Throughout the checkered history of the ModNation Racing Circuit (MRC) there have always been two constants, broadcasters Biff Tradwell and Gary Reasons. During their tenure the enigmatic duo has seen it all: photo finishes, spectacular crashes and the rise of the arrogant speedster, Espresso. What the pair is about to witness will change the face of the MRC forever. Having no prior experience, rookie racer Tag arrives to little fanfare, a virtual blank slate, that is until you buckle up for some ‘Race. Create. Share.’
Kicking off ModNation Racers’ career mode, you’re dropped into the shoes of racing nobody Tag. Like any career mode you work your way through a ladder of progressively difficult races; tracks will become trickier, while the AI gets more aggressive. The curve is gradual as racers push you to stick with your lines and use items more thoughtfully. Many racing games fall prey to unfair rubberbanding, but that isn’t the case here; victory always feels within reach and the AI never feels cheap. ModNation Racers beefs up the difficulty in its career with race challenges. Ranging from taking down opponents on specific regions of a track to scoring X number of drift points, the challenges never fail to test your ability. Even if the objective itself is easy you’ll still need to finish in first, which never allows you to leisurely complete objectives mid-race.
Weapons play a huge role in the outcome of each and every race. Item pods are scattered around the track and randomly yield one of four different items. The catch is each and every item can be leveled up or used as a dropped item – think banana peels. Say for instance you pick up the missile weapon, at level one it’s a simple single use straight projectile weapon, at level two it’s a homing missile and finally, at level three it’s a homing swarm that’ll cause havoc for every driver ahead of you. This might sound cheap as every racer could spam level three barrages all the time, but it’s all carefully balanced. If you have an item and you’re hit by a level one you’ll lose a level off your current item and so on. This weapon dynamic creates a risk in saving items; at any moment you could be relieved of your possession.
While you weigh item decisions you’ll also have to constantly manage your boost meter. Just like item management there is an inherent risk-reward mechanic that adds another layer of depth to ModNation Racers. To fill your gauge you can do a number of things mid-race including drifting, drafting and catching air, but to expend meter you’re confined to three different actions: boost, shield and sideswipe. In other kart games avoiding an incoming attack is never a real viable option, but here it’s always possible, assuming you possess both the meter and skill. Impending attacks provide on-screen warnings, alerting you via sounds to distance and weapon type. It takes several races to get the timing down but once you have you should be able to deflect most attacks. Shields require a quarter of your boost gauge so it’s always wise to keep at least that much meter stocked.
More so than other kart racers, ModNation Racers is incredibly reliant on its drift mechanic. Like Mario Kart you press a button to hop and then steer into the turn to begin skidding. Drifting is always the quickest route around corners and is the easiest way to fill your boost meter. At first the overall handling might not feel as tight as other games but karts still feel weighty, especially when you’re in contact with others or executing a sideswipe. To some dismay there aren’t different classes of karts mechanically speaking, what there is allows players to tweak a pair of sliders, customizing your kart’s ability to drift, steer, accelerate and increase its max speed. In a game so absorbed in customization it’s disappointing but understandable, as various classes could fragment the online community.
Obviously in response to the title’s reliance on drifting most of ModNation’s tracks feature lots of twists and turns. Mixed in between there are a smattering of jumps, shortcuts, obstacles and high speed straight aways to keep the track design varied. However, given the chaotic nature of kart games, the amount of obstacles found later in the career becomes somewhat exhausting. There are shortcuts that need to be triggered, on-track weapons to be activated, robots that inhibit progression, as well as a host of other mid-race distractions that detract more from the core racing experience than add to it. That isn’t to say some of it doesn’t work – triggered ramps leap to mind – but several circuits become far too busy.
The main appeal for many players will be the ability to fashion their own courses, characters and karts and creation in any of the disciplines is an absolute breeze. Characters – Mods – and karts are assembled in a similar manner, each start with a base and from there you pick and choose colors, materials and accessories. Both at first appear straight forward and if you’re trying to make a quick, decent looking creation they’ll do the trick; if you’re looking for some higher level customization you’ll find that too. Through the use of specific tools such as stickers, layers, scale tools and primitives, millions of unique creations are possible with a little patience and a handful of imagination.
In the track studio ModNation Racers is able to achieve something even LittleBigPlanet’s creation tools couldn’t muster: auto-complete. The track creator is incredibly intuitive to use, in fact laying the actual path is as simple as driving a steam roller and adjusting pitch. You could conceivably drive in a circle, hit auto-complete and have a perfectly functional, fleshed out track in a matter of seconds. Track studio gives you the ability to put forth as little or as much effort as you want. It won’t design a track for you and those that are thought out will likely stand out from the rest, but it literally means anyone can make a track.
Once your creation is complete you can throw it online to see what the community thinks of it. ModNation Racers’ community tools are perhaps the most exceptional feature of the entire game. Every time you boot up you’re dropped into the ModSpot, which for all intents and purposes is a glorified online lobby. There you’re surrounded by dozens of random players in their karts and often goofing around. Surrounding the ModSpot are a number of features including the most popular user created Mods and Karts, the daily hot lap challenge, ads for new DLC and gateways into various race types. The ModSpot is cleverly designed as it creates an easy location to sort and peruse content, while fostering spontaneous races and socializing.
Despite these positives of the ModSpot it does create the added nuisance of dealing with it all the time; there is no main menu in all of ModNation Racers. From the ModSpot there’s a radial menu that can take you anywhere, but you have to be there to use it. This makes game navigation a chore. Of course, this issue is made even more excruciating by ModNation Racers’ biggest and most maligned grievance: load times. Yes, the load times are every bit as bad as they’ve been made out to be, but what makes them truly unfortunate is their frequency. Moving from any part of the game to another or simply changing tracks will incur load times that routinely run half a minute upwards. Since the game is reliant on user generated content it’s understandable that the load times are high but given the pick-up and play nature of kart racers, it certainly sours the experience. Probably the biggest casualty it creates is neutering the splitscreen mode as it’s likely your friends will not share your patience.
Online racing however runs smoothly so it’s likely you’ll spend most of your post-career racing there. It too has a small caveat though, and that appears to be a lack of interest in ranked matches. With support for twelve players online the action should be hectic but you’ll never find a race with a larger starting field than five. It appears people want to Create and Share, but don’t seem to care about actual racing. Players may be racing on custom tracks but there’s no way to gain XP or ranks through Casual races, hopefully down the road United Front Games will incorporate some sort of custom XP races to get people back into competing.
ModNation Racers is a huge beast of a kart racer with a never ending list of fun and challenging things to do. The deep, intuitive creation tools will be the obvious draw for many players, but it’s the clever iteration of the core kart racing mechanics that create something truly special and surprisingly deep. Sadly, ModNation Racers is held back by the ModSpot reliance, unnecessary track design and the frequent, buzz killing load times, but this is a case where the good greatly outweighs the bad. ModNation Racers is easily one of the better kart racing games to date and a worthy bearer of LittleBigPlanet’s mantra.