It took a long time, but Mario Kart has finally met its match. ModNation Racers – or “LittleBigPlanet On Wheels” as I like to call it — may not have the brand familiarity and nostalgia factor that comes with the Mario franchise tag, but on pure racing gameplay it is currently without equal. Then there is the persistent online integration, the mod creation tools, and the community sharing, which all help put this game over the top as this generation’s premiere kart racer.
OK, so I’ve gone ahead and put the cart (or kart I should say) before the horse, but give me a minute to explain why this game is so great.
Like LittleBigPlanet before it, ModNation Racers is built around the idea of Playing (or Racing), Creating, and Sharing, so I’ll break down each part one by one.
ModNation Racers’ create and share elements are fantastic, as I’ll explain further in a moment, but for me the gameplay has been the game’s strongest asset. From its smooth steering controls and pitch-perfect sense of speed (it is fast, but not too fast) to its paint-swapping competitive spirit, ModNation Racers’ driving mechanics are tuned for peak performance.
Weapon pick-ups, like in other kart racers, play an integral role in the outcome of every race (even more so here since they stack and increase in power if you save them up), as do hidden shortcuts, environmental traps, speed boost pads, ramps, and good old-fashioned kart ramming. Mastering the art of drifting is also key, as it is the main source of building energy needed for activating turbo boosts, triggering traps, and bringing up a shield that, when timed properly, deflects incoming attacks and keeps you truckin’ along unharmed. There are a lot of little racing strategies to master in this game, and overall it is a much deeper racing experience than you might expect.
The racing action is indeed a blast, but it does have its frustrations depending on how you choose to play. Offline, the game provides quick races, time trials, and a career mode. In specific, the career mode is loads of fun thanks to a silly Toy Story-meets-Talladega Nights storyline and its tough gauntlet of 28 races, each with individual challenges and grudge matches you can attempt to unlock new characters, karts, tracks and creation props. However, United Front Games sure didn’t mess around when coding the AI for opposing racers. AI racers are extremely aggressive and uncanny in their ability to stay hot on your trail no matter how well you race, and later on in the career it can sometimes feel like luck, not skill, gets you through a race successfully.
That said, skill and track knowledge do win you races more times than not, and the game is at least balanced in a way that gives you the same opportunity to come back that the AI always seems to have. The career mode is also forgiving in that you need only finish in third place in most of the races to advance through the story, and third place is fairly easy to achieve. Although I’m sure you’ll spend some time cursing at the game after the occasional cheap loss (guilty!), the rubber-band AI is really no more frustrating than any other kart racer — I remember the Mario Kart games being even cheaper, to be honest.
If the tough AI wears you out, though, you can always hop online and go kart-to-kart with upwards of 11 other racers or call over a few friends to play in the four-player split-screen mode. I enjoyed the challenge provided by the AI (I have finished every career mode race in first place and completed over half of the optional challenges after all), but there is no question that this type of game is meant to be enjoyed with other real players. Playing against live competition negates the cheapness of the AI and ensures that skill determines the victor rather than luck.
Online performance is also excellent. I’ve been playing an early review copy since last week and have had some problems maintaining a constant connection to the game’s network when puttering around the ModSpot lobby and searching for user-created content. But during actual races the framerate holds steady, and so far I haven’t incurred a single disconnect. Poorly optimized loading is the only major technical fault I’ve noticed in my time with the game, with load times leading into offline and online races regularly lasting upwards of a minute or longer. A patch to speed up the loading is supposedly on the way, but as is the intermission time between races does get tedious — I shouldn’t have enough time to go to the bathroom or go to the next room to check my email during a loading screen!
Whether you are laying out tracks, building karts or designing avatars, creating content in ModNation Racers is rewardingly simple and intuitive for players of all walks of life, yet also deep enough that skilled modders can let their imaginations run wild.
The interface for the creation tools is laid out much the same way as LittleBigPlanet’s pop-it system, with easy-to-use menus making it easy to skim through lists of facial features, hairstyles, color schemes, skins, stickers, accessories, engines and other parts needed to create virtually any kart or avatar you can think up.
Creating karts and characters is an easy process of sorting through menus and selecting and modifying different parts, but building tracks is a more in-depth process. For beginners, designing a track is as easy as driving a steamroller to lay down a path and clicking auto-populate to have the game automatically fill your track up with weapon pods, boost pads, obstacles and various other roadside objects. Then as you learn more about the individual tools at your disposal, you can personally customize everything on your track using the simple brush-based interface which allows you to efficiently “paint” over the landscape to raise/lower terrain, form bodies of water, and add in props like trees, buildings, boats, crates, signs, animals and so on.
To make tracks on par with those created by United Front Games, you can take things even further by placing “breadcrumb” trails for hidden shortcuts and seriously taking the time to properly balance the placement of traps and power-ups.
The one limitation to the track creator is that there are currently only four environment themes: Jungle, Alpine, Desert and Seaside. These are fine to start with, and I’m sure more will be introduced in DLC packs, but I’m already getting a feeling of sameness with each new track I download. Sure, all of the tracks are different from a gameplay perspective, and that’s great. But there’s very little background variety to work with right now, and after a while each race sort of blurs into the next.
Creating content would be nothing without the ability to share it – remember, sharing is caring, kids — and thankfully ModNation Racers makes sharing your own creations and downloading those of other users a joyful experience. Through the combined efforts of the create and share components, you can essentially build any franchise kart racer you desire. Whether you want to race as Mario, Sonic, Master Chief, Solid Snake, Homer Simpson, Batman, Spider-Man or even the great Ron Burgundy, the choice is yours and the options are literally endless.
The ModNation community has already contributed hundreds, if not thousands, of characters and karts covering almost every major gaming mascot, comic superhero and pop culture icon imaginable, and new content is posted every minute. You can also vote for your favorite downloads on a five-star rating scale and, if needed, report any abusive or offensive content.
ModNation Racers is also built around the idea of a persistent online gameplay network. When you start you are connected to the game’s servers and placed in a little hub area called a ModSpot. The ModSpot serves as both a hub to all of the game’s play modes and a virtual lobby area with direct access to the game’s online features. From the ModSpot, you can meet up and text/voice chat with other players cruising around the lobby or pull up a list of friends/players and search for people to play with. This way, even when you are playing by yourself, you still feel a constant connection to the community.
Unfortunately, at this time it doesn’t seem like many people are interested in playing XP races, which are the races that contribute to your online ranking progression. The game supports 12 players online, but the most I’ve been able to get in an XP race is five (four plus me), and most of the time just getting the mandatory starting count of four players requires a long wait. On the other hand, any time I check for Casual races they are almost always full. Personally, I prefer ranked matches in online games because I need that sense of progression to maintain interest, so it’s pretty annoying to not be able to find more competition.
That’s something I’m sure will change over time as the community grows and existing players become more skilled – the game has only been public for a day – and when it does I definitely see myself playing this game for a long time to come.
Naturally, the possibilities aren’t as limitless in a kart racer as they are in a more diverse game like LittleBigPlanet. But nevertheless, the “Play, Create, Share” spirit fostered by Media Molecule’s revolutionary platformer has been passed on to ModNation Racers in inspiring fashion.
+ Fantastic kart racing mechanics
+ Deep and intuitive creation tools
+ Well-integrated community features
+ Smooth online performance
+ Challenging career mode with a fun story
+ Endless replay value
– AI racers can be pretty cheap
– Only four track environment themes
– Noticeably long loading times and regular ModSpot disconnects
– Not much XP race competition yet
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available on PSP
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: 5/25/2010
Genre: Kart Racing
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-12 (4-player split-screen, 12-player online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher