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Review: ModNation Racers
by Tom Acres

Seemingly intent on capturing a share of both Mario Kart and LittleBigPlanet's market, United Front have set the bar quite high for themselves with ModNation Racers, the latest game in Sony's new genre of Play, Create, Share. I'm happy to report that ModNation excels at all three of those things; it's the best kart racer outside of Nintendo; it's even easier to make cool stuff than in Media Molecule's LBP and the online community is fantastic. ModNation Racers is a quality title and could well be the sleeper hit of 2010.

At the centre of all that is good in ModNation Racers is the ModSpot. This is basically the hub of the game in which you can drive around with other online players and access all the content available to you. You can, if you prefer, press the Start button and access everything from a traditional menu screen but the interactive hub is far more interesting. From here you can drive up to all the features in the game; the online multiplayer, splitscreen multiplayer, the single player mode, the Creation Station and also the Sharing Station. Everything is displayed as an interactive object - even the leaderboards have a plinth next to them with the top-placed Mod or car. It's intuitive, easy to use and a lot of fun too.

Before we delve into the more unique aspects of the game design, let's start with the gameplay. ModNation Racers is very much a kart racer in the Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing mould. You can drift, hop and pick up power-ups such as lightning bolts and rockets which you can level up by collecting more of the power-ups on top of the one you already have, in a way similar to that seen in Diddy Kong Racing. What makes it more original and also adds a layer of depth is the boost bar. It's quite simple on the face of it; you hold down the cross button to boost. However, you can also use the boost meter to deploy a shield over your kart by pressing circle. Saving your boost, or deploying a shield perfectly, can be the difference between winning and losing and the dynamic works well.

The game is fantastic fun to play, but there are one or two problems with the racing itself. The handling is very loose and can take a while to get used to which can make your first few races quite frustrating. The computer AI is also a pain; obviously this problem is only prevalent in the single player gameplay, but they use cheap tactics and save all their boost which can also make the gameplay somewhat frustrating and unfair. Overall though, the 'Play' aspect of ModNation Racers is actually far more fun and refined than that of LittleBigPlanet.

The gameplay mechanics work exceptionally well in online multiplayer for up to 12 players, and splitscreen play for 4. There is a real emphasis on the multiplayer here and it's more fun that way. There are two single-player offerings as well; time trials and the campaign. The campaign is fairly standard but it's interspersed with cutscenes which actually use your custom Mod and kart, which is quite cool. Really though, multiplayer is where it's at in ModNation Racers.

Now let's talk about the creation tools in the game; they are, to put it simply, excellent. You can make your own Mods (characters), karts and tracks and it's super easy and fun to do any of the three. Creating Mods starts you with a base template from which you can add facial features, clothing, change materials and colours, add a voice and also apply stickers. The depth is phenomenal and you only have to look at the top downloaded creations to say what's possible: there are dozens and dozens of Spider-Men, Jokers, Iron-Men, Pudsey Bears, Stigs, Mickey Mouses, Mr Ts, and many more. Creating karts uses the same feature suite as the Mod creation but you can apply car specific parts like headlamps, or custom engines such as a hamster wheel. Again, the community have been on top form here with unbelievably detailed renditions of The Mystery Machine, The A-Team Van, The Batmobile and plenty of other famous 4-wheelers. Let's hope the copyright man doesn't get involved or the community will undoubtedly suffer.

At the centre of the creation tools though is the track editor. These have been a part of racing games for years but never has it been so easy and fun to make one. I've never had the patience to indulge in map editors in any type of game (even LittleBigPlanet was to finickity for me after a while) but ModNation Racers just makes it so easy. There are video tutorials but they're not even needed to be honest. First you choose a setting; jungle, field, beach or urban. Then you can use a brush to easily edit the terrain by adding mountains, water, chasms or whatever you want. Creating the track itself is just as easy, you just drive a steamroller around the environment and a track appears behind it. Then you can decorate the track with boost pads, power-ups and the like and also the environment with trees, animals and more. In fact, you can even get the game to decorate it automatically for you, and it does a great job of it too. It's super easy to use and you can make a pretty good track in 15 minutes or less.

The Share aspect of the game is also handled exceptionally well. It's even easier to find Mods, tracks and karts than it was to find levels in LittleBigPlanet. There are plenty of sorting options and, as I mentioned earlier, the top downloaded Mods and karts are displayed as statues on plinths in the ModSpot which is a really nice touch. At the moment there are giant versions of Mario, Spider-Man and The Stig looming over the hub which is damn cool, and I can guarantee you won't see those three standing next to each other in any other game.

ModNation Racers is, unfortunately, let down somewhat by it's presentation. It looks nice and is bright and colourful, but doesn't really have much in the way of personality despite the fact that it's got Iron Man driving around in the Monopoly car. The sound effects and music are similar; they're perfectly fine but don't stand out. The real killer is the amount of time it takes to load stuff - it's atrocious. These are definitely the worst load times I have ever experienced in a PlayStation 3 game and they're very frequent as well. Every time you enter a different area or start a race it takes a good thirty seconds at least to load. Sometimes I found myself going to get a KitKat or check my email as it was so slow. I don't know if they can fix it with a patch, but it's a major issue at the moment. The servers have also buckled under the weight of the community on more than a few occasions since I bought the game. It's a real shame that such a fantastic game is being dragged down from perfection by some sloppy presentation issues that are not even prevalent in the worst games out there.

It's sad to finish the review on such a downer because ModNation Racers is a fantastic creation tool, a great kart racer and it's got one of the best online communities on any console. It's really fun so if you can get past the scruffy presentation you'll have an absolute blast.


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- Tom Acres

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