ModNation Racers ReviewBy Scott Alan Marriott - Posted May 20, 2010
ModNation Racers continues Sony's line of "Play, Create, Share" titles that began with LittleBigPlanet. It offers some familiar but intense racing with the added benefit of competing on a potentially endless stream of user-designed courses.
- Six-player races, online or off
- Quick and intuitive course designer and lots of customization options
- Strong racing mechanics
- Analog steering inferior to digital
- Limited play modes
- Blurry textures
Simultaneously released for both the PS3 and PSP, ModNation Racers continues Sony's line of “Play, Create, Share” titles that began with LittleBigPlanet. Yet the emphasis on customization doesn't mean the action is left napping in the back seat. ModNation Racers offers some familiar but intense racing with the added benefit of competing on a potentially endless stream of user-designed courses.
What the world needs, it's been said, is love sweet love, not another sugary sweet kart racer. Grinning mascots large and small, worthy and unworthy, have all taken this dubious rite of passage, most of them racing on cruise control. Far too many sputter along the perfectly safe, uneventful route instead of going full throttle on the road less traveled. ModNation Racers for PSP has cutesy characters and all the familiar elements of the textbook kart racer. Its customization features, however, are truly in a class by itself.
Like its PS3 counterpart, the handheld ModNation Racers lets you create characters, karts, and courses with three in-game design studios, though the textures lack the detail and sharpness of the console version. Obviously, a PSP isn’t nearly as powerful as a PS3, but it’s still slightly muddy for a PSP game. Tinkering is the game's theme, with the single-player career mode rewarding you not with cash, points, cups, or levels, but different tiers of parts and pieces. It's a little LEGO, a little Mr. Potato Head, and a lot of LittleBigPlanet. Want to wear a Viking helmet? Add a fang? Have one wonky left eye like Paris Hilton? All these and more can be unlocked and grafted onto your character, with choices in five areas: head, skin, voice, clothes, and accessories. There are 455 eyes, 330 mouths, and 127 noses, which is clearly a lot, unless of course, your name is Joan Rivers or Cher.
Karts can similarly be customized, with 40 body types ranging from a school bus and rocket ship to a biplane and slice of Swiss cheese. Once you've selected a body, you can add decals, a suspension type, engine, tires, and things like a faucet for a hood ornament or a pitchfork for an antenna. The course builder is the most impressive design feature, however. You first pick one of four themes, consisting of alpine, desert, seaside, and jungle environments, before placing a starting gate and altering a basic oval shape. Once the layout is set, you can adjust the path's width, elevation, color, or bank, then place an assortment of trackside objects and hazards to make things interesting. The whole process is surprisingly fast and intuitive, with hundreds of items and props available, but there are some limits to the track lengths and configurations you can create. There's also no weather in the game, so you can't create a rainy, snowy, or windy track.
Running on Empty?
If only the play modes offered as much ingenuity as the design studios. You can participate in a single race (on or offline) and a basic career. The former has you choosing from three variants, including a "pure" race without power-ups, an "action" race with everything, and a "last kart standing" option, which adds a countdown timer after each lap. The racer in last place when time expires is eliminated until only one remains. Adjustable settings include number of laps (from one to five), game speed (fast, faster, and fastest), opponents (zero to five), and difficulty (easy, medium, or hard).
There are no battle arenas, stunt challenges, or even a score-based option, and kart racing vets will speed through the career in approximately three to four hours. The minimum requirement to advance is third place or better, and the lack of a cumulative point structure, multiple kart classes, seasons, or divisions is disappointing. Instead you'll progress in a linear fashion, one three-lap race after another, until all 27 pre-designed courses are completed. In between races is an amusing storyline told through video cut-scenes, but your character is a mere bystander to the proceedings, which focus instead on your unstable mechanic and mentor.
The Wheel Deal
Fortunately, the racing itself is well designed, valuing handiwork over happenstance. The digital pad offers tighter steering than the analog nub, but the controls are otherwise responsive. Effective use of your kart's boosting capability, represented by a vertical meter on the right side of the screen, is key to winning. Nearly every action you perform earns you points to replenish your boost, which is used in more ways than just a temporary surge in speed. Boost allows you to activate shields, which absorb attacks, perform sideswipes on nearby rivals, and initiate "stomp" landings after jumps. To earn more boost, you can drift, spin in the air, draft, attack opponents, hop over obstacles, and so forth. If nothing else, you're actively engaged in a ModNation race.
The available weapon power-ups are balanced, but they aren't particularly original either, with the developers opting for mines and projectiles instead of something extraordinary. The PSP version also doesn't let you increase a weapon's effectiveness by running over multiple power-ups, removing a layer of strategy found in the PS3 game. The included tracks are diverse in feel if not appearance, with branching paths, shortcuts, massive jumps, sharp banks, and goofy obstacles, from giant barrels that tumble onto the course to shifting bridges and crushing blocks. The computer AI is competitive without resorting to overtly cheap tactics, and it will take shortcuts, use zippers, fire weapons at nearby rivals, boost near the finish line, and do what you'd expect it to do to win.
Lap it Up
ModNation Racers doesn't introduce anything in its gameplay that you haven't experienced before in Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing, and similar titles in the genre. At the same time, it's comforting to own a racing game where you never have to settle for the same tracks, the same vehicles, or the same characters. This is the perfect racer for the fickle or easily bored, though an online connection is a must to get the most bang for your buck, scream for your green, or holler for your dollar. And if don't give a flying turtle shell about innovation as long as the game plays well, then take ModNation's criticisms with a drop of motor oil.