At first glance, Modnation Racers appears to be a love child of Mario Kart and LittleBigPlanet, borrowing racing mechanics of the former and the community building aspect of the latter. But does the fusion make a good game that’s worth your time and money? At its heart, Modnation Racers is a simple kart racer. At the start of a race, you press down on the accelerator and don’t let go till the podium finish. To manoeuvre around the insanely curvy tracks, there are the drift mechanics, which get triggered by the X face button (sadly, button mapping cannot be customised), without the use of which your cute racer and his buggy will end up smashed face first in a tree somewhere along the track.
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Thankfully, there is a lot more than just racing around in this game, mainly due to the crazed opponent racers having a collective sole purpose of decimating you to bits. Dodging them is only half the fun; the other part is retaliating with side smashes and an insane arsenal of power ups scattered around the track. Although the power ups are of just three types – rockets, electric bolts and boost, picking up multiple items leads to levelling up in the form of effect and range. This brings in an element of strategy since you are not sure when to use the power-up – immediately or after picking up another orb. Getting hit yourself will drop a level of the power up so it’s best to time the shield just right when the alerts start going off. The aforementioned side smashes and shields are powered up by a bar, which gets filled up by performing drifts, drafts (driving close behind an opponent) and being in the air and performing flips.
But that’s not all; there are many more ways of making sure you end up on the podium. Some tracks are littered with environmental hazards and shortcuts which can be triggered by either driving over them or zapping them with a bit of the boost bar. Add speed boosts, also layered on the tracks, and you get a game where keeping your eyes glued to the track becomes the primary strategy, while actual racing takes a back seat. Indeed, finishing a race successfully when you’re almost at the end has less to do with racing skills and more to do with how much of your shield you have charged up. In short, if you like being an underhanded sneak, you’ll love the races in Modnation Racers.
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However, the USP of the game surprisingly isn’t the racing; it’s the latter bits of the ‘Race, Create, Share’ tagline Sony publicised it with. The creation framework is extremely robust and pretty easy to use. Modding a racer model is similar to skinning a Sackboy – apply a skin, add clothing and patch it up with stickers. Simple as it may sound, this results in some incredible looking skin-jobs – Mario, Iron Man, Solid Snake, Jak and Daxter, Chun Li – you can create just about anyone with the proper imagination. Pimping out your ride is just as simple as slapping on a car body onto the bare bones frame and then customising the wheels and applying a sticker set.
The real bread and butter, however, is the custom track creation which, adds on unlimited replay value to the game. A track can be created and rendered in real time by selecting a theme such as desert or beach, laying down the track and adding the environment. You can vary the height of the landscape, create all sorts of jumps, plant loads of road side trees and create entire towns by using the simple editor. If the ‘adding the trees and the towns’ bit sounds more of a chore, you can let the track editor auto-complete the track for you at the mere press of a button. The editors are really easy to use, which is great since it means that more people will experiment with them, which will in turn go a long way in sustaining the modding community.
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Since playing God isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Modnation Racers also comes with an enthralling single player campaign jam packed with a comically interesting plot to keep one from getting bored for the 5-6 hours it takes to finish. The plot has a newbie racer called Tag trying to dethrone the eccentric champion, Espresso, of the Modnation Racing Championship. Prominently featured in the cutscenes, reminiscent of Speed Racer cartoons, between each race are his allies – Chief and Jez, and a couple of sarcastic commentators adding a bit of life and humour to the otherwise forgettable story.
The 24 levels featured in the campaign, ranging from lush jungles to scary canyons, are each uniquely crafted and serve as excellent tutorials for the various power-ups of the game and let one practice for the online matches. They are, however, fairly challenging and coming first requires quite a bit of skill against the sometimes almost-cheating 11 other AI opponents, including each stage’s boss-type ‘Elite Mod’ racer, who will require extra effort to knock off from finishing at the top of the podium.
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When not racing, the player roams around in an open racing arena that serves as the lobby, featuring latest mods, recognised creators, upcoming DLC, and shops where new stickers and mod parts can be bought. This also lets the player access the story campaign mode and online modes, where one’s skills and creativity can be shown off in ranked and unranked racers. You can choose single races or a series against a maximum of 11 other random opponents or friends. The drawback of single races is that the player is ejected to the lobby after each race with no option to race with your previous companions again. Coupled with the slow matchmaking and the long loading screens, this can be quite irritating as the wait is often longer than the race itself. However, once in the race, the online experience with other players is great fun. The ability to have split-screen offline races for up to 4 players is definitely an added bonus.
The graphics are quite colourful, artistic and cartoony, making the game stand out from the other racers. The aforementioned load times (almost one minute) before each race can be extremely annoying, but the consistent frame rates doesn’t give much to complaint about. The soundtrack is quite catchy and goes with the overall look and feel of the game. Sound effects are effectively used to indicate incoming projectiles and the voice-overs and dialogs in the cutscenes are moderately entertaining.
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Although Modnation Racers has its fair share of technical drawbacks, it ends up as a fairly competent kart racer with one of the best track creators of all time. The ability to customise anything and everything paired with great driving mechanics makes this an excellent racing experience, and one which will linger for quite some time.
(+) Excellent modding tools, especially the track creator
(+) Fun kart racing mechanics, easy to pick up and difficult to master
(+) Ability to level up powers adds a fair bit of strategy
(+) Single player mode is challenging and fairly entertaining
(-) Long load times
(-) Matchmaking after each online race
(-) AI can be painfully difficult to beat at times
Title: Modnation Racers
Developer/Publisher: United Front Games/Sony
Platforms: PS3 (Rs 2,499), PSP (Rs 1,599)
Reviewed on: PS3