Carrying Sony’s new mantra of play, create, and share, Modnation Racers was revealed during the company's E3 2009 press conference to a surprised crowd. When compared to the rest of the showings, many of which were leaked in the weeks leading up to the show, the announcement came out of nowhere. With it, came the promise of being one of the only kart racers not tied to a pre-existing franchise, giving the developers, United Front Games, plenty of room to experiment. In the past, the field was dominated by iconic characters shoved into vehicles, forced to do battles while retaining elements from their own individual games. Finally, a developer would be given a clean slate, doing whatever worked, without needing to bow down to pre-established rules. Now, less than a year after the reveal, we're able to see what they did with this newfound power.
Yes. It's like Mario Kart. It's hard to talk about the genre without mentioning Mario Kart, so let's get that out of the way as early as possible. The reason for the comparison is clear: Nintendo's classic franchise invented the genre in every way. It's not like traditional sports games, there's really nothing else to compare it to. It's a genre Nintendo made up in 1992 that involved characters racing around hazardous tracks and attacking each other with weapons. This isn't something people just do, so whenever anyone makes a game that can be labeled a "kart racer" the only basis of comparison is Mario. That said, the core mechanics of the genre are, for the most part, pretty open, and haven't really been changed up too much since the original game. There aren’t any rules, no set of parameters people expect. All that matters is that it's fun and accessible, something United Front took advantage of when developing ModNation Racers.
Traditions are kept, but modified greatly. There are items, sure, but they can be upgraded three times to gain power. The first level of the rocket fires one lone missile that bounces when it hits walls. The second level adds another, and targets the closest foe. The third? A barrage, laying waste to the nearest opponent in a big way. There are other, non-combative items as well, such as a boost that upgrades to become first a longer boost, and then a teleportation move. The upgrades are gained by simply running over additional item boxes, shedding the genre's normal "use it or lose it" mentality. Holding onto an item indefinitely isn't a great idea either, since crashing or being destroyed will cause the player to drop the item as well.
There's another fold to the gameplay, however; one that separates it more from its predecessors. Players have access to a boost meter that fills as they perform acts such as drifting, drafting, taking out enemies, and spinning in the air. Instead of supporting "snaking" by having players gain a boost of speed after a drift, it fills up a bar. While this isn't all that innovative or unique, it's the secondary ability of the meter that sets ModNation Racers apart from most others in the genre. Beyond giving a boost of speed, it can also be used defensively, throwing a shield over the kart to protect racers from their opposition’s attacks. The shield is short, lasting less than half the amount of time the boost would, but can prevent players from losing a first-place lead because of a lucky item grab. Even at its strongest, an offensive barrage is still blocked by a well-timed shield, preventing super-powerful weapons from ruining races.
If the gameplay improvements were all that United Front brought to the table, it still might be enough to make it the king of the genre. Where it really stands out is in the customization elements, which are a major focus in Modnation Racers. Players start off modifying their characters and karts with an in-depth system that draws obvious inspiration from vinyl art and collectors' toys. The game sports a unique style that fits the mood of customization very well, and the tools to create are easy enough to use so that anyone who was able to create a Mii on the Wii should be able to create both a character and a vehicle with ease. While the tools don’t allow players to create literally anything, the amount of customization is impressive, and should allow players to make something they’re proud of, even if it doesn’t match their original vision. When it comes to creating levels, the tools manage to be even easier to use, replicating the controls found on the track. It doesn't provide the same amount of customization found in LittleBigPlanet, but that sort of works out in its favor. It's safe to say that most people ended up getting lost in tutorials with LBP, and only a fraction of those who persisted likely published anything they were proud of. Luckily, race tracks aren't as complex as platformer levels, and the tools are serviceable at worst, fantastic at best.
Creating karts, mods, and tracks wouldn't be all that useful if it wasn't possible to show them off. For this, ModNation Racers has Modspot, a persistent area where racers can drive around and download created content. It serves as a hub, and lets players hang out in between matches. When it comes to actually competing in multiplayer racers, there's support for up to twelve players online, and four players on one console via split-screen. Racing earns players experience as well, leveling up their persona. While ModNation Racers is meant to be played with friends, the game features a surprisingly lengthy singleplayer campaign as well, complete with a story that feels like it was ripped right out of a Cars sequel. Players control "Tag," the newest racer in the ModNation Racers Championship. Before long, players can switch out the stock character and vehicle for custom ones that replace the pre-made one in cutscenes. It's a nice touch, and adds a lot in terms of presentation. The addition of occasional rivals that can be taken out during races to earn additional items for customization helps keep things from feeling too stale, and fleshes out the package for those who would prefer to spend some time honing their skills offline before competing against human opponents.
While the package is an impressive one, it's not without its issues. The load times can be lengthy. Very lengthy. On average, they're usually about thirty seconds long, with others being a hair shy of a minute. Beyond that, the framerate chugs from time to time, even when playing alone. The visuals are impressive and all, and everything looks good in motion, but there's no way that ModNation Racers taxes the PlayStation 3 more than Uncharted 2 or God of War III. The issues slow things down, throwing a wrench in the works, and stopping ModNation from being as good as it should be. When it comes to the core gameplay, however, there's no question: it's the best in its class, dethroning Mario Kart in every technical way. Some might argue that it lacks the charm of Nintendo's franchise, but that's likely based on brand loyalty. The racing is simply fun, there are no two ways about it, and should provide PlayStation 3 owners with some of the best driving action in recent memory.