Review: ModNation Racers

Hardcore gamers tend to avoid kart racing games without Mario in the title -- and for good reason, too. Ever since the success of Nintendo's original SNES effort, the genre has been flooded with mediocre copycat shovelware, starring mascots of rather questionable origin. (Seriously, M&M's Kart Racing is a real game.) While it may be easy to write off ModNation Racers as just another kart racing game, I was surprised by how well-crafted and deep United Front Games' debut title is. While it has garnered a lot of attention due to its "play, create, share" gimmick, ModNation Racers stands out as a deep, satisfying racer through its gameplay alone.

For better and for worse, ModNation Racers is cut from a far more hardcore cloth than the typically "family friendly" fare in the genre. ModNation demands skill, and no amount of luck will be able to compensate for sheer ability. The weapons are more balanced than in other games: almost no single weapon is as devastating as Mario Kart's blue shell and lightning bolt. The ability to enhance weapons by saving them adds an appreciable level of depth: do you use your weapon immediately, or save up for a better one? And the shield introduces yet another strategic element to the gameplay. These small additions to the gameplay add up to make a far more challenging (and satisfying) racer.

Considering its cute exterior, I was surprised by how relentless and ferocious the computer AI is. Do not expect this to be an easy ride! Thankfully, the game is challenging without having to resort to rubberband techniques that reward racers that are lagging behind. Just like you, your opponents will take advantage of drifts, boosts, shortcuts, shields, and weapons, and it will take very aggressive driving to land a first-place victory. With races often ending with split second finishes, ModNation demands players take advantage of every tool in their arsenal to win.

Unfortunately for some, the learning curve for ModNation Racers is significantly higher than what you may expect. Nearly every button on the controller is used to some capacity -- including both analog sticks. Kids and moms used to playing Mario Kart Wii with the Wii Wheel will find themselves in rather unfamiliar territory here. (And no, you can't drive by using SixAxis motion controls.) There's a lot your Mod can do in a race, such as aerial tricks, sideswipes, and jumping. However, it will take practice to understand how to effective utilize all these moves. For example, with practice, nearly all enemy attacks can be defended against. A flashing icon on the HUD notifies you of incoming projectiles, and the circle button deploys a short-lived (but effective) shield that lets you drive away from an attack -- provided you get the very precise timing right.

Smartly, the various gameplay elements are introduced slowly throughout the course of ModNation's extensive Career mode. Without a doubt, Career mode offers the most polished single player experience in a kart racing game ever. The production values are unlike any kart racing game before it, offering a fully voiced CG story that tells the story of a Mod that rises to the top of the leaderboards, and changes an entire society along the way. Don't expect Spartacus, though. This is a light-hearted affair with some well-written, humorous dialog along the way.

The Career mode does far more than offer CG movies to watch, though. While progressing through the campaign, the story offers some tutorials to highlight additional skills for players to take advantage of. In addition to tutorials, there are optional objectives for each race that demand expertise in a certain skill. After teaching players to do sideswipes, for example, there will be a challenge to perform aforementioned attack on three opponents. These challenges get increasingly challenging and specific, adding an extra layer of depth to what would otherwise be a simple racing game.

For example, one of the challenges demanded I take out a specific character (a "rival") during the final stretch of a lap. Saving a weapon and pacing myself to trail this specific character proved to be quite challenging, but it was immensely satisfying when I was able to pull it off. However, in addition to completing the challenges, ModNation offers another reason to replay each track: there are also five tokens to collect on each track, which encourages exploration and usually unveils the location of hidden shortcuts.

As with LittleBigPlanet, completing levels and beating specific challenges will unlock additional content to use in the game's creation tools. However, unlike Media Molecule's game, these tools are easy enough for almost anyone to use. Track creation, in particular, is a breeze with auto-completion and auto-population features that will literally let you make a new level in seconds. With the AI able to intelligently place obstacles, boost pads, and weapons on the track, it's almost guaranteed that you'll get a fun, playable level no matter how little effort you put into a creation. However, those that like to take a more hands-on approach will find that manipulating the granular details of a level will demand as much (if not more) time as a LBP creation. With an overwhelming number of objects to put into a track, and many settings to tweak for each interactive object, building a level from scratch is no easy task.

Because the game isn't set to ship until the end of this month, it's hard to gauge how the community at large will respond to the creation tools offered them. (Consequently, this review won't cover the game's online features.) Yet, even without access to the game's community features, I found the retail package worthwhile. Even without user-generated levels, ModNation doesn't skimp on features. The addition of local split-screen multiplayer is a nice perk, as well. You'll be able to play any level, either official or user-created, with up to four players. Impressively, this mode manages to maintain a rock-steady framerate.

If there is one major caveat I have with the PS3 version of the game, it's the frustratingly long load times. For a racing game, the experience is unacceptably slow. Not only is there a mandatory install, it will take over a minute to load the game, wait for the logos and reach the game's lobby. From there, it can take upwards of a minute to actually load a race. Navigating from one part of the game to another is a bothersome exercise; the load times are without a doubt the single worst aspect of the game.

If the load times are a deal breaker, there is an alternative: the PSP version of ModNation Racers, which is nearly identical to the PS3 version -- minus the load times. Both versions of the game will be available on May 25.

This review is based on review code of the PS3 version of Modnation Racers provided by Sony.