ModNation Racers (Review)

“United Front Games annihilates Mario Kart even before the race begins.”

Around this time last year is when I first heard about ModNation Racers and the plethora of customization tools that it would provide. As someone who loves racing games, as well customization in games period, I was really stoked.

I waited many months for anything playable to surface. It wasn’t until December 2009 that I obtained a beta key in a Gamespot giveaway and was able to check out what ModNation Racers had to offer first hand. It may have only been a limited test product of the full game, but I couldn’t help but feel very unimpressed with ModNation Racers after spending a few days with the exclusive beta. Controls felt strange, customizing content was all locked away except a few pieces (making it feel more like a demo) and loading times were far too long. Worst of all, it felt very amateurish. When time eventually ran out and the beta period expired, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Is that what I waited all that time for? Is this all that ModNation Racers is?”

The answer? No.

Despite not being too content with the beta gameplay, I still knew that I was going to buy ModNation Racers because I told myself that the full game would surely be better. So, a day after the game’s release last week, I picked it up at my local EB Games. Was purchasing ModNation Racers a good investment, or was it the worst gaming mistake that I’ve made this year? I can safely say that it’s the former. ModNation Racers is good. Really good.

After waiting through two minutes of splash screens and such, and then enduring a five minute install that came to 3.2 gigabytes, I was thrown directly into a race which served as the first event in the game’s career mode. This seemed like a page straight out of GRID’s book, since it did the same thing. A grizzled old “southern” voice talks to you over the radio too, just like GRID. While the similarities between the two games end there, I do feel like GRID was the inspiration for ModNation Racers’ opening race.

After clearing the race, you’re immediately taken to the Modspot, which is a virtual environment that houses all of the games features. Aside from just driving to and accessing the game’s features in the Modspot, players can also practice their cornering and drifting as well as chat with fellow players either by voice chat or controller (via the ingame keyboard). The Modspot has a lot of neat little things around it. There is a “coming soon” preview window, which I believe will show off future DLC, as well as the top three karts and mods, whcih are proudly represented on their own podiums. From the Modspot, players can access career mode, singleplayer races, local multiplayer (which includes online splitscreen support), online races, and the creation studio. Most of these choices are pretty standard with the exception of the creation studio.

If players opt to continue career mode instead of checking out the other features of the game, they be presented with more races and a storyline that unfolds through cutscenes. Career mode is very user friendly as it allows you select any previous race that you’ve unlocked so that you can try to collect all tokens on the tracks (tokens ingame currency for buying customization pieces) or attempt to meet the objectives, which unlock goodies if you complete them, for each race. Some races will just ask you to do simple things like “take every shortcut on the circuit” or “don’t hit any walls for one lap” and aren’t very difficult to attain, but they quickly get harder. Regarding the difficulty of career mode, it’s fairly extreme. Ask anyone what they think of the career mode in ModNation Racers, and they will probably give you a pretty mean look. This is because career mode holds your hand for the first few events, but then immediately throws challenges and races at you which, for some reason, seem to believe that you’re a seasoned pro at ModNation Racers. I can recall a few “near rage quits” that I had, which I wish I could say for some of the players who I’ve spoken to on GameFAQs and such. Everybody seems to be frustrated by career mode, and rightfully so. It gets hard too quickly. I have not completed it yet myself, and thinking about how challenging the final races will be really worries me.

Singleplayer racing offers you exactly what you would expect, quick race and time trial. Quick race is nothing more than a singleplayer race set up the way you want, and this is something we’re all familiar with these days. Time trial is just your standard relaxed game mode that has you doing as many laps as you want around any given track to try and set new best laps.

I haven’t had a chance to try the local multiplayer yet, but it looks quite good. Local multiplayer involves split screen racing between two to four players with or without AI bots. One feature that sounds particular nice about the local multiplayer is the ability to play online as well. This means that you and your friends can all play on the same screen and in the same room, but be playing online against other people. This is a feature that we haven’t seen much in Playstation 3 games, which is surprising considering that the Wii takes advantage of this feature nicely.

Speaking of online races, there are a few different race types available. Casual races allow you to play custom races with your own race settings and are just for fun, meaning there are no rewards for winning. If you are looking to show off your skill, then there are XP races availble to you. From what I have been able to tell, these races are only on the game’s original tracks. Since competing in XP races inproves your online standing, this makes sense since racing custom tracks in XP races would introduce a few unfair aspects to the game. My only complaint with the online racing is that XP races are fairly easy to get into, but casual races are quite hard to start up. I was in a casual race lobby for nearly ten minutes before somebody else joined. I was away from the PS3 when they joined though, and they managed to steal the host seat from me through a veto vote. They then changed the track to their own custom made one, so I promptly left the lobby. It is also worth nothing that I experienced zero lag so far online. ModNation Racers seems to be incredibly stable.

The creation studio is the meat of the game. Here, players can cash in tokens for new customization pieces, upload and download user content, and make their own karts, mods, and tracks.To give an indication of how good the creation studio is, I’ve downloaded recerations of Mario and Luigi’s karts from Mario Kart, Mr. Bean’s car, and even a Jurassic Park jeep that, yes, has the actual Jurassic Park logo on the sides. For mods, I’ve downloaded Bender, Bugs Bunny, Stitch, Super Mario, and even a moogle. They all look strikingly like the original copyrighted characters that they are based on, which is very impressive. I neglected to base my kart and mod on existing material and instead just made a Formula 1-esque car and driver, complete with self-placed sponsor logos and everything.

The track creator is the best part of the creation studio. Here, the sky is very nearly the limits. Making your own track has never been easier, as all you have to do is drive around a track-laying steamroller sort of device which controls the direction and altitude of the race track. Your track can be shaped however you want it, allowing you to recreate existing real life circuits or make your own dream courses. I like to do a bit of both. I’ve made a few tracks so far, my favourite original track being a long circuit that starts in the desert before sweeping into a seaside shady jungle and then back into a populated area of the desert. My favourite track that I’ve made though happens to be High Speed Ring, a track featured in the Gran Turismo series. It started out rough, having incorrect placement of props and a very bumpy road, but after smoothing out both of these details, I can safely say that I have a very nice recreation of the Gran Turismo circuit. Making your own tracks really is a blast, and is probably the most entertaining part of the game. The only racing game that does a similar thing which I enjoy is Trackmania United Forever, which is absolutely blown away by ModNation Racers in every way imaginable. This is truly the best game in terms of editors available on the PS3.

Now, it’s about time that I talk about the gameplay. While kart controls in the beta were awkward at best, the final game has silky smooth controls. They may take a few races to get used to, but once you get used to them you’ll feel very at home. If you find yourself unhappy with the controls, you can tweak your handling and drifting, and your acceleration and top speed. There is a catch though, as increasing your handling or drifting will decrease the other, and the same applies between acceleration and top speed. This is a nice feature, straying away from kart specific characteristics of Mario Kart and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.

ModNation Racers decides to be unlike the competition with drifting as well. Drifting is done simply by holding X. After holding the button for nearly ten seconds, you will get a speed increase and leave a trail of flames. This lasts until you stop drifting, which should give you an idea of just how effective the drifting can be in this game. Drifting may not be as easy as it was in All-Stars Racing, but ModNation certainly defeats Mario Kart in this area.

There is a lot of charm in this game. The visuals are quite nice for a cartoony kart racer, and the hyperactive music fits in beautifully. Sound effects are also surprisingly decent, which also includes the silly voice acting in career mode. All in all, the overall package is fantastic. There is, however, one aspect of the game that is unacceptable. I am speaking of the long load times. Even after the mandatory install, you will be facing 30-60 second loading screens. Add up how many times the game will load when you play and you’ll realize that you’re missing several minutes of time that you could have spent playing rather than watching loading screens. Load times are even significantly longer than they were in the beta, which astounds me. I’ve been told that United Front Games is supposedly going to fix this issue, which should really be in their best interests. The problem with the frequent load screens is that when you’re not sitting in one part of the game for long and are instead going from menu to menu, feature to feature, you will be hit with countless loading screens which will set you back several minutes. Considering the fact that two loading screens alone will make you lose more than a minute of play time says something, and it confuses me that ModNation Racers was released with these long load times.

Despite the fact that the load times are a little bit on the ridiculous side, ModNation Racers is still a fantastic game. If you enjoy racing games or customization tools, then you really do owe it to yourself to try this game out. ModNation Racers tears the competition apart on merit alone.

Final Score

9/10

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