After nearly two decades of Mario Kart dominating the kart racing genre, ModNation Racers for the PS3 is poised to knock it off its throne, showing gamers that there is more to kart racing than Italian plumbers and blue shells. Not satisfied to merely release a very good console kart racer, Sony is also releasing a PSP version of ModNation Racers later this month. Much like the PSP version of LittleBigPlanet, ModNation Racers PSP is largely the same game on a smaller scale, meaning that it’s certainly an entertaining and competent kart racer. However, in the transition to a handheld, ModNation lost some of its charm, making it not quite the breath of fresh air that the console version appears to be.
At its core, ModNation Racers PSP is very similar to the console game of the same name. The do-it-yourself kart racer allows for an almost unprecedented level of customization, with drivers (the cartoony, titular Mods), karts, and tracks able to be created from scratch. Though most customization options are locked at the start of the game, it’s apparent right away that the number of options is almost overwhelming. More character and kart details can be unlocked by progressing through career mode, as well as completing specific challenges along the way. These might include using weapons a specific number of time, or drifting for a particular section of the course. Unlockable items are a good incentive to complete extra career challenges that the player might skip otherwise, but I still wish that the game let you know what you unlocked at the end of each race, similar to LittleBigPlanet. That said, acquiring all of the items in the game’s inventory would take a considerable amount of time and skill, meaning that completionists will have more than enough to do.
The game’s career mode has a loose story, told by amusing animated cut scenes between major races. However, the narrative is largely forgettable, and won’t affect the actual races at all. Each career race requires the player to come in at least third (out of six racers) in order to proceed, which seems easy enough at first, but becomes gradually more challenging due to tricky tracks and devious opponents. The tracks are designed to take advantage of drifting, drafting, and midair spins, all of which build up a turbo meter. As expected, this meter gives the player a boost, but can also be used defensively to throw up a quick shield, meaning that it’s not a bad strategy to make sure the turbo meter is never completely drained.
Additionally, each track is littered with power-ups, though unfortunately, they don’t stack like they do in the PS3 version. That means once you pick up a projectile, it’s as powerful as it’s going to be, and you can’t continue to collect orbs and level up your weapon. This is a shame, because leveling up power-ups was a great and unique feature of the console version, but it’s still extremely satisfying to hit an opponent with a rocket, or gather a well-timed speed burst. Though these power-ups, and the game in general, are far more balanced than Mario Kart (which often feels like it’s punishing you for being in first place), there were still times when the game felt incredibly cheap. More than once, I was hit with multiple projectiles in a row, ruining my chances of completing the race in the top three; this even happened right before the finish line on the final lap a couple of times. Though this was frustrating, it wasn’t enough of a deterrent to make me want to quit altogether, and it didn’t happen often enough to be comparable to the detested blue shell of doom.
If you want to take a break from the career mode, ModNation Racers also offers three additional single-player race types. Action Race is essentially the same as the races you’ll find in career mode, but allows you to choose the track for a single challenge. Pure Race gets rid of the power-ups, challenging you to win based on your racing skills alone. Last Kart Standing, as the name suggests, eliminates the kart in last place every 30 seconds; the one that remains at the end is the winner. ModNation Racers also supports both local and online multiplayer, but with the game not out until May 25, I wasn’t able to really get a sense of the multiplayer functionality.
What makes kart racers different from some other racing games is the accessibility of the gameplay. The Mario Kart games have always made it easy for players to learn their controls, and ModNation Racers on the PS3 also has an intuitive control scheme that’s simple to figure out. In losing an analog stick on the PSP, the controls for the handheld version of the game don’t feel as tight and intuitive as they do in the console installment. Karts can be controlled with either the thumbstick or the D-pad, though the directional buttons are used to take out other racers. I personally found trying to control the kart with the D-pad a little awkward, which could also be said about attempting to quickly switch from the thumbstick to the D-pad for a takedown, so I ignored this move for almost the entirety of the game. Drifting and drafting play a large part in each course’s strategy, and drifting is fairly easy to pull off by holding the X button while turning. Again, the controls aren’t difficult to learn, but they simply never feel as smooth as they should.
As far as presentation goes, ModNation Racers PSP may be graphically inferior to the console version, but it’s still a fairly good-looking handheld game. The driving hub from the PS3 version of the game has been replaced by a series of menus, but this makes sense considering the technical limitations of the PSP. However, it can sometimes be difficult to tell obstacles from shortcuts when they’re far away on the course; a hollow tunnel may appear as a solid object until you get very close to it, and what seemed like a secret path may actually be an impassable body of water. Once you’ve played through all of the courses a few times, you will know which of these pitfalls to look out for, but it can be very frustrating to lose a race the first time through because of graphical shortcomings. The voice acting in cut scenes is a plus, but the instructional voiceover during the actual races will probably make you want to turn your sound off entirely.
With just a few tweaks and improvements, ModNation Racers PSP could have risen up as the best handheld kart racer available. While it doesn’t quite encompass the charm and addictive nature of Mario Kart DS, it’s still a strong game in its own right, and can offer hours of entertainment to kart racing fans. It’s a game best enjoyed in smaller doses, though, as frustration can set in after just a few races. While ModNation Racers has arguably done more for the kart racing genre than any game since Mario Kart, the PSP version of the title falls just short of greatness.