Release: Out now
Developer: United Front Games
When ModNation Racers screeched on to the stage at last year’s E3, anyone could have guessed the elevator pitch. “It’s LittleBigPlanet!” Jack Tretton didn’t scream, but should have, “with cars!” Media Molecule’s crafty platformer established deep foundations for PS3’s Play, Create, Share brand – a familiar campaign mode at the front, backing on to a build-your-own garage of customisation and distribution. ModNation slipstreams this template neatly, refining the creation tools to suit fast tarmac-laying, featuring essentially the same functionality as LBP – with cars.
With a structure that good, you’d think the only thing that could scupper ModNation would be if the racing wasn’t up to scratch. It is – just about. The elephant powersliding around the track is Mario Kart, and ModNation borrows liberally from Nintendo’s definitive series: power-ups in batches lined up across the track, drifting around wide corners and, hopefully, chaos. There are a few changes: power-ups can be upgraded by subsequent grabs of the same weapon, for example, turning straightforward rockets into a swarm of heatseekers. And drifting charges an energy bar, which can be used for a short boost of speed, a temporary energy shield, or a sideswipe to disrupt rival racers. They’re not major additions – basic weapons and a good racing line still dominate play – but add a welcome sprinkle of tactics to a set-up that’s becoming overfamiliar.
One thing Mario Kart veterans will notice is the heavier-than-expected handling. On the straights it’s fine, but transitioning out of drifts is cumbersome and slows races down. It’s the major fault that distinguishes ModNation from its inspiration, and as potentially divisive as Sackboy’s floaty jumping. A shame, because elsewhere United Front has clearly learned from LBP’s occasional shortfall. ModNation’s creation mode outdoes its predecessor in ease of access and user-friendliness without any obvious loss of complexity – dedicated doodlers can (and will) lose weeks in here, but it’s now downright easy for the more impatient and questionably talented of us to create raceable tracks too.
A mixture of detailed tools and autopilot crutches is the key. Get past the bedrock of character and car creation (clothes, eyes, stickers, accessories) and the core stuff is in track design. To lay an initial track, you simply steamroller through an open environment, turning, raising and lowering the track (with fat, friendly ‘autocomplete’ and ‘undo’ buttons always awaiting a prod). Sculpting geography is the same – detailed imprint tools can be resized, tilted and tweaked for almost infinite accuracy and variation. Or players can fly about their sandbox like a vengeful Populous god, going Old Testament at random until it’s unrecognisable. It’s a creation tool that’s accessible to anyone, basically, full of thoughtful shortcuts that suit its subject. Flaming hoops and switch-activated shortcuts might be nice to have, for example, but a final decorative layer of track-side trees and houses can also be auto-created just to get the track up and running.
The result is a triumphant toolset attached to a decent stab at the karting genre. Although LBP has the edge in terms of visual charm and broke the ground for this expansive genre, in its details ModNation is not an unworthy successor. Should Play, Create, Share continue expanding, Modnation’s take on it may well be its broadest achievement. It sacrifices a little complexity and depth, but the result is a less intimidating toolset, one that far more people will find easy to use, and far less liable to result in a cluttered hard drive of half-finished masterpieces.