Kart games are generally a sure-fire hit: from Mario to Crash, the simple pleasures of throwing an engine on wheels around all manner of fantastical tracks are hard to beat, especially when the game builds in an addictive, playable multiplayer mode from the off. Indeed, much of my University degree was spent perfecting the smooth lines of Moo Moo Farm with three mates all battling for the most powerful weapons. Time wasted? Hardly, I passed, and now know the course off by heart.
Which was handy a few weeks back when I re-created Mario Kart 64′s best loop entirely in ModNation Racers. I don’t mean it was pretty close, I mean it was exactly the same. The subtle hop at the beginning, the wide, sweeping curves, the Chubbys that leap from the ground, the farmhouse near the end – barring a few texture swaps and the absence of a perfect replica of the bridge on the final straight, I had a carbon copy of my favourite course. And it took me all of about thirty minutes to build.
That’s the beauty of ModNation Racers. Sure, it’s a great looking game with loads of pre-built levels to play through in a fairly lengthy ‘career’ mode, but on a personal level that’s all just filler – the real meat of the game is in the Creation Station, and it’s such tasty, rich meat that I’d have been quite happy without any single player campaign mode at all. Indeed, it often feels like a means to an end, a vehicle for unlocking parts, objects and treats for use in the Create mode. LittleBigPlanet on rubber, then.
Actually, that’s perhaps a little harsh – the career mode is decent enough, and is peppered with laugh-out-loud funny cut-scenes (especially from the faux TV presenters) and does pose some challenge later on, but when the tracks featured in the single player are listed with the same presence as yours when selecting a course to race on with friends it’s patently clear that Sony are keen to emphasise that MNR is the game you want it to be, and they’ve done everything they can to push that train of thought.
An example: when you start the game and trundle into the ModSpot, the game’s central activity hub, you’ll get message pings from anyone that’s left a comment on one of your tracks, or any friends that are around and about waiting for a race or a chat. You can head on over to the Share Station and see what’s new, sort by any number of variables and see how many people have downloaded your latest creation. Turn around, and you’ll see who’s the fastest and who’s the most popular on massive big screens.
Likewise, developers United Front have displayed super-sized versions of the most grabbed Mods and Karts, the other two aspects of the game’s create mode. You can drive up to these creations, read a little about them and download (and then remix) them for your own use. Mods themselves range from videogame homages to all manner of alien creatures, and the Karts from super-chunky Skyline ‘tributes’ to a van that BA wouldn’t be unhappy driving. It’s community gaming at its best.
And yes, the load times still grate a little bit, but the delays are less frustating when you know there’ll be stuff waiting for you to do – the ModSpot might have been better served as a single pop-up menu rather than a busy, 3D world on first boot but once you’re in amongst friends and in no rush to dive in and out of other screens it doesn’t seem to matter as much. For the record, the load times are better than the beta, but still manage to make a nuisance of themselves – especially between races.
So, the races – the cornerstone of MNR even if it’s not immediately obvious they are. Thankfully, there are no problems with the handling of the karts, the drift-heavy physics work perfectly and the risk/reward balance between sliding and boosting encourages closely fought lap time battles. There are issues with weapon power, though – despite the ability to convert some of your boost into a temporary shield some weapons are both unavoidable and far too destructive, bringing to mind the blue shells from Mario’s last few four wheeled titles.
Still, fire is best fought with fire, and each track offers ample opportunity to pick up plenty of weapons. Collecting more than one weapon pod when you’re already carrying simply boosts that pick-up’s power (to a maximum level of three) and you can drop most weapons behind you too by holding the button rather than tapping. Alternatively, branching paths (and secret routes) tend to promote speed boosts and token collection, so it’s certainly not all about blasting your opponent with heat seeking rockets.
Regardless, United Front are aware that not everyone wants to play a game the same way as everyone else, and if you want to switch off weapons, change the speed of the race or adjust other parameters to suit, you can. And if you just want to dip in and out of online, perhaps only taking part in the daily Time Trial, you can. Will you get as much out of the game if you never venture online? Probably not, but you certainly don’t need to become a hardcore petrolhead to get your money’s worth.
At the centre, then, of this sprawling, community-focused hub is a solid racing game packed with charm and ambition. ModNation Racers is nothing if not comprehensive, with options available to the player that go far beyond te scope of lesser racing games; it’s confident too, cock-sure in its ability to let the player craft their own game around the skeletal structure that comes out of the box. With friends, and especially ones with creative impulses, ModNation Racers might just be the best game on the PlayStation 3.
- Utterly compulsive create options
- A lengthy, rewarding single player mode
- Split screen multiplayer and 12 player online
- Should in theory last indefinitely
- Loading times are an issue
- Frame rate should have been pushed to sixty
I’ve been lucky enough to see ModNation Racers grow over the last few months, and it’s gone from a limited taster of a beta to something wonderfully vast without ever being overly complicated. The creation is as deep or as automatic as you want it, the online as time sapping or as casual as your heart desires – MNR is a game for everyone without ever making anyone feel left out, and in the days of hardcore first person shooters and single player epics, surely that’s exactly what we all need just now?