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Review: ModNation Racers

Modnation Racers is the second outing in the Play.Create.Share brand of games, and spiritual spin-off of LittleBigPlanet and competitor to Mario Kart. LBP proved a critical hit through its charm and use of user generated content, and Mario Kart through generations of pedigree. Can ModNation Racers live up to the legacy of LittleBigPlanet and Mario Kart, or does United Front fail to grasp onto what made the two a magical experience?

The game sees you playing as Tag, a graffiti artist turned rookie racer in the ‘ModNation Championship’. The game features and functions are accessed through a central hub called ‘Modspot’. Modspot is net connected, giving streaming info on all the latest user generated content and high scores. This is a pretty nifty feature, integrating with the pit stop aesthetics, as well as encouraging people to get in the habit of grabbing new mods. From here you also have access to the various race modes and the Share Station and Studio. But we’ll start with the racing.

Your journey through the MNC is narrated by hosts Biff and Gary. While not the greatest comedy duo in gaming they help create a light atmosphere to the game.  As soon as you start the game you’re thrown into the action right away with your qualifying MNC race. I wasn’t so keen on this as it is a required part of the game and no way to skip it. Bit of a bummer when you’re wanting ot pop over to a mates and play some splitscreen . The career mode continues much the same way, you get in-race tutorials as well as being encouraged to try out the various creation tools available as stages throughout career. The story is fairly weak, not much to write home about, but it keeps the action flowing. Each race in the career has a set of goals to complete such as finding all the shortcuts, beating a special racer or simply getting third and higher. Each of these goals unlocks more creation tools for modding as well as encouraging you to try different race styles and techniques, I’ve always loved these kinds of ‘achievement’s’, teaching and rewarding.

The racing itself is rather well polished. It plays like most standard kart racers, using speed pads and picking up weapons to gain the upperhand. In MNR these weapons can be powered up to higher forms through running into more item pods. Another additional mechanic to MNR is a Boost Meter, this is charged by drifting and drafting. The Boost Meter is used  to …well boost, and to create a temporary shield to protect from other players attacks. This adds quite a nice amount of tactics to the racing, balancing the need for a shield over the ability to boost, as well as using a weaker weapon for a quick fix, or powering it up to its full potential. In fact I’d say that MNR’s racing is much better than Mario Kart, though a lack of weapon types hinders it a bit, the levelling up system doesn’t make this an issue and I think many people will find much more depth to MNR’s racing. The tracks however are maybe not as memorable, but with potentially millions to choose from its a very moot point.

The main draw of MNR are its creations abilities. You can create new Mods(avatar), karts and tracks in the Studio. The creation tools in MNR are amazingly intuitive, allowing you to create new Mods and Karts in under a minute. Even less with the Random function. But if you feel like it you can change into ‘Advanced’ mode and have access to finer degrees of control and create almost anything you can imagine or current IP laws allow. Mod and Kart creation use similar tools, allowing you to change skin/pattern, add some stickers and decoration, and almost every item allows you to manipulate it right down to the colour and sometimes texture. Compared to Sackboy editing, it kicks ass in the breadth of possible creations.

The track editor is just as simple, you just drive your kart around the track to lay track behind you, then auto-populate with item pods, boost pads and props to create a passable track. And just with the Mod n kart creator you can go into much more depth. I’ve spent several hours making and tweaking the above track (Toto Temple if you want to give it a whirl) This may be longer than necessary though. Then menu system in track creation is rather clunky and awkward. Requiring you to go through several tiers of the menu to get to each tool.  This gets annoying when working on a small section of track swapping between two tools to fine tune. I’d also like it if you could combine ‘themes’, rather than being limited to a particular subset of props and track surfaces. It makes most tracks rather samey. The lack of a space theme, or the ability to make indoor and floating tracks is a bit of an oversight. They’re a staple of the genre and sad to see them missing. Hopefully DLC may remedy this down the line.

As with LBP all of these creations can be shared over the network, allowing you to upload and download other peoples creations. Theres a vast amount of content up already and the most popular, as seen above, tend to be licensed work. The games only recently out, so I don’t know how long these will remain, but its amazing to see how quickly people have adapted the games tools to make all these. I don’t even think LBP had avatars this varied. Grabbing these is as simple as just picking the one you want and hitting X. You can leave comments and feedback as well as rate the mods allowing the best to float to the top. You can sort filter by keywords, rating, friends only, etc, helping you sort out all the chaff from the potential millions of mods.

One of the big draws to ModNation Racers is its 4-player splitscreen, a rarity on PS3 and 360. This makes it a diamond in the rough and really adds to the value of the game. Splitscreen is quick to set up, though you can’t make new Mods or Karts on the fly, only premade ones are available, bit of a bummer considering the on-the-fly access to Pop-it menu in LBP.  For those without friends there’s an online mode too. Standard filter options, and ranked and casual play to be had. Though I find getting casual races started is harder than joining a XP race, this may just be bad netcode, or just a lack of people with only a EU launch upto now. The race lobby includes a handy chatbox, which nicely blocks out swearwords and the like. It is a family friendly game after all. Though voice chat isn’t given the same limits.

Oh here goes a small shout out to the kid who was telling us all when he had levelled weapons and when he was gonna fire. Really helped on using the shield on time.

As a final note, and because I couldn’t find any place to put this as it affects all of the game, MNR has abysmal loading times at the moment. United Front have said they plan to patch this asap, though I’m unsure if this patch will come as I suffered through similar loading times during the beta in December. Here’s hoping, as it really does detract from the over all game.

Modnation Racers is a game dripping in style and accessibility. And ontop of the excellent creation tools it offers a kart racer that trumps the grand master by adding some meaty and functional mechanics that give a much needed spicing up to a genre thats getting too complacent. The split screen was a great idea to add and makes the game a desirable addition to any library in a gen focusing more on online play. However the loading times really need to be fixed or this is a game that has a potential to be shelved fast. MNR currently has a demo on the PS Store with a single track and limited creation tools.

Review: ModNation Racers
Platforms: Playstation 3
Developer: United Front Games
Genre: Arcade Racer
Gripes: Loading times are measured in aeons, net connection isn’t overly stable.
Get it for the: Ability to let your imagination run while, a competent and charming racer, and the 4-player split screen.

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