Reviewed: June 8, 2010
Released: May 25, 2010
For most gamers, the words "kart racing" conjure up images of mustachioed plumbers, peach colored princesses, and fire breathing plants - because the kart-racing genre has been all but owned by the folks at Nintendo for well over a decade. And while challengers have made valiant attempts over the years, none have been able to usurp the kart racing crown from Mario and his band of troublemakers - until now. ModNation Racers is the best kart racing title in the history of gaming - sorry Mario.|
Sony may be known for a number of top-shelf first party franchises with the PS3 - Uncharted, Resistance, and Killzone, but other than the consistently tardy Gran Turismo, Sony has all but shied away from the racing genre. This makes it all the more amazing that Sony would be behind the title that would all but revolutionize the kart-racing genre. Then again, when you start putting two and two together, the success of ModNation Racers only makes sense.
Three words: Play, Create, Share. You may have heard the moniker before – it is the very same formula that Sony has employed in its landmark platformer LittleBigPlanet, which itself has become a living, breathing world of its own and helped keep the title on the top of the charts for an outstanding eighteen month run. The secret ingredients – you, me, and the rest of the world.
The Play portion of the formula is pretty simple – deliver top-notch highly accessible gameplay. With LittleBigPlanet, it was fantastic two-dimensional platforming through some of the coolest side-scrolling levels to be had in gaming. With ModNation, we have fantastic kart racing through some of the coolest three-dimensional courses to be had in gaming.
It is the Create portion where the formula really takes shape – literally. By giving gamers the ability to develop their own full-sized and full-featured game levels with a set of developer-strength design tools – including the control of scripted events, and manipulation of game physics. LittleBigPlanet achieved this by allowing players to drop set pieces, paint textures, and apply stickers to achieve developer-quality levels. ModNation makes it even easier, allowing gamers to simply drive their way to a new course, drop in props, tweak elevations, and apply landscape themes. In addition, gamers can piece together their own set of racing karts, and design and dress their own army of avatar “Mod” characters.
The Create alone adds a certain degree of replay value, but it really takes off when combined with the final facet – Share. Share gives gamers the ability to post their own creations, and download the creations of others – all within the game world. Whether it is the characters, the levels, or in the case of ModNation Racers the vehicles – the constant influx of new (and in most cases, free) content results in an infinite amount of replay value. Eighteen months and counting, and LittleBigPlanet is still delivering a constant clip of new level designs – less than two weeks and counting, and ModNation’s list of downloadable content is already pushing into the thousands.
But this is not a review on Play, Create, Share – we are here to talk about ModNation Racers – a topic that has all but consumed me for the past two weeks and is sure to continue for many more.
First, we need to talk about the controls – probably the best I have seen in any kart-racing game on any platform to date. The closest comparisons I can draw to ModNation’s controls would have to be Sega’s Ridge Racer series, or Criterion’s Burnout series – extremely tight, amazingly fast, but heavily dependant on drift to keep the boost meter constantly filling. Catching a Drift is as simple as pressing the X-button, but the timing in and out of the drift is crucial for maintaining overall speed, filling the boost meter, and gathering the most style points.
The resulting Boost energy is not only used to amp up the speed, but it is also tapped to perform special moves like sideswiping opponents, performing in-air acrobatics, and to employ protective shields. Yes, I did say shields – which if timed correctly can counteract enemy attacks and keep you ahead of the pack.
The different weapons-based attacks come in the form of the typical kart-racing power-ups scattered about the track – but with one notable feature: the ability to level-up weapons into more severe attacks. Each power-up holds a unique attack – pick one up, and it can be used immediately as a “Level 1” attack. However, the gamer can choose to hold the weapon and drive over additional power-ups to up the attack to Level 2 and ultimately a highly destructive Level 3. A Level 1 power-up of a single straight-shot missile ups it to a Level 2 heat seeking missile, and ultimately a Level 3 multi-missile barrage.
The tracks are huge, each taking upwards of a minute per lap. There are currently only a handful of environments from which to choose – countryside, island, desert, etc. – but I fully expect later downloadable content to add more landscapes in the future. ModNation’s tracks feature the typical kart-racing fare – berms, obstacles, and props – but also throw in a fair share of over-the-top MotorStorm-style pitfalls, deadly ledges, and hair-raising jumps. Each course also features a number of time-shaving shortcuts and alternate routes, which would easily be ignored if it weren’t for the fact that the developers have scattered five collectable tokens in and around each track. The hunt for tokens will take you to areas you never realized, and help you discover new ways to attack each track.
The main purpose of the game’s single player career mode is obviously to win each race – but as an added feature, the developers have assigned special objective in each course that result in added objects goodies to use in the Creation Studio – items like vehicle parts, clothing, and accessories. Most of the additional objectives come in the form of “Finish 1st and _______”, with the blank being anything from taking specific shortcuts, performing certain attacks, or gaining a certain number of style points (for drifting, drafting, spinning, etc.). As a big fan of driving game challenge modes, these objectives quickly took precedence over the storyline – as I found myself more focused on mastering each objective list than progressing the storyline.
Speaking of the storyline – it is the typical street-punk to hero fare that we find with most games of this ilk, and really not all that engaging. However, I will say that the character models and imagery throughout the well-developed cutscenes are absolutely fantastic, making the ModNation a strangely believable location.
But as noted earlier, the single player Career mode is only a fraction of the experience that is ModNation Racers. There is the fantastic Creation Studio – where players can use their winnings to design everything from their characters facial features and clothing, to complete car designs and modifications, and even design different tracks. The design mechanics are really quit simple and straightforward – pick an item, drop it in the world, and attach it where you want.
You can paint and sticker nearly every surface and resize, rotate, stretch and separate pretty much every object to the point where there are literally millions of combinations that can be achieved. Creations can be saved and accessed at any time, so you can have multiple versions of a character or vehicle while still retaining the original design.
Better yet, your creations can be shared with the online world, and you can borrow from them as well. Just days after the commercial release, and the user content is astounding, with spot-on Mario and Luigi clones, Final Fantasy cast members, and kartoon superstars. There is already a complete stable of famous vehicles including the Ghostbusters car, to the A-Team van, and even Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine. And we’re talking a mere days after release and there are literally thousands of free user-generated items to download – imagine what there will be in a few months!
Finally, ModNation delivers the best online play of any kart game to date – forget Mario Kart friend codes and silent racing – ModNation is all about the community, and communication is key. At any time, you can access an in-game friends list, and chat via Bluetooth headset or keypad. Online play garners additional experience points (XP), which are the in-game currency for buying additional items and accessories as well.
And if that were not enough, ModNation makes things even more fun by constantly delivering trophies for all sorts of in-game deeds – from simply driving around the world and shooting photographs, to making your first creations, to winning the big race – ModNation is full of trophy garnering material to keep you coming back for even more.
So with all this good, something’s got to be bad, right? Well, only one thing – the load times are horrendous. I laugh because a decade ago we would have been happy with load times of a minute or more – but in these days, we are accustomed to instant gratification, and ModNation fails miserably at getting you from point A to point B, especially considering the game installs more than 3GB of content to your hard drive out of the package.
The problem is probably less the total time it takes, as it is the inconsistency of what and when the system is going to choose to bog itself down. Sometimes simple tasks like navigating from the central hub world to the Creations station will take forever, where loading a heavily designed track seems to fly by. The game does show a status indicator on loading progress, but even that seems to be inconsistent in the way it reports – one moment racing through 5%, 10,%, 15%, then slowing down for nearly 10 seconds each to go through 20%, 30%, 40%, stopping at 50% for nearly 20 seconds and then strolling on to 100%.
Annoying load times aside, I can’t fault ModNation Racers for the nearly perfect package that it is, and for that reason I feel safe in proclaiming Sony’s masterpiece the best kart-racing title in the history of gaming. Period.