ModNation Racers is the second release in Sonyís PLAY. CREATE. SHARE. series. Like its predecessor, LittleBigPlanet, gamers are encouraged to create items Ė in this case, drivers, karts, and tracks Ė and share them with other players. A robust framework supports the system, with ways for players to download and rank user-created items, as well as favorite those creators whose work you particularly enjoy, leave comments, and report possibly offensive items. Doing for kart racers what LittleBigPlanet did for platformers, ModNation Racers is a fantastic addition to a library that was in desperate need of over-powered, rocket-packed karts zipping around crazy tracks.
To be honest, I was surprised at just how integrated the online component is. While LittleBigPlanetís online component is a prominent feature, itís also largely kept separate Ė visually and mechanically Ė from the single-player game the gameís hub and Moon menu system. Not so, here; after a sudden and slightly jarring tutorial race, ModNation Racers immediately transports you to the entrance of a ModSpot. ModSpots are instanced hubs that allow access to your singe-player career, the Creation Station to build and customize items, vending machines to download user-created content, and hot items of the day. But you arenít just in a hub: youíre in a hub with other players.
Itís an odd situation to be in initially because youíre traveling by kart, which means that everyone else is traveling by kart, too, and are often slamming into each other when trying to access an area. Luckily, you can bypass the chaos by utilizing pre-designated hotkeys on the controller. Thank goodness for shortcuts. But as interesting of an idea as this is, I didnít see much interaction between players; most racers didnít have a mic or keyboard, and the others werenít interested in arduously typing messages out with the controller. Although the area might not engender the kind of paling around as intended, it does bring a good bit of life to the game. Top custom drivers are featured on pedestals Ė in my case, Mario, Iron Man, and Spider-Man Ė and the top three custom karts are featured alongside the drivers in an open showroom-type section, while Hot Tracks allow you to quickly race the most popular user-created course. All of this provides a great incentive to participate in the creation process as they are universal, appearing in every ModSpot, standing out for all to admire and download.
Accessing any custom creation is as simple as going to the Creation Station and using the indoor and outdoor vending machines. There are official downloads that cost money but, to be honest, the free user-created material is far superior in both quality and variety. I guess it doesnít hurt that the user-created drivers and karts are often based off of other properties, which isnít something the developers can do Ė well, without getting sued Ė but they nevertheless provide an awesome source of entertainment for everyone else: ever seen Hobbes from Calvin & Hobbes drive the A-Team van? You should. Myself, I sport the Monopoly mascot and silver car Ė synergy! Ė in addition to my own custom driver. The generic driver youíre given to tweak isnít bad, actually, and the content creation tools are such that you can quickly change him into something altogether different with numerous objects for each body part to choose from (helmets for the head, masks for the face, gloves for hands, etc.) and textures for the skin. Even knowing the possibilities, I am still genuinely floored at the quality of the custom content. LittleBigPlanetís Contra-inspired level made me aware how talented people are, and ModNation Racers acts as a constant reminder.
If you want to make your own items, then youíre in luck because it couldnít be easier. Similar to customizing your driver, karts can be tweaked just as easily with custom body parts for wheels, seats, steering wheels, spoilers, engines, as well as strange ornamentation to adorn your ride. Each item can be resized, duplicated, rotated, and skirted across the carís frame for the perfect spot, then saved into one of the general categories of hood, rear, front, right side, and left side. All of the karts control the same, regardless of parts, and I find the tradeoff between ease of use and performance variety worthwhile; I canít imagine such a pick-and-play racer benefiting too much from dozens of stat tweaks. Itís a surprisingly robust and easy-to-use little system.
Tracks are also easy to create. The method of laying out the track itself is actually quite novel: you drive a paver that lays the road out as you go. If you want the track to have a wide right and then a sharp left, then you just make a wide right and then a sharp left. A meter is used to help judge height, allowing you to create high peaks or low areas that dig into the earth, along with a leveler mechanic that allows you to easily bring the track back to the default height. Items are laid out in a similar manner to the other modes, with objects capable of being quickly placed, rotated, expanded, and multiplied. Granted, the track editor can be a bit daunting at first given the options, but everything is laid out plainly enough so that it doesnít take long to get the hang of things. The controller does making creation a bit of a menu-wading process, which is true of the other modes as well, though to a much lesser extent as track creation is a bit more involved. Still, with the ability to toss all kinds of objects, from obstacles in the road to decorative bits alongside, without much practice, itís quite an achievement. After a few minutes of tinkering, I created a track that broke from a slow incline to a steep drop that went below ground level, with some small German-style cottages and forests lining the path and a fountain sprucing up a roundabout. Up to 30 items can be uploaded for sharing, with the slots shared between driver, kart, and tracks.
Objects for all creation modes are gradually unlocked during play. The easiest way to unlock most is through single player, which is a system that will be very familiar to LittleBigPlanet players. Each circuit has a number of tracks that offer three objects with each unlocking new items for use at the Creation Station. The first objective is always the easiest, which is simply finishing within the top bracket to advance. Certain challenge races can also be unlocked to compete for a new body type. I think what will surprise most people is just how difficult the single-player mode becomes. The first few races are made difficult in that youíre learning the ropes, and possibly even adjusting the handling some to get a grip on drifting, but after that, itís all on the AI. Aside from being incredibly aggressive, the computer is often an excellent shot, a pro with the shield, and an all-around pain in the butt. There are times whenever it just feels downright unfair, which will no doubt sour some of the solo-centric players.
Practice does help, of course. One of the crucial elements to get a handle on is the prominence of the boost gauge. Everything you do that isnít basic acceleration and deceleration involves boost, whether thatís a short burst of speed, sideswiping an opponent, activating triggers, or raising the shield. Boost is earned through drifting, catching air, landing a shot with a weapon, and doing 360s while airborne. Knowing when and how to use your boost becomes paramount, as that is the key to victory. This is especially true when playing the computer because it is an absolute beast with weapons. I cannot count the number of times I was mere yards away from the finish line and found myself the target of a rocket or lightning attack. There is a little give and take here as well, with each weapon pick-up powering the one stored, youíre often confronted with waiting to power it up fully or using it so the next attack doesnít knock it out of your kart. While itís nice to unleash a three-powered fury on the track, itís also satisfying to shoot opponents away with a shockwave or have them roll over a mine. Although, you will quickly find that your ability to deflect attacks isnít nearly as good as the computerís.
In fact, the shield mechanism is one of the hardest aspects to get a handle on because it doesnít really work how you would expect: the shield doesnít block items once fully raised but as itís being raised. Thatís an important distinction because most people - and maybe we can blame Star Trekís "Raise shields!" for this, myself included - would think that the surrounding shield would deflect an attack when raised, but it doesnít. You have a very limited window from the time youíre alerted to an incoming projectile to when you can successfully deflect an attack. If you raise the shield properly, the attack is negated; if not, youíre treated to an at times lengthy animation and a slight loading before being placed back on the track. Itís pretty time-consuming and, in tight races, downright annoying.
Things get much, much better when you go online, and that is because most players are about as adept at raising shields and taking advantage of all the attacks as you are. While the computer can sideswipe, launch a weapon, drift, and avoid obstacles with ease, most players will find that their hands can only do so many things at one time. Now there are some players that are definitely good, and their abilities are downright impressive, but most of the matches I raced in were largely populated by people like myself Ė largely focusing on drifting and just staying on the track. Keeping to the track can be tricky, however, due to some rather nasty portions that either lack a railing or have an object that can cause you to get stuck. In either case, youíre left either flat-out done for, as being stuck for just a few seconds puts you seriously behind, or, as in when hit with an attack, waiting for the animation and following load to finish. But again, everyoneís in the same boat here and, while single player is still enjoyable, multiplayer is a blast. The game supports local splitscreen and online play along with causal and ranked matches. Ranked matches earn you experience (XP), along with users downloading your custom creations, which seems to only go towards ranking the best of the best; the overall champ gets a global statue of themselves placed in every ModSpot. I found online races largely lag-free, the opponents challenging yet friendly, and the system robust enough to allow quick access to on-disc and downloaded tracks without much pause. The ability to quickly race in Top Tracks (highly rated custom courses) and Hot Laps (daily online tournaments of different tracks) with others and AI opponents is a breeze and offers a nice break from single and series races.
Aside from the often-brutal AI, the other complaint I have is with something even more pervasive, something that is prominent in all events and modes: loading. I know itís been said before, but itís all so very true: this game has a lot of loading. Heck, it has loading for loading. Seriously, the game loads for a while when you first start it, just to load when you enter the ModSpot, then loads again whenever you enter an event or mode. And this is all after a lengthy install. Iím guessing a lot of the loading has to do with the instanced hubs, but whatever the case, itís a pain. Iím normally not bothered by loading, but it is excessive here, and considering that sitting and waiting is the antithesis of what this game is all about Ė high speed and crazy action - it can be frustrating. Restarting races isnít too bad, but hopping around races and modes can be trying. Iíve read a patch is being looked at to address this, and I certainly hope thatís the case.
The game has a lot to offer, though. It isnít just all of the modes, features, tools, and the ease of use that makes the game so enjoy, but itís how they all come together. Everything from playing a quick race to downloading the most popular driver mods can be done with a few key presses. There are many menus for throughout the various modes, but Iíd say thatís just going to happen given the limited input options for the interface; it becomes easy to navigate after a few rounds. On top of that, the game has, according to my wife, ďadorableĒ characters and some humorous cutscenes of two sports announcers that are interspersed between the admittedly limp story. The aggressive AI will, if you can tough it out, also help your online game, which I found to be the opposite case in most titles, but the game also offers Time Trails to practice tracks without foes or challenges. The tracks themselves are also a treat because, save from the random tricky spot here and there, they are largely excellent and a blast to drive on. Thereís a lot to do, and itís all well worth doing.
Despite its hyper aggressive and quasi-omnipotent AI and the excessive loading, ModNation Racers is a whole lot of fun. The simple yet powerful creation tools allow for robust driver and kart mods to be created easily with little experience while a wide array of tracks can be created with a little imagination and patience; and the best part is that 99.9% of the really good stuff is user-created and absolutely free. The focus on the boost gauge requires a good deal of strategy and skill, to both know when to use it and to fill it up. If the rumored patch addressing the load times comes out soon, even better. Until then, this is one of the few kart racers you can grab on the PlayStation 3, and itís a good thing that itís great.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)