If it feels like there have been a lot of weapon-based racing games lately, then you're not alone. Between Split/Second, Blur and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, arcade racers are back in full force. Even with all of the recent competition, Sony's ModNation Racers still manages to stand out from the pack. It does this with its one special ingredient -- a near infinite amount of tracks, cars and comical drivers. ModNation Racers is not without a few problems, but with so much user-created content you may find it hard to go back to anybody else's racing game.
ModNation Racers is not a particularly original or creative concept, it's essentially aping dozens (if not hundreds) of racing games before it. The gameplay is pure Super Mario Kart; from the weapons you throw to the crazy drifting you'll need to master to beat the competition. The game is cute and offers a series of over-the-top race courses that are full of annoying obstacles and hidden short cuts. Outside of high definition graphics and the complete lack of Nintendo characters, ModNation Racers might as well call itself Super Mario Karts.
The conceit is that this Mario Kart-clone allows its users to design and share vehicles, playable characters and even race tracks. Because using the in-game editor tools is so painless and easy, you'll be overwhelmed with all kinds of user-created content. Of course, even this concept isn't very original. Racing games have been including track editors since the days of the NES, if not before. While games like Burnout, Need For Speed and Project Gotham Racing have done away with customization, there are more than enough racers to incorporate these modes into the gameplay.
The reason all this works so well is because of how well the developers have managed to tie it together. Never before has it been so easy to make a fun track, upload it to the world and then race on it with compete strangers. ModNation Racers allows you to quickly jump into brand new levels almost every time, which means that you could conceivably play the game every day and constantly race brand new courses. It all comes together in a way I haven't seen before. This may not be the world's most original racing game, but it's definitely first to get all of the user-content potential right.
So let's back up a little and explain what ModNation Racers actually is. What we have here is a fast-paced kart racing game. It's the kind of arcade racer where you pick up special items and use them to gain the upper hand. The object is to get to the finish line first, no matter who you have to screw over in the process. You gain boost and points by pulling off big air tricks (which you don't control) and performing successful power slides. In other words, ModNations Racers is exactly like every other Mario Kart wannabe you've played over the last twenty years.
Did somebody say something about weapons? Much like wipEout and Blur, ModNation Racers features a number of useful items. At first it looks like there are only four items to pick up -- boost, missile, sound and lightning. But you'll quickly realize that you can power up each item two more times. For example, a level 1 boost may give you a short speed increase, but at level 3 you'll create a wormhole of sorts and warp closer to the front of the pack. Upgrading these items is as easy as driving over another item orb, which are more than plentiful on the race track.Right out of the box you get two dozen race tracks. These courses include the sandy deserts, coastal towns, mountain tops and much, much more. These levels are par for the course when it comes to this style of racing game, which is to say that they are neither spectacular nor disappointing. There are some fun courses that have you leaping over huge hills and avoiding water hazards, but without the unique art style and nostalgia ModNation never quite rises to the level of Super Mario Kart.
I hate to go back to Mario Kart so much, but it's all I could think about when I was racing against the computer-controlled opponents in the single-player career mode. This is a game where the artificial intelligence never lets up, constantly making sure you don't come in first. This isn't a big problem at the beginning of the game, but spend some time with the computer and you'll learn to hate it. The computer seems to have two tactics -- either they'll take an insurmountable lead early on, or they'll attack you with everything they've got an inch before you cross the finish line. In either case, it's enough to make you swear off of ModNation Racers.
The good news is that most gamers won't even think about racing against the computer. Why would you when you could take on a whole world of like-minded race fans? Because of how well the online world is woven into the single-player experience, it's easy to simply ignore the career mode and just find random races to play. Not only will this allow you to play tons of new tracks (including the ones you didn't get to in the single-player mode), but it also pits you against everyday people like yourself. Gone are the unfair practices of the computer players, they've been replaced with the frustration of knowing you aren't the greatest kart racer in the world.
The real draw is the create-a-track mode. It's impressive how easy it is to develop, tweak and perfect a custom track. Creating a course is as easy as laying down road, picking a motif, adding obstacles and uploading it to the world. Much like Sony's LittleBigPlanet, ModNation Racers lets you play the game while editing it, making the whole experience fun and simple. But don't confuse simple with shallow, because there's more than enough depth in the toolbox to make whatever tracks you want. The scope may not be as impressive of LittleBigPlanet, but there is no finer track editor on the PlayStation 3 (or any other current generation console, for that matter).
On top of creating your own tracks, you are also in total control over your avatar and vehicle. Because there are so many different games and even consoles that allow you to develop your own avatars, doing this in the game isn't nearly as exciting as editing together brand new tracks. The editor allows you to build just about any kind of character you want, from movie stars to video game characters to brand new creations. The art styles isn't nearly as interesting as the sack-based characters found in LittleBigPlanet, but I don't have any issue with the nice citizens of the ModNation.
If you're not into creating your own tracks, cars and avatars, there's a pop-up guide that lets you search through all of the user-created content. As you might imagine, the online servers are full of copyrighted characters. On the first page alone I found Super Mario, Luigi, Sonic the Hedgehog, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Master Chief, Vault 101 Boy, Link, Optimus Prime and Sephiroth. And that's just on the first page. There are hundreds of pages of these types of characters, along with a few brand new creations.For the most part there's no reason to go in and manually download the newest levels. Whenever you jump into an online race you'll automatically download the level, which means you'll rarely have to search through pages of levels and guess at which are worth your time. This also means that you'll never know what level you're going to play; it could be one from the disc or one of the thousands available for download. This will certainly keep things fresh as you spend the next few months sucked into the online world.
Unfortunately, all of this depth and customization comes at a steep price. For some strange reason the game has a serious amount of load time. It's routine to see waits as long as 30 - 45 seconds, which is a good two or three times the competition. While this normally isn't one of my complaints, it was so frequent in this game that I wondered if my game was defective. Even with this game hogging more than 3 GB of hard drive space; it still has the load times of a first generation PSP game.
The good news is that the wait is worth it, especially when you're racing through the thousands of user-created levels. With its easy control and colorful graphics, ModNation Racers is a good attempt at duplicating the Mario Kart formula on the PlayStation 3. It's the user-created content that makes this game worth owning. With so much to do and see online, this is one of the best racing games you can buy. Still, I wish the game wasn't as derivative and there were faster load times. If the community manages to stick with the game, then ModNation Racers is a franchise worth paying attention to.