I promised myself that I wouldnât stick the phrase âLittle Big Racerâ into any of the teaser blurbs for this review. It was difficult â this is, after all, Sonyâs attempt at crafting a user-driven experience that does for kart racing what Little Big Planet did for platformers. Being compared to a game as universally loved as LBP sets some pretty high expectations, but I have to say: ModNation Racers effortlessly meets (and sometimes exceeds) them.
No idea what this game is? Take a generous helping of Mario Kart, mix it together with extremely powerful (yet highly useable) content creation tools, and stir in a ton of online features. What youâre left with is ModNation racers: a tight, well-crafted experience that a wide range of players should be able to pick up and enjoy.
Letâs start with those creation tools. Just as in LBP, you can customise cute little avatars to your heartâs content. There are hundreds upon hundreds of ears, eyes, mouths, T-shirts, shoes, hats, and whatever else to choose from â and if even that isnât enough, you can mess around with a lot of primitive shapes to create even more unique elements. Suffice to say, you can create some pretty cool dudes, although youâll want to play through the campaign and hunt down tokens to unlock everything.
The above paragraph also fully applies to the cars you can make. There are a huge range of bodies, spoilers, wheels, and engine types to choose from. Not caring much about cars in general, I elected to take the silly route, happily driving a steam-powered vehicle with wooden wheels.
The star creator, of course, is the track maker. This thing must have been a real bastard to make, because the end result is both powerful and easy to use. Seriously, you can get a half-decent track up and running in ten minutes. Everything from background scenery to track elevation can be tweaked as much as you desire, and there are already some great tracks available from other users. Even if you donât think youâre into user-generated stuff, give this editor a whirl â itâs one of the star attractions of ModNation Racers.
One of the bigger things that seems to have been improved from the preview build I played a few weeks ago is the frame rate. Where before it could get jumpy, itâs now near-perfect â except, of course, if you run four-player splitscreen, but thatâs almost a given I suppose.
The other major element now in place, that was missing when I last played it, is online access. And what do you know: it really makes the game better! ModNation Racers is, after all, built around the idea of always being connected to a great hub of worldwide players, and being able to experience it firsthand allowed me to see just what the developers are going for.
Letâs start with the basics: you can race online against friends or strangers, in both casual and XP-giving matches. You can even one friend alongside you on the same TV, allowing you both to take on people from around the globe. The race experience was very smooth, although I have a couple of caveats. First, the gameâs servers wouldnât exactly have been busy; and second, I sucked so much compared to my opponents that I barely ever saw them. In fact, I think one of them managed to lap me, which was ever so slightly humiliating. Still, overall the online racing experience is about as smooth and fully featured as youâd expect it to be.
But whatâs arguably just as fun when it comes to online features are what you see in your hub. As you race around the small area, you can quickly view the most popular mods, karts, and tracks. Itâs a fantastic way of seeing what kind of creative things other players are making â and crucially, it strongly encourages people to dip their toes into the world of user-generated content. The presentation of this content is, to my mind, better than Little Big Planetâs.
Of course, a depressing corollary of this is the realisation that a lot of people out there are better at making stuff than you â I thought Iâd made a pretty cool Batman, until I saw someone elseâs attempt.
Iâve gotten this far without really mentioning the gameplay itself. After all, all the online features in the world wonât matter one bit if the core racing experience is dreadful. Thankfully, thatâs not the case here â and as an added bonus, the developers have even done a bit of tweaking to the Mario Kart formula. Itâs still the same arcade steering mixed with destructive weapons, of course. But now, you can choose to hold on to a weapon in an attempt to level it up, meaning a simple rocket turns into a homing swarm of airborne destruction.
You also have a power meter that fills up whenever your drift, draft, or stay in the air. This bar can be used up for a speed boost, but youâre going to want to hang onto it: it can also deploy a shield around you that temporarily protects you from enemy attacks. It adds an extra layer of strategy while youâre racing, and when you manage to fend off a giant sonic wave, can feel pretty satisfying.
Other times, however, I was sure I had my shield up, only to be pounded into the earth regardless. Races can also hold a lot of frustration while youâre still mastering all of this â even in early single-player levels, I was yelling very loudly as I went from first place to last after three attacks in a row from the AI left me in pieces. Keep this in mind if youâve got kids playing â there may be a steeper learning curve than youâd think. Or, possibly, Iâm a very, very bad driver.
Speaking of the single-player campaign: itâs actually good! When Little Big Planet came out, I wasnât expecting it to have as much personality and charm as it did. Same story with ModNation Racers: its characters and humour are pleasantly (if mildly) subversive, appealing to both adults and children in a wry, Pixar-like way. I was actually looking forward to each new cutscene as I went through races, and the fact that the mod you create appears in them makes it all the better.
Beyond the cutscenes, the presentation of the game is uniformly good, but only hints at greatness. Compared to Mario Kart, or even Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing, I felt like it was visually âflatterâ â there seemed to be less pop and fizz to the whole proceeding. Itâs not something you notice when youâre concentrating really hard on driving, but itâs like picturing a Transformers movie directed by someone other than Michael âExplosions âRâ Usâ Bay â probably better, but combustible less eye candy.
A more serious complaint has nothing to do with the in-game experience, and everything to do with getting to the in-game experience. Yes, Iâm talking about loading times, and they sure can feel long. 30 seconds of loading might not sound long, but it all adds up quite quickly. Itâs a shame, as it really takes pulls you out of an otherwise engrossing and all-encompassing experience. Itâs not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but just remember to bring along some patience.
And thatâs ModNation Racers! If you think a user-driven, online-focused kart racer sounds like your cup of hot chocolate, you wonât be disappointed. There are a few niggling problems to be found, but overall this is a very slick package.