reviews\ May 4, 2010 at 8:00 pm

ModNation Racers review


A bend in the road approaches when suddenly another driver cuts inside and zooms past. It’s brash, arrogant, but nothing compared to what the driver of the passing vehicle does. He turns slightly and facially signals what he thinks of you and your driving abilities. So what do you do? Well, respond, of course, but really … is a rocket up their tailpipe over the top?

Ok, obviously this is not real life – it is kart racing and when May 25 rolls around one of the finest examples of pure fun in the form of video-game kart racing will accelerate into retailers with the release of ModNation Racers from SCEA for the PlayStation 3.

ModNation Racers is the second title in the SCEA “Play, Share, Create” initiative – the first was the acclaimed LittleBigPlanet. Up front, if Sackboy and the ability to create levels, share them, and play online and off were appealing to you, then ModNation Racers is going to be something you will want to play.

It has some of the same elements of LittleBigPlanet. You have a Mod (the little character that can be customized to one’s heart content to be whacky and colorful, or mundane and plain; also that’s where part of the name comes from), a kart, and the opportunity to use a very rich and deep creation system to build tracks. The track editor is surprisingly friendly and yields incredible results.

On the surface, the game offers many of the same racing modes that other kart racers have had – play offline with a career mode, play on the same machine against another player, or go online for head-to-head racing with up to 11 others. Regardless of the race selected, there are load times and the courses are pure eye candy – textured, lush, and colorful with elements that can be interacted with (tokens dot the courses in the career mode and the challenge is to find them all and roar through them to collect them).

Each race is preceded by selecting the speed level, difficulty level, number of laps and number of AI racers. This is an intelligent racer, and the harder you drive (pun intended) the difficulty settings, the tougher it will be to win. There are a number of pre-made race tracks (28) and they are very solid. Each has speed boosts, ramps to jump, and weapon pick-ups scattered throughout the course. Driving solid lines through the course and using the weapons registers style points, as does the appropriate use of drifting tactics in the curves. The style points power up a meter that can deliver a nitro-style short burst of speed – handy for ramp lead-ups, blowing by a close opponent near the finish line, or pulling even with another kart and then using the right thumbstick to side-swipe the opposition and knock the kart off the track. Or snag a weapon and use it to take out a frontrunner or group of them.

There are four weapon types, and they are gathered by running through the icons that pop up on the track. However, knowing when to use them and when to hold them is important because if held on to, the next time a weapon icon is driven through, the weapon possessed by the player gets an upgrade and becomes a bit more powerful. You don’t want to hold on to them for too long, though, because the race pacing is wonderfully fast and a three-lap race can seemingly be over just when you start to feel like you are getting warmed up.

The career mode features a lighthearted story that has some great characters and clever dialogue. In fact, listening to this game is pretty much a treat as well. Not only is the soundtrack capable of being player managed, but the announcing can be pretty funny at times. Like when the overly pompous announcer proclaims that “10,000 cameras” will be covering every second of the race. The more down-to-earth color commentator says that “10,000” is an exaggeration, leading to an insult from the announcer that the only “exaggeration is the size of” the color commentator’s forehead. (Admittedly, that's a bit sophomoric, but it's still smile-worthy.)

Online also will feature leaderboards for online racing as well as a matching system for finding races appropriate for your skill level. Everything is accessible through the hub known as the ModSpot. From start to finish, this is a game infused with fun.

The rest of the formula is pretty stock, though. Race, place and win customization items. Head into the Mod area, and there is a lot that can be done. The Mods can be customized with a rich palette of textures, clothing items, head items, stickers, colors and other assorted accessories – some themed, but all that bring character and personality to the Mod. The karts can be customized with body types, colors, stickers, accessories and kart parts.

And then there are the tracks and the very powerful, but simple-to-use editing tools. From land levels to environmental elements to track textures and shortcuts – everything that the developers used to create the pre-made courses is there for the players to use to create their own. And then everything, the Mods, karts and tracks, can be uploaded and shared online.

This is one of those instances where jumping into the create section is supposed to be a quick drop-in to see what can be done and several hours later, the player comes out with a new Mod and several track designs ready for use. Replace that mantra of just one more race with “I’ll build just one more track” as hours are kissed off.

Back to the racing … The controls are spot on and tight. Filling the style meter is important because in addition to the nitro boost, you can also get a temporary shield – important when you know you are targeted (and you do know – the game shows you with a red warning light and the sounds shift to let you know there is incoming).

The first time that this United Front Games title was mentioned, it was one of those “gee, another kart racer” moments – but dismiss all those thoughts. ModNation Racers is an intelligent, deep and enjoyable game that takes the ‘play, create, share’ initiative and runs with it. Fun, entertaining, a pleasure to look at and create in – MNR raises the bar for the genre.


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