First Impressions: ModNation Racers

May 25, 2010

Meet Pinhead. He is the colourful, slightly deranged fruits of my first Modnation Racers labour. Initially built in the free demo available to all on the PSN Store, the full game of ModNation Racers recognised that I’d already used their comprehensive suite of creation tools – which in fact was only a smidgeon of what I’ve subsequently found to be available in the retail version – and imported him for immediate use. It’s a thoughtful touch that immediately casts a positive light on United Front Games’ stab at the ‘Play. Create. Share.’ mantra that LittleBigPlanet so expertly established. And , judging by the handful of hours I’ve sunk into ModNation Racers, it is a positivity that is only tempered by a few creeping doubts.

“… the game shows a lot of promise, and fans of user-generated-content will likely squeal with delight at the sheer scope of options available here. Those amongst us whose apathy or impatience for lengthy creation sessions will effectively strip that layer of gloss away may have to look harder for reasons to keep ModNation Racers in their disc drives …”

This excerpt is taken from the Closed Beta impressions posted on infinitecontinues back in January, and they mostly ring true. The customisation options are indeed incredible in scope, whether you want to try your hand at creating a Mod (the avatar with which you race) a Kart, or a Track. Most popular characters from videogames have already been created, as well as comic book heroes and cartoon characters. A section of the ModSpot (an online hub which houses the multitude of options for the game and also provides a social lobby for players to hang out in) entitled Top Mods, already displays Mario and Luigi as the top two most downloaded creations; ironic, considering this is a PS3 exclusive. All of your creations can be published at the Share Station for other users to view, rate, comment on, download or even remix, although this option can be disabled if you find yourself a little protective of your painstaking creations.

More stickers, parts, karts, Mods and miscellaneous bric-a-bric are unlocked via the game’s Career mode, the singleplayer portion of ModNation Racers, and the mode in which I’ve spent the majority of my play time so far. Players need to finish in the top three to unlock the next track in the circuit, but there are also various bonus challenges per track that unlock further customisation options, and grudge matches against ‘Elite’ Mods, basically avatars which United Front Games has written into the over-arching story.

The races themselves handle superbly. You’ll be ‘drifting’ through most of the corners by pressing the ‘X’ button, and a long, flawless drift racks up points which fill a boost meter on the right side of the screen. Not only does this provide juice for your boost, obviously, it also powers up your shield, essential to avoid being spun out by an inbound rocket or sonic boom, which are plentiful in Career mode, where ModNation Racers suffers from the same frustrating ‘rubber-banding’ AI that plagued Mario Kart Wii. Even if you’ve executed a flawless race, hit every boost pad and made every jump, the AI will still ensure that there are a few karts right up your ass on the final straight, ready to bury you with an inescapable barrage of projectiles that unfairly robs you of first place. This provides the first cracks in the enjoyment of the game, and I imagine it becomes gamepad-crushingly infuriating in the latter stages of career mode.

Another niggle is the loading times, which are plentiful and long. They fall just short of ruining the experience, but come very close. On the one hand, you can perhaps understand it; ModNation Racers is a stunningly-realised game. It oozes colour and charm, with a visual polish that sends its production values through the roof. Perhaps long loading times are the price to pay for such graphic fidelity, but I’m hoping that United Front Games finds a way to shorten these load times with a patch sooner rather than later. It’s a setback that could potentially turn less patient players off the game, which would be a shame.

The only other gripe is potentially the most worrying – the servers are almost empty. Trying to join a multiplayer XP race is another exercise in patience; at least 60% of my attempts found me sitting alone in the starting grid, waiting for another three players to join so the race could start. Each race can accommodate 12 players, with 4 needed for the race to happen. Not once have I been in a race where there has been more than 5 players involved. Hopefully, this is down to a slow early adoption rate for a new franchise, and once the concerted advertising campaign kicks in we’ll see a more populated online community. Of course, there is another not-inconsiderable reason why ModNation Racers is so quiet right now: Red Dead Redemption.

ModNation Racers has the potential to be a wonderful, constantly evolving game. As a singleplayer racer, it is a solid enough experience, but, as with LittleBigPlanet before it, the amount you put into its suite of creation tools scales to the amount of enjoyment you derive from it. Time will tell whether it gathers the same kind of momentum as Media Molecule’s effort, but solid foundations are already most certainly in place.

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