ModNation Racers

I promised myself that I wouldn’t stick the phrase “Little Big Racer” into any of the teaser blurbs for this review. It was difficult – this is, after all, Sony’s 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 you’re left with is ModNation racers: a tight, well-crafted experience that a wide range of players should be able to pick up and enjoy.

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Let’s start with those creation tools. Just as in LBP, you can customise cute little avatars to your heart’s content. There are hundreds upon hundreds of ears, eyes, mouths, T-shirts, shoes, hats, and whatever else to choose from – and if even that isn’t 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 you’ll 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 don’t think you’re into user-generated stuff, give this editor a whirl – it’s 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, it’s now near-perfect – except, of course, if you run four-player splitscreen, but that’s 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.

Let’s 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 game’s servers wouldn’t 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 you’d expect it to be.

But what’s 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. It’s a fantastic way of seeing what kind of creative things other players are making – 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 Planet’s.

Of course, a depressing corollary of this is the realisation that a lot of people out there are better at making stuff than you – I thought I’d made a pretty cool Batman, until I saw someone else’s attempt.

I’ve gotten this far without really mentioning the gameplay itself. After all, all the online features in the world won’t matter one bit if the core racing experience is dreadful. Thankfully, that’s not the case here – and as an added bonus, the developers have even done a bit of tweaking to the Mario Kart formula. It’s 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 you’re 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 you’re 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 you’re still mastering all of this – 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 you’ve got kids playing – there may be a steeper learning curve than you’d think. Or, possibly, I’m a very, very bad driver.

Speaking of the single-player campaign: it’s actually good! When Little Big Planet came out, I wasn’t 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 ‘flatter’ – there seemed to be less pop and fizz to the whole proceeding. It’s not something you notice when you’re concentrating really hard on driving, but it’s like picturing a Transformers movie directed by someone other than Michael “Explosions ‘R’ Us” Bay – 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, I’m 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. It’s a shame, as it really takes pulls you out of an otherwise engrossing and all-encompassing experience. It’s not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but just remember to bring along some patience.

And that’s ModNation Racers! If you think a user-driven, online-focused kart racer sounds like your cup of hot chocolate, you won’t be disappointed. There are a few niggling problems to be found, but overall this is a very slick package.

"Fun, comprehensive, filled with value."
- ModNation Racers
Follow Own it? Rating: G   Difficulty: Medium   Learning Curve: 15 Min


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Comments Comments (20)

Posted by nimrod76
On Thursday 6 May 2010 9:44 AM
Nearly sold on this now, just need a demo to tip me over the edge.

Oh and a price drop :)
Posted by konflictionz
On Thursday 6 May 2010 9:54 AM
Great review Tristian. I've just been reading some other reviews, on this game. Quite cleary the reviers sounded bored writing their reviews! Also, like they hate Kart racers. Been looking forward to this game since E3. Is good to see it getting positive reviews.
Riot Pig
Posted by Riot Pig
On Thursday 6 May 2010 10:03 AM
How lengthy is the campaign?
Posted by Oliver
On Thursday 6 May 2010 10:49 AM
Wicked, I definitely want to pick this up, it's just a matter of when I can!
Posted by MounatinMan
On Thursday 6 May 2010 11:47 AM
yeah picked it up for $54 :]
Riot Pig
Posted by Riot Pig
On Thursday 6 May 2010 11:56 AM
6 May 2010, 11:47 AM Reply to MounatinMan
yeah picked it up for $54 :]
But it's not even out yet. o_O
Posted by Moneyshot
On Thursday 6 May 2010 1:59 PM

Official trailer-more info on the mods would be good.
Posted by Liam_OConnor
On Thursday 6 May 2010 2:11 PM
This is out already? Man, I really haven't been paying attention much these days. Glad to hear it turned out all right. Might get it when it goes Platinum.
Posted by jbl316
On Thursday 6 May 2010 6:21 PM
6 May 2010, 02:11 PM Reply to Liam_OConnor
This is out already? Man, I really haven't been paying attention much these days. Glad to hear it turned out all right. Might get it when it goes Platinum.
It's not out just yet. May 21st is the release date.
Posted by Soyerz
On Thursday 6 May 2010 6:43 PM
6 May 2010, 11:56 AM Reply to Riot Pig
But it's not even out yet. o_O
A very nice young man called Timezone tipped us off at NZGamer that a store was giving preorders for $54. if you got in quick enough it was yours
Riot Pig
Posted by Riot Pig
On Thursday 6 May 2010 9:18 PM
6 May 2010, 06:43 PM Reply to Soyerz
A very nice young man called Timezone tipped us off at NZGamer that a store was giving preorders for $54. if you got in quick enough it was yours
Ah, I think I just have a different definition for "picked it up". A more literal definition.
Posted by SpawnSeekSlay
On Thursday 6 May 2010 10:44 PM
6 May 2010, 09:44 AM Reply to nimrod76
Nearly sold on this now, just need a demo to tip me over the edge.

Oh and a price drop :)
Agreed. Agreed. Agreed.
Posted by procion
On Friday 7 May 2010 10:39 PM
As long as I can hit x to shunt through cut-scenes. Nothing worse than being forced to rewatch & rerewatch cutscenes, even if they're 5 secs long, & PARTICULARLY after 30secs of loading grind
Posted by hot_shot_9
On Saturday 8 May 2010 3:55 PM
I was in the beta, was fun as. Except barely any people played it.

Ill probably rent this since im not looking for a kart racer ae.
Posted by KatalystaKaos
On Sunday 9 May 2010 3:00 AM
I thought the Beta was average at best :(
Posted by Oliver
On Friday 14 May 2010 11:59 PM
Pre-ordered and waiting. Pretty excited about this one!
Posted by MA3LK
On Monday 17 May 2010 9:14 PM
Sounds like a great game
Posted by ayreon
On Saturday 22 May 2010 7:40 AM
I could hardly wait for this... :) ohh, nooo my little sister could hardly wait for this :)

Video review is also available here with Miss Hungary ;) she rated it 8/10!:)
Posted by Kegz
On Saturday 29 May 2010 11:43 AM
This game looks great, I didn't realize that you could do split-screen online, thanks for pointing that out!

When I'm done with RDR and the price of this comes down it'll be my next game.
Posted by Bank
On Tuesday 6 Jul 2010 5:04 PM
This game is great, I don't care about the loads times cause' I always bring food to the rumble :D

Thank you guys for the copy!