ModNation Racers Review

LittleBigPlanet meets Mario Kart, right? Not quite.

Not even close, actually.

ModNation Racers is being hailed as LittleBigPlanet’s follower, and while it’s got some wildly creative elements to it, there just isn’t anything that unique here. The bulk of what made LittleBigPlanet a success (aside from its level editor, which I’ll talk about later), is Sack Boy, and ModNation just doesn’t have a memorable character the same way ‘Planet does.

The loading times are absolutely the worst thing about the game, and I want to get that right out of the way. I’m not sure why they couldn’t figure this out with a bit more finesse, but they are completely ridiculous. I found myself playing the same track over again because load times are much quicker than it would be to cycle through the menus to find a new one. Either way, the load times will absolutely drive you nuts, but they aren’t enough to keep you away from this game. Well, they migh…. no, no, they’re not enough to keep you away from this game. Let me just say this: loading screens sandwiched between cutscenes. Are you freakin’ kidding me?

Okay, so on to the good stuff. This game made me want to play Mario Kart again. No, that’s a great thing, because it not only reminded me of the greatest kart racing game of all time, but also made me want to play a game that I haven’t touched in the better part of a decade. This game has a ton of charm and, even if it seems like a rip-off (let’s be honest, every kart racer seems to rip off Mario Kart), it is done in its own unique way that makes it beautiful and rich.

The sound design is equally awesome, with two decently funny and surprisingly not outrageously cheesy commentators. Audio in game was even better, with varied audio for different terrain. This might sound like something you’d expect, but where the developers could’ve skimped on sound design such as by making brick roads and pavement sound the same, they used different sounds, which adds a nice touch.

This game isn’t easy to win. But that’s a good thing; ModNation Racers pits you against some pretty formidable CPU opponents which, sometimes annoy the crap out of you, but mostly get in your way just as they should in a racer like this. Borrowing from simulation racers, ModNation actually employs a drift and draft mechanic where you build up your boost and shield capabilities by drifting and drafting for as long as possible. I haven’t seen this in many kart racers, and it’s a nice carry over from the more hardcore racing titles out there.

ModNation Racers is also a beautiful game. The graphics are rich and colourful and, dare I say, more vibrant than the Mario Karts of years passed. But as I said with Split/Second, why the hell are these graphics not 1080p? ModNation Racers is less than half the footprint of Split/Second, has far fewer effects on screen at once, limited lighting and particle effects, and yet runs at the same paltry 720p resolution? There are framerate issues in the lobby even. I don’t get this lag playing Halo 3 with 7 other people on an arguably more graphically intense game, so why do I get it here?

The experience itself is rather flat, unfortunately. The boosts are powerful, and the weapons are interesting, even deploying an interesting mechanic whereby running over multiple items gives you incrementally better weapons, but it just feels unconsidered. There is nothing super unique here; the typical missile, shield, a lightning storm, and transporter to jump spots with another player all make an appearance as you’d expect. Every single one has been done before, and they were done fifteen years ago on the Nintendo 64.

On to ModNation Racer’s level editor, which is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it is ridiculously easy to create a track and lay down some scenery for it. It’s great to play around with the terrain editor and mess around with water, mountains, valleys, and ravines. Users can also put in their own shortcuts and set boost spots in the map. My problem actually lies in the marketing copy for the game. The creators say that they used the same tools that we can use to create the tracks that ship with the game. While that may be true, I feel like they make it sound far too easy to do something like what they’ve pulled off. I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing some truly incredible track designs, but for now, I just don’t know if there will be a lot given the rather steep learning curve for such a kid-like game. Powerful tool, but like anything powerful, you need some skill and knowledge to use it.

There are already TONS of user created tracks out there, and truth be told, it’s not easy to find good ones with the clever rating system that is built in. You can also check out top character and kart mods in the main menu area, which relies on user voting to put a user over the top. A pixel-perfect Mario look alike has already been created; now we’re just waiting for Yoshi’s Valley and Rainbow Road to show up!

I will say that, at the end of the day, I had a really good time playing ModNation Racers. It may not seem like it from the above, but they are, in the end, minor gripes. Graphics in 1080p? Well, if I’m going to compare it to Mario Kart, the Wii doesn’t even get to 720p yet, so I can’t complain there. The audio is pretty great, and the vibrancy of the game itself is entertaining. There was something that caught me about this game and I’m excited to go play it again. Turns out, for a kart racer, some things just don’t matter as much as solid gameplay. And ModNation Racers has it.

I had a chance to chat with Matt Levitan at Sony Computer Entertainment Canada to discuss ModNation Racers, E3, and Sony’s future plans, so stay tuned for it right here on!