are indicative of a well-made title. ModNation Racers is a fantastic kart racer that’s worth your time to invest, whether it’s in the mayhem of a dozen-player race or in creating your dream track.