As a genre, Kart Racing has been around for a pretty long time, and appeared on every system. Why? Because they make pretty good party games, and occasionally also provide a break for characters to take a break from the perils of life and just sit back and blow the crap out of each other while racing in cute little cars.
Strangely, kart racing games have been absent from this, the 7th generation of console gaming. United Front Games hopes to remedy this critical error with their game, Modnation Racers.
Modnation Racers is most definitely a kart racing game. You race around in oddly-proportioned little vehicles while unleashing a maelstrom of explosive weapons on your opponents, and frantically hoping they don't do the same to you.
But these aren't necessarily a bunch of well-known characters taking a vacation between games. Instead, UFG created a robust toolset that lets you build quite a bit of the game from the ground up. You can make your own Mod (character), Kart, and even your own tracks to race on. And its all fairly easy to pull off, if you've got the creativity.
If that sounds familiar, it's because they're working off the same principles LittleBigPlanet was built on. Sony says that with LittleBigPlanet, they can forge a new genre: "Play.Create.Share". It's an odd name, to be sure, but they're making it work. LittleBigPlanet started that ideal, and Modnation is continuing it.
Even with the ability to craft quite a few of your own experiences, Modnation Racers is incredibly packed with content. All this content revolves around the Modspot, which is a plaza of sorts that gives you access to all of the game's features. Besides the Creation Station, where you can create Mods, Karts, and Tracks, as well as upload them to share with others (and download others' creations), there are many, many other destinations in the Modspot. Large pedestals showcase the most popular karts ands Mods of the day. The "Hot Lap" station lets you check the fastest times on the game's various courses. Multiplayer (both online and off), as well as Career mode are also accessed from the Modspot. That's not even all of it.
I'll start with the Creation Station, which is probably what the game does best. Racing is all well and good, but honestly I had the most fun customizing my karts and mods (and, occasion, tracks). You'd be surprised how much time you can end up spending here, given the robust tools and extensive options.
For Mods, you can customize almost literally everything. It's difficult to describe, but let's just say that if you can dream him/her, you can probably make a representation of him/her in the Creation Station. Kart customization is very similar. You can choose from dozens of bodies, from offroad Jeeps to exotic sports cars. Then you can choose parts, like the engine, chair, tires, rims, etc. It's not unlike any other extensive car customizer in other racing games, but with wackier options like warp and wind-up engines, sofas for driving seats, and cardboard wheels.
Though I'll admit I haven't spent a lot of time with it, the track builder is also pretty incredible. I was able to build a fully functional track within 20 minutes, complete with items, a jump, corkscrew turns, and boost panels, so I shudder to think what it could create in the hands of a more capable track architect.
As I mentioned, Modnation also features a Career mode. It follows the story of Tag, a rookie racer who rises through the ranks of the Modnation Racing Championship to overturn to the norms of kart racing. Very much like LittleBigPlanet, the story is serviceable, but more importantly it does a good job teaching you what the game is all about. The campaign is split into several "tours", which are each composed of individual races. You have to place at least 3rd to move on to the next race, culminating in the championship race, which requires that you place 1st to move onto the next tour.
Once again, like in LittleBigPlanet, each race features a few reasons to come back and try it again. First of all, each course is littered with 5 tokens, which you can collect and spend on new materials in the vending machine in the Creation Station. Each one also features two challenges, which ask you to achieve certain feats, in addition to winning 1st place. Such feats might be anything from getting a certain number of tackles (think of the sideswipes you could do in SSX and Mario Kart), to annihilating an opponent on a certain section of the track. In addition, most of the later races feature an elite racer on the track who has his/her own challenge, which in turn unlocks a grudge match with that racer. All in all, this is one stuffed Career mode. All of these challenges unlock more materials for you to use in the Creation Station, so there's decent incentive to take a stab at them.
But what's a kart racer without multiplayer? A joke! Which is why Modnation Racers features a pretty impressive suit of options for those seeking to play with friends. You can play 2-4 player splitscreen offline (though no splitscreen campaign) in single races and tournaments. You can also turn off weapons for a more "pure" racing experience. In addition to offline play, Modnation features a full complement of online racing options, including an XP and level system similar to most shooting games. Races can consist of up to 12 players, on premade or custom tracks. You can even play with a friend beside you via 2 player splitscreen online. It's a little rough around the edges (for example, unless you're hunting trophies, I don't actually see much point to XP races), but if you're hankering to test your kart racing skills against other players worldwide, it serves its purpose well.
Now, let's talk about the racing gameplay. Modnation Racers does some pretty interesting things here. Instead of a wide variety of weapons, you have a handful, each of which are upgradeable up to level 3. While Lv1 weapons only target one person and often lack homing. Lv3 weapons often take down multiple opponents in a truly explosive fashion. For example, a Lv1 missile is a just a straight-shooting rocket (think of the Green Shell in MK). A Lv2 missile has homing capabilities. A Lv3 missile unleashes a Macross Missile Massacre (TM) that destroys the three guys ahead of you.
This high-risk high reward system of saving your items for when you really need them adds to the franticness of the gameplay. Will you use it now and possibly miss? Or will you wait, but maybe end up losing a great window of opportunity? The decisions don't end there. Doing various things like tricks, and drifts, earn you some juice in your energy bar. Your energy bar fuels a few things, but most importantly it represents your boost and shield. Need a speed boost? Hit L1 to use your boost. Got a bunch of missiles on your six, and can't shake em? Press O to bring up a force field to protect you from harm. Both of these consume lots of energy (shielding in particular can consume a full energy bar in all of 1-2 seconds), so you have to choose which is more important. Will you spend your energy on boost to catch up? Or will save it for when you're about to get zapped by an opponent's lightning weapon? Many of the premade courses also feature energy-activated shortcuts, so that's another way you can consider spending your hard-earned fuel. Side-swipes also consume energy.
Kinda like in Wipeout HD, in multiplayer you can play Modnation Racers in a few different speed classes. If you want more Mario Kart-esque speeds, you'll be wanting the lower speed class. Fast and frenetic racing can of course be found in higher speed classes. You can also adjust your "Racer style" for multiplayer races, which lets you choose whether you want to focus more on drift, or more on handling; more on acceleration, or more on top speed.
As you can see, Modnation Racers is positively jammed with content, and gives you the tools to make even more of it. But, this brings me to my biggest problem with the game. As a member of the Play.Create.Share genre, its great. But as a kart racer, it feels a little subpar Why? I'm honestly not sure. My theory is that the game tries do so many things, it stretches itself thin in some areas. This is evident in the load times, which are pretty bad. UFG is working on a patch that will supposedly fix this, but every time you load a race or enter a new area, you have to sit through what must be a 45 second load screen. The game feels tedious to navigate through, because of this.
The graphics aren't bad, but there's some frightful screen tearing at times, and the framerate can be a little jittery. In addition, I've known the game to freeze momentarily sometimes. Overall, it seems like the coding could have used more polish.
The audio that ships with the game are a healthy mix of various beat-boxing tunes that you'd expect from a game about a graffiti artist, but they do get a little tired after a while, though hardly grating.
Modnation Racers is honestly a great effort. It's highly apparent that the team at UFG cares about making the game as great possible, which is why it's forgivable that they weren't quite able to hit that sweet spot that Media Molecule did with LittleBigPlanet. Technically speaking, Modnation Racers isn't a particularly excellent offering. But it has an incredible amount of content, and when you're sitting in your living room with your friends burning rubber with your favorite characters and karts, I bet you won't really care about the few flaws it has. I know I didn't. An 8.0/10