Out of all the genres out there in the gaming world, the cart racing division has been fairly sluggish jumping off the starting line within the recent years. Of course we’ve had the Mario Kart games, but few have ventured to this stagnant genre (and fewer have succeeded) to make something truly fresh and worth talking about. ModNation Racers comes to PS3 with high hopes and promises to change up the tires in all the right ways and make this genre relevant again within this current age. Playing, creating, and sharing might be the game’s selling point, but within all the great creativity is an incredibly fun and original cart racer.
While the racing tournament gives a reason to race around with the different characters, your creations (or abominations) are the star of the show. Once you delve into the Modspot (a hub-like area allowing access to the mode your choose), the option to create is presented right in front of you. The stock character and cars are just templates begging for you to put your own creative flair on them. They aren’t just mods, they are your mods. I’m not exactly Vincent van Gogh, but I was able to cobble together a neat looking teal and black car coupled with a similarly colored hockey player character with aviator sunglasses in just a few minutes. The creation tools were deep, but accessible. Of course, to make something truly awe-inspiring (like Macho Man Randy Savage, which was always the top mod), you’ll need to spend more than a few minutes, but the creation tools allow for that creativity. With different layers, stickers, hats, eyes, mouths, ears, and just about everything else, you are only limited to what you want to do.
The same goes for the track creation. I didn’t have any apparent ideas for a specific layout of road or any cool ramp ideas, so I just started laying track on the fly, adjusting different aspects as I went. I had a playable track within minutes, mostly thanks to the auto-complete features. Holding down the X button can automatically complete the road for you, which is handy, but the auto-populate feature makes some of the more tedious work tolerable. Instead of placing every single weapon item, sheep, and decoration along the track, using this auto-populate feature sets that stuff for you, giving your track some liveliness without the work. Creators can ignore this completely and place every speed boost, jump, and house, but for people like me who just want cool things quickly, this is a great feature. I was shocked how easy it was to make something that wasn’t a complete wreck.
I won’t be uploading many of my creations any time soon, probably because the competition is so fierce. Sharing tracks, characters, and cars online is a snap and allows for others to see the creativity within the pool of PSN. It wasn’t long before I searched “Batman” and “Batmobile” and found plenty of good imitations to take and use within the game’s racing modes. Copyright infringement be damned, a lot of the creations I saw were accurate and worth downloading, if just for a laugh or proof of how flexible the tools were. Half of the Law of User-Created Content applies (one half being Copyright and the other half [although non-present] being penises) so I did my best to recreate my fond memories of Crash Team Racing, and because of the tracks, mods, and carts available and succeeded.
But Crash Team Racing, although an undeniable classic, came out over a decade ago. This is now. Changes, tweaks, and advancements are needed for a genre that has been sitting for this long and ModNation Racers delivers. Many mechanics were updated and given a modern coat of paint. Weapon pickups, a staple in cart racers, have a risk/reward system built into them. With every subsequent pick up, your weapon gains a level and significant power, but keeping it for longer periods of time risks it being knocked off by an enemy player. In that same vein, if you don’t need your weapon, you can hold the weapon button and turn that power-up into a mine, something I had much appreciation for.
The boost system also deserves major props for its usefulness and sheer ingenuity. Drifting, doing tricks, and taking enemies out yields power to a specific meter on the side of the screen. Using this meter grants an unprecedented depth to the racing because it can used for boost, a temporary shield, or a physical side-swipe attack on a nearby opponent. Weighing the pros and cons of boosting or shielding gives a great strategic value to the racing and is something I’d liken to the super meter in Mortal Kombat. Do I boost to try to get as far ahead as possible? Or do I save it and use it as a shield, waiting for that inevitable, massive lightning strike? It makes the Blue Shell equivalents a little more acceptable, knowing you have some sort of defense.
Updates, improvements, and streamlining mechanics, as welcome as they are, don’t mean much if actual driving isn’t up to snuff. Thankfully, and most importantly, the act of driving is satisfying in its own right. Drifts feel perfect with the right amount control and I never felt like the cart wasn’t responding accurately to my inputs; jumps, turns, and tricks included. Carts do have a fair amount of heft to them, but nothing that is hard to get used to.
Since the fundamentals have been nailed, it makes going to other modes rather easy. Time trials, regular races, and split-screen multiplayer are all great additions in their own right, but the single-player offering is a great time sink. The campaign mode is meaty, with five different tournaments, each with branching objectives. Each race has hidden tokens that are used to unlock more items and all races have challenges to complete in addition to winning, rewarding precision and giving a good reason to revisit older races. Grudge matches can even be unlocked after certain parameters have been met. These are one-on-one races with the “boss” characters with differing goals and definitely step up the difficulty. Each of these are different enough and offer a true challenge for those skilled enough to unlock it.
That’s not to say the regular AI is easy. Don’t let the cutesy faces fool you; the AI is relentless and filled with road rage. Other racers use their weapons and shields efficiently, never letting you rest on your laurels. During my whole campaign race time (which has plenty of races), I only won a couple by more than four seconds, meaning I almost always had someone right on my bumper. It ensured a hearty challenge and that I would always race my best and not mess up. They will capitalize on your mistakes too, as one wrong turn or hit wall can cost you a few places.
However, the challenge can get a little too steep. Other racers have the uncanny ability to use their weapons in quick succession or right within the spitting distance of the finish line, meaning two and a half laps of gold falls to waste after a measly missile barrage. Yes, the shield makes this less of a headache, but given that there can be almost a dozen other racers with a bounty on your cart, a few barriers aren’t always enough.
Also, most races have a “boss” character present and these skilled drivers are a step above the already-high skill plateau. If you mess up a few times within the race, by the third lap they are already so far ahead that a restart is necessary. I don’t necessarily advocate rubber-banding AI, but when it is nearly impossible to catch up after a passable performance, something should be done.
Although it wasn’t always tough AI that caused me to restart. The track layouts, while creative and colorful, frequently had a little restricted zones that I always would somehow magnetize to. Sometimes I would get placed back on the actual track, but most times I’d be stuck and almost forced to restart. Pressing Select to explode and get back in the race is appreciated (although you lose your weapon), but it seems to be putting just a band-aid over a bigger problem.
ModNation Racers has reignited my interest in the genre, or at least updated it and brought it into a new age. Despite the few bumps in the road, the new racing mechanics and the near-endless creativity cycle this game encourages makes ModNation Racers zoom past the competition. When the rubber hits the road, ModNation Racers stands out as a great, unique cart racer. For once, that idiom is actually a literal statement.
+Many interesting mechanics that differ from the norm
+Fast, challenging racing
+Easy, deep customization in tracks, vehicles, and characters
+AI is a good challenge sometimes…
-…But can be frustrating in other instances
-Losing a race within the last thirty seconds is never fun
-Minor track inconsistencies
Final Score: 8/10
*Only the PS3 version was played and reviewed.