Preview: ModNation Racers (PSP)
ModNation Racers, is a Playstation exclusive Kart Racing game, Sony’s response to Nintendo’s successful Mario Kart franchise, and created with a great deal of inspiration from the acclaimed Little Big Planet.
The PSP version is a graphically watered down counterpart of the main console game, available this May, but the game’s art style transitions nicely to Sony’s handheld. ModNation Racers hopes to become what Little Big Planet became to gamers, but for the racing genre. Despite not usually being a fan of platformers, Little Big Planet’s innovation and versatility as a game along with it’s customizable elements really won me over. ModNation Racers is attempting to innovate a far more difficult genre to diversify, however. And while I easily consider it the best Kart Racing game I’ve played on a handheld so far, it didn’t quite breathe new life into it’s genre the way Little Big Planet did.
ModNation is the first Kart Racing game to really borrow inspiration from LBP’s “Play, Create, Share” motto in that the game provides players with countless different options to customize their own “Mod” which is your Sackboy like character, your kart and even to create your own track. Practically all of your customization options are initially locked, so players will want to quickly get into the game’s Career Mode. The game’s story opens with your racer, Tag, looking to make a name for himself as a kart racer in the ModNation Racing Championship Circuit. Your first race is Tag’s qualifying race, in which you must place third or higher to advance to the main Championship. Two funny Sports Newscasters, Biff Tradwell and Gary Reasons report on Tag’s entry and rise to become a top kart racer. For a game with little emphasis on the story, the dialogue is funny and well written, as is the commentary during races with funny quips like, “Do you need an eye doctor or a map? Stay on the course!” It also spoofs melodramatic car commercials, and the racing industry in general.
The game’s learning curve is a bit steeper than most other kart racing games. R1 is to accelerate, L1 is to brake/reverse, triangle is to turbo boost, circle is to activate your shield [to block items], x is to hop [for hopping over certain course obstacles], and square is to use an item. The D-pad also functions separately from the analog, in that you can stomp the ground by tapping down, or sideswipe another racer by pressing up. Holding X also allows you to drift. Players will need to utilize every facet of game play to be successful during races. From drifting during sharp turns, learning how to aim items effectively and to side swiping other racers, the game has a bit more depth than other kart racing games do. Items are also more diverse than the shells and banana peels of Mario Kart. Rockets and thunder bolts will miss opponents if not timed well or if aimed poorly on certain legs of the track. The game has good physics and tight controls to compliment it’s steep learning curve, though.
ModNation’s largest draw is definitely it’s customization. Practically every element of the game is deeply customizable with a wide array of options. The game’s Career mode even integrates the customization process into it very nicely. As Tag advances through races, he becomes well known for his outrageous and bizarre costumes, which then ushers the player into a customization tutorial. This allows you to make Tag into anything you want him to be, while retaining the flow of the story. Players have nearly limitless combinations of character parts, including over 455 types of eyes, 330 mouths, and few hundred options for every other facial feature, article of clothing, hair and head accessories. Most of these options also have up to 128 different color choices as well. You can also customize your own kart, with design elements divided by categories of parts, accessories, body and decals. The Parts tab allows you to choose from suspension, spoilers, seats, wheels, steering wheels, and engines. Accessories allows you to choose from antennas, hood ornaments and license plates. Both your mod and your kart can be further customized with the download option, which I wasn’t able to fully explore, but I surmise players will be able to upload their own graphics to the game, similar to how you could in LBP.
By far the most engrossing and in depth part of the game is the feature to design and create your own track. The options in this are categorized by track layout, place props, deform terrain, paint terrain and sky. Each of these options has a wealth of sub catagories with extensive options to build your own dream track. Track layout allows you to control the flow and loop of your track, while determining how long one lap will be. Prop placement provides you with a wide array of structures to decorate your course with; There are over 200 different kinds of objects to place on or around your track, many of which are obstacles racers will have to avoid or interact with. (Speed boost panels, ramps, Thwomp like anvils that move up and down to crush racers going under them.) Deform terrain allows you to make your own mountains or hills around or impeding the layout of the track. Paint terrain allows players to paint the pavement of the track or even outer areas of it in any way they wish. Players can also choose the appearance of the sky, and the location of the track with choices like alpine, desert, seaside and jungle. You have near infinite options with how you design and create your own tracks, and this was certainly my favorite aspect of the game.
My least favorite aspect however, is some of the camera issues the game suffers from. The most irritating of these is when your kart becomes airborn after a jump. During landing the camera will pan around awkwardly, forcing your mod to drive in the opposite direction of the race. I experienced this quite a bit, and it was enough to cost me my place during races at critical times. Playing against the AI can become ad nauseum pretty quickly. The collective AI of the other racers seems to have no interest in winning, rather costing you the win is the goal. Against friends with the game however, I think it would be a lot more fun. I think the console version of the game would have a lot more replay value as well, considering the much smaller community available to PSP. “Play, Create, Share” is a lot more expansive on a console than on a handheld, but the game does quite a bit on it’s portable platform as well. I feel it’s definitely a buy if you have friends to play with, but as a single player game, I would only say to rent it. Overall, I would say ModNation racers is probably the best racing game I’ve played on a handheld. But much like LBP, it’s a networking, community based game and requires other people to play with to experience it’s full potential.