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Saturday, April 23, 2011

ModNation Racers (7.9/10)

I’ve never been a huge fan of racing games. This probably has something to do with the fact that in real life I am, truth be told, a really crappy driver. But the exception that proves the rule was Nintendo’s classic Mario Kart. Ahhhhhhhh, memories. The nostalgia of that childhood staple has been reborn in ModNation Racers by United Front Games.

ModNation Racers is a sort of hybrid between the plumber friendly, physics defying, weaponized kart racing of Mario Kart and the user-created cornucopia of sharable content popularized by Little Big Planet. Following in the "Create, play, share" footsteps of LBP, ModNation offers similarly impressive creation tools and an easy to use forum to share them with the online community.

Right from the off you enter ModSpot, your central hub or lobby where you can, you guessed it, create (customize your own driver (called mods), vehicles, and tracks), play (both online or off, splitscreen or solo, career mode or random race), and share (download the creations of others to use at your leisure or upload your own to share with the community) or just drive in circles and run into strangers (I can't seem to not run into someone...).

The career mode follows Tag, a lovable graffiti artist turned racer in a classic worst to first cliched story. In a weird way it kinda reminds me Speed Racer. It's a good laugh in parts and the courses are cleverly designed with bonuses for completing certain tasks 'in-race' which basically serve to unlock more customization options. This adds a nice replay element rather than just advancing to the next track.

That said, Tag's tale hits a pretty big pothole about two thirds of the way through the campaign as the AI gets increasingly tough. Actually, scratch that last, annoyingly tough. It's something other reviewers have mentioned and I'm gonna throw my proverbial hat into this ring as well; the problem with weapon-based kart racers is there is always someone who is gonna zap/bomb/missile/cheat his or her way past you when you are just twenty feet from the finish. I don't mind it happening occasionally (hey, that's life...), but when it happens repeatedly you start to feel a bit cheated which makes it more frustrating than fun.

Fortunately, if you get annoyed with the career mode (as I did, can you tell?) you've got plenty of other options. You can join up with others online and race in any number of ways, be it hot lap or just a fun go around. If your friends are, you know, actually in your house, you can play 4-way splitscreen (easily the most fun I've had with the game... that way when someone screws you over you can at least throw something at them!).

As for the actual gameplay itself, it’s fairly standard kart racing which is both tight and responsive. In standard kart racing style you'll be able to drive through 'pods' containing a random weapon (missiles, shock, sonic, boost). However, ModNation distinguishes itself by adding a wrinkle: you can save your weapon and pick up another pod, thereby making it stronger. There are a total of three levels. Maxed out, a single missile becomes a heat seeking barrage; the simple sonic boom becomes a devastating shock wave. But here's the rub, if you get hit by another driver's weapons you lose whatever you were building up and have to start over from scratch, so there is a risk/reward to trying to build up your arsenal.

Now, drifting is easily the most important skill you’ll need to master early on. "Drifting" is when you go around a turn without taking your foot off the gas: deliberately spinning out the back end but maintaining control and coming out of the turn without losing speed. In ModNation, drifting (along with drafting, aerial moves off of jumps, and taking out your opponents) earns 'track points' that build up on a scale that allows you to either boost or create a momentary shield (more on that in a minute). As you race against tougher opposition, be it human or AI, strategic drifting becomes increasingly essential.

That power bar you build up by earning track points can be used in three ways: a temporary speed boost that drains the bar, a powerful sideswipe if you are next to an opponent knocking them silly, or a short lived shield that can protect you from incoming attacks. A word of warning here, there is a proximity alarm that sounds with imminent danger, but you have maybe a second before you'll actually get hit... if you use the shield too early (or don't have enough charge) it will run out before the strike leaving you completely vulnerable. It's all about timing...

Along the same lines as LBP, I love to download the hard work of others for my own personal benefit. I've got Kratos, a Stormtrooper, Mario, Spiderman, and even a remarkably good Alien in my drivers list. It's all right there, just drive around ModSpot and you'll soon see you can download the most popular mods, karts, and tracks. I'm not clever enough to come up with anything really cool, and some of the unique track designs and hilarious (and accurate) karts and mods the community has come up with will be on my hard drive for a while. That's not to say I didn't spend a fair amount of time tinkering around, creating a 'Simon' mod (that actually looks pretty good if I do say so myself) and some funny karts. The creation tools can go as deep as you want, but are surprisingly simply and intuitive once you get in a bit of practice... I found them more user-friendly than LBP for what that's worth. 

But what really impressed me is the track creator. You basically drive a giant steamroller that lays out your track for you, just drive it around as if it were a kart. You can even change elevation. If you loop the track over onto itself it'll automatically build bridges and the like. What's clever though is once you finish the main lay out rather than having to go through it and lay all the boosts, weapon pods, trees, stands, etc, you can just hit an 'Auto-Populate' button and it does it all for you. This means you can create a track from start to finish in less the half and hour depending on how elaborate you want to make it. Personally, I like this streamlined approach. One issue with LBP was the time commitment to not only master the controls, but then create the levels. It took patience... not a trait I'm known for. But with ModNation I can whip up something playable while the kettle's boiling and get right to the racing.

Visually, ModNation is a colorful explosion that, again, depends greatly upon the user for effect. While it’s not overwhelming, it does serve it’s purpose well. The commentary team of the bully Biff Tradwell and his unfortunate partner Gary Reason alternate between being either groan-inducingly awful or surprisingly laugh out load funny. Sadly, outside of the exploits of Tag in career mode their platitudes get recycled pretty early… just like the kitschy music and sound effects.

But far and away the biggest issue with ModNation is one that nearly every reviewer (and fan) has already brought up… the load times. It doesn’t make the game unplayable, but it’s immediately noticeable and will wear on you the more you play… going from one area to another (and even back) takes a fair while… every time. I don’t know if the developers couldn’t help this, or if they just thought no one would mind, but it’s more than a little frustrating.

With over two million pieces of user created content and a fairly die hard fan base, it’s good to see games like ModNation Racers and Little Big Planet have not only garnered a loyal community, but a consistent one as well. I, for one, am thankful for the opportunity given to us gamers by United Front Games to share our own visions with the community. And, as with LBP, a hearty thank you to all those out there who spent a lot of their own time to create such wonderful stuff for me to enjoy in my own house. Mario Kart has always been near and dear to my heart, and I’m happy to say that ModNation Racers now joins it... if, that is, you can handle the load times and frustrating AI…


Score = 7.9 / 10

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