Ever since Mario climbed into a kart in 1992, several other franchise holders have tried in vain to replicate Nintendo's success. Final Fantasy, Sonic the Hedgehog and Looney Tunes are just a few of the licenses that have been transmuted into terrible kart racing games. For all its flaws, you have to put ModNation Racers above these Mario Kart clones for one reason: the developers actually give a crap.
The game does stick very close to what you expect from the genre. Six racers zip around a course for a few laps while collecting power-ups to give themselves an edge. The power-ups run the usual gamut: speed boosts, mines, and whole lot of weapons. An over-abundance of weaponry is the first thing that sets ModNation apart from the pack.
You'll have access to missiles, lightning bolts, and a blue energy blast that takes out everyone in your vicinity. Collecting a power-up while you still have another allows you to "stack" it, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the weapon. The single missile becomes a frontal barrage when stacked up. This adds a little bit of thought to your races. You can use power-ups immediately for smaller benefits or hang onto them to get a bigger leg-up. However, the result of stacking is that you'll get nuked by opponents several times a race.
To the developers' credit, they try to water down the effectiveness of these weapons. Throughout the race you fill up a Boost Meter by drifting around corners, making jumps, following closely behind another car, or taking out an opponent. The juice you build up in the meter can either be used for a speed boost or to construct a shield around yourself. In theory, the shield will keep you from getting slapped around so much while the boost will let you get back into the race if one of these attacks gets through. However, given the camera angle (tight behind your racer), it's tough to know when a projectile is about to hit you and thus the shield doesn't do much good. Your Boost Meter is drained when a weapon takes you out, too, so turning on the afterburners to catch up is out of the question. When playing Exhibition mode, you can opt for "pure races" - races without power-ups - which seems to suggest that the developers know how annoying all the missiles and electroshocks can get.
Playing "pure races" didn't make things anymore fun for me, though. It made me realize, though, that the problem wasn't just the weapons but also the game's A.I.. It's good - maybe a bit too good. While you can tone it down in Exhibition mode, there are no difficulty levels for Career so you're stuck with a competitive A.I. that gets better as you progress to higher races. On the bright side, you'll always be tested by them; I can't remember ever lapping anyone or dominating for a full race. However, shouldn't I be able to dominate if I'm doing well? My inability to get more than a few seconds ahead of my opponents struck me as artificial rather than exhilarating. It started to feel like the "rubberband A.I." in Madden that allowed the computer-controlled opponent to mount uncanny fourth-quarter comebacks. There were many races where I spent most of the time in first place, only to drop to fifth because I was hit with a weapon in the last stretch. To be fair, the A.I. rarely racks up a huge lead on you so it's easy to mount a comeback if you drop behind early. However, knowing that the race is going to be decided by weapons and speed boosts in the last ten seconds every time sort of devalues the rest of the race. It makes both success and failure seem like a roll of the dice.
Multiplayer avoids these A.I. issues so it's on the whole more fun. You'll probably suck it up and play through Career mode anyway, though. You won't do it for the funny cutscenes between races (they're not funny) but because each race earns you parts for creating custom racers, karts, or tracks. Simply beating a race will earn you a few parts while fulfilling bonus objectives (example: "finish first and use weapons three times") will earn more. Considering there's no additional difficulty modes to challenge you in Career, these bonus goals are where the replayability is supposed to spawn from. It may do the trick if you fall madly in love with the customization side of the game.
Both racer and kart customization offer lots of options for you to create your own individual look. While that's appealing, it's unfortunate that this tinkering is limited to aesthetics. I can accept the fact that all racers will have the same abilities. But karts, too? Really? A kart with a jeep chassis and a propeller engine drives exactly the same as jet-powered sports car. There's definite satisfaction from showing off your creations online but it's too bad that the play experience doesn't change at all due to your efforts.
Custom tracks obviously have a much bigger experience on players. While I imagine the PS3 ModNation's toolset is more extensive, the PSP track creator is very robust. After quickly determining the shape of the road, you can deform the terrain, add obstacles to the track, create shortcuts, or fill the surrounding area with props. It'll take you some time to figure out all the tricks used in the premade tracks but creating a basic one is really easy. If you're not the creative type, you can simply download other players' uploaded work
The central idea behind ModNation is that by giving you extensive content creation tools, you'll be able to extend your play experience indefinitely. That plan makes an assumption though: that you like the game and want to extend your play experience. So much effort was put into creating these accessible, thorough toolsets for players that it seems like the actual game - the thing that all your creations will be used for ultimately - was an afterthought. This is a fairly vanilla kart racing game that's really aggravating to play without friends. It's clear that the developers are trying to grow a player community around ModNation through user-generated content but the only surefire way to create a strong community is to make a great game.
Platform(s): PSP (reviewed), PS3
Developer: United Front Games, SCE San Diego Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment