ModNation Racers has been quite the surprise for me personally. When I first saw it during Sony’s Conference at E3 I was left unenthused and almost disappointed, but as time went on and I learned more about it I became more and more excited. United Front Games have taken on the mantle of 'Play, Create, Share' from Media Molecule and run with it, but can they really carry on from where LittleBigPlanet left off?
First things first, ModNation Racers is a kart racer. That means that weapons are plentiful, cars are only about three times the size of the person driving them, and drifting is king. Controls for ModNation go a little beyond the norm and add in some further complexity with shields and sideswiping. As you drift around the corners you get boost points which you can use by pressing L1 to give yourself a quick burst of speed, but you can also save it to use as a temporary shield by pressing Circle, or use part of your boost to sideswipe an opponent next to you and stun them temporarily. On certain laps there are even triggers and "ModBots" that you can activate/deactivate using R1 to open up new paths on the track momentarily or prevent a trap from hitting you.
Managing this boost is the key to winning and helps give ModNation Racers an added layer of strategy beyond how you use the weapons you pick up. Sure, it can be frustrating when you overestimate how long a missile is going to take to reach you and so barely miss putting up your shield, but once you get the timing down it feels great to walk away from a barrage of 6 missiles unscathed. Boost is quickly eaten up by using the shield though, so even with a full boost meter you can probably only get three to four seconds of shield time, which helps keep it from being the ultimate and easy defense that it at first seems.
Knowing when to use your weapons is also pretty important. Each one can be leveled up twice, so you can take a simple missile and turn it into a massive rain of rockets that take out anyone who dares to be in front of you. You can’t hold on to it too long though, or you’ll risk being hit by another person's weapon or sideswiped and losing a level. Every weapon can be turned into a mine to drop behind you by holding Square, so even if you’re at the front of the pack everything you pick up has a use of some kind. My one issue with this system is that there are only 4 different weapon types, which means they quickly become a case of “been there done that”, so you won’t see any surprises on the weapons front after the third or fourth race.
The story behind ModNation Racers is about Tag, a creative graffiti artist who wants nothing more than to race in the greatest league in the world - the ModNation Racing League. After finding a crew cheif he sets his sights on gold. The campaign not only has an overarching story that deals with things like selling out to big corporations and losing your creativity, but it also has elements that affect the races directly. It was nice to see that the story wasn’t just an afterthought that got thrown out once the racing started up. There are also some pretty funny announcers that banter between each race and help keep you from getting bored. Parts of the story get overly cheesy and can be boring or preachy, but I appreciated the attempt at a story in a genre where it is by no means expected and I think the campaign was better for it.
Since this game’s theme is “Race, Create, Share” it wouldn’t be complete if it stopped at a single player campaign, so as you play through the campaign you are awarded with parts and stickers that you can customize your own racers, karts and tracks with. Getting all of these parts is quite the challenge. Each track has two objectives that you have to complete and each has tokens you can pick up and turn in for random prizes in the ModShop. I really enjoyed how the objectives added replay value to the tracks and an extra layer of challenge for players who found it too easy to just get in third place and move ahead to the next race. Sadly, some of these optional challenges are too dependent on luck and feel like more of a chore than a test of skill.
Once you find an interesting engine or some cool looking shoes in the single player tracks, you can head back to the creation station which lets you pick from a plethora of different parts and stickers that you can use to get just the look you want on your mod or kart. I spent a surprising amount of time making different karts after being inspired by parts I found, like a beating heart for an engine or a spoiler that looked surprisingly similar to a certain electric rodent’s tail. You can also make your own race track with exacting detail, from the width of the track to the pitch of every turn. However, no matter how much time you spend on your track or kart there really isn’t a good way to get word out about your creation. A few items quickly make it to the most popular list and stay there, so yours can easily languish without a single download.
Lastly, there is the online multiplayer, which is well designed but suffers from some severe technical issues. Whenever you start up Modnation Racers you enter the ModSpot, which is populated by other players from around the country just driving around and going about their business. From here you can access the creation station, see what the most popular mods are, and choose from a variety of different races. Whenever you race online you can choose from XP races or Casual races. Casual races allow you to choose any kind of track, with or without AI racers, while XP races pick the track for you and only include developer maps. The only reason to opt for XP Race is to gain XP, which increases your level and therefore your prestige. It really doesn’t serve as anything other than a way to show off, but it’s nice to see your rewards after each race. XP can also be earned through creating and having your creations downloaded. However, as I mentioned above, this won’t work well for most people.
However, more often than not you won’t find enough people for an XP race, and disconnects happen frequently. It seemed like after every XP race I actually got into and completed, or even when I canceled the XP race because no-one was showing up, I was disconnected as I returned to the ModSpot. Getting back online can take a while too, and while the game is trying to catch back up the framerate will chug and you may not be able to access any of the stations. The fact that the races run without lag once you get into them only makes this even more unfortunate. Another minor sore point is that the online is region locked, so if you bought ModNation Racers to play with your friend from across the globe you’ll be out of luck.
Presentation is easily the biggest chink in ModNation’s armor. Obviously, I’m sure you've all heard about the load times already. I timed around 20 of them in order to get a good idea of the average length and the results were as follows: entering a race takes 30-60 seconds, going from menu to menu in the ModSpot takes 3-5 seconds, and entering the ModSpot itself takes 20-30 seconds. These load times can really hurt the experience. Graphically, ModNation isn’t anything amazing, and you’ll easily notice imperfections if you sit still and look closely, but it is well designed for when you're speeding through the track. Storyline cutscenes are particularly flawed, since they actually suffer from framerate drops at times, which makes little to no sense. They also feature more pop-in than you experience when actually racing. There are also only four different general themes for the race tracks, so they can start to blur together from a visual standpoint.
Sound design fares slightly better, but still doesn’t get much past mediocre. The music is funky and a decent listen at first, but there isn’t a lot of variety and none of the songs are worth all the listens you’ll be subjected to, so you will most likely revert to the custom soundtrack option rather quickly. Voice acting is pretty good and sells the dialogue well even when it’s poorly written.
It only took me five and a half hours to beat the final track in the campaign, but it has taken me an additional three hours to complete all of the challenges that I thought were possible enough to be worth attempting. There are even some tokens and challenges still left over that I plan to go back and get later. Luckily the online modes and sharing help give this game a good value, even though the campaign can be completed in a single night.
So does ModNation stand up to its spiritual predecessor when it comes to “Play, Create, Share”? I would have to say no. However, the folks at United Front Games should still hold their heads up high because ModNation Racers is a great addition to that concept, and to the kart racing sub-genre in general. The gameplay additions made to the standard kart racing formula provide a new kind of strategic thinking, and the online is great fun when it decides to work. It’s regrettable that presentation issues, on both the technical and aesthetic fronts, hold this game back from being truly amazing. If you have an itch for kart racing fun then I suggest you pick this game up, but just remember that patience is a virtue and beauty is only skin deep.