There are few game genres more timeless than racing. The goal is as self-explanatory as they come: get to first place. One of the greatest barriers for racing games to withstand the test of time is that, sooner or later, the tracks are bound to get old. United Front Studio's ModNation Racers seeks to fix that with its intuitive level editor adding "the deepest customization ever seen in a racer,” according to Dan Sochan, the game's producer.
While visiting United Front's headquarters in Vancouver, I was shown the three core parts that comprise the ModNation experience: the character creator, racing, and the level editor.
The character creator is extraordinarily deep. At the offset I was given a choice of no less than 260 types of eyes. From there I could change their position, height,width, and even their size and slant. I could change the placement and type of each eye individually. From there I could choose to make my character’s nose, mouth, comprise their wardrobe, and add decals to give each racer a little flair. Every component of your characters -- from their clothes to their skin -- can be altered by giving the material a metallic, rubber, or cloth sheen. All told, this is a game that you could sink plenty of time into before starting a race proper.
All of the customization in the world wouldn't mean jack if the core gameplay mechanics were broken. I'm happy to report that the game's kart racing is a lot of fun. A major part of the racing experience comes from drifting, something you're meant to be doing almost constantly as it fills up your boost meter, which is used in a variety of clever ways. Of course, it gives you a speed boost, but you can also use a pittance of your boost meter to pull off a side-swipe attack with a quick flick of the right analog stick. Its other use is that you can spend a quarter of your boost gauge to momentarily put up a shield protecting yourself from an oncoming attack, which is indicated by a blinking target symbol at the bottom center of the screen. Your boost meter, and how you decide to use it -- towards offensive attacks, defensive protection, or simply to gain an extra speed boost -- provides more tactical options than many kart racers out there.
Fair and Balanced
Weapon pickups are handled differently than other racing games. The weapon you acquire is based on your position in the race. If you're in last place, your weapon will be more powerful than if you were in first. It ensures that everyone has a chance to catch up. Every weapon can be charged up three levels, achieved by acquiring two more pickups. If you don't like the weapon you're given, you can drop it as a mine behind you. Each mine will have different properties based on the weapon it stems from. From what I saw, the arsenal includes: a weaponized tornado, homing missiles, and a portal that warps you further up the track.
Curiously, for a game that's all about customization, there is no way to tweak your kart's stats. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however, as according to Lead Game Designer, William Ho, "There's no customization because we wanted the game to be fair to everyone. We didn't want someone to break the game and find a 'silver bullet' kart." Hopefully, it makes ModNation more accessible for newcomers.
"Where No Man Has Gone Before"
Finally, we were shown the game’s level editor. While a lot of games in other genres have featured level editors before, few racers have, and none have made it so intuitive. You create a track by initially paving the road. From there you can choose to tweak the track manually, or auto-populate it with all manner of boosts pads, item pickups, decorative backgrounds, and obstacles (like exploding barrel launchers or sheep). From there you can edit individual sections of the track and change things like road width, elevation, textures, and more. The backgrounds can also be changed drastically by altering the buildings, sea level, and even the placement of the sun.
It’s in the level editor that ModNation Racers has legs. Many racing games are totally impenetrable to a newcomer, and that’s a big issue. Veterans will know the tracks inside and out, whereas novices will generally lose, regardless of their skill. With ModNation, experts and newcomers alike can be placed on equal footing as they venture into unexplored maps together. It achieves a sense of wonder, discovery and balance in a genre based on repetition and mastery.
Ultimately, ModNation Racers looks great so far. There’s little to dislike at this stage of its production, thanks to character and level customization that should raise the bar set by LittleBigPlanet on top of solid, balanced racing mechanics. While we still have yet to see some of the game's aesthetic "themes," (only the grassy theme, "Alpine," and desert themes have been unveiled), and number of players in a race has yet to be determined, what we have seen so far looks very impressive indeed. Keep an eye out for it when it drops this spring exclusively on the PS3.