Has a single game dominated a genre as easily, and for as long, as Mario Kart? It has been King Mario and a bunch of almost laughable pretenders to the throne for the longest time. Now Sony is stepping into the battle with ModNation Racers, and the good news is the company brought its A-game: this is a new standard for what can be done in kart racing.
ModNation Racers may look like a whimsical children’s title, but the actual gameplay is all hardcore. It’s easy to jump in and start playing, but difficult to win. Let’s take a look.
Pay attention to the tutorials
This isn’t a casual game; you’ll be using many buttons to do many things… and that includes both analog sticks and the D-pad. The title does a great job of easing you into all the tricks and tactics you’ll be using throughout the game, so play a few hours of the single-player career mode first to get comfortable with everything you’re asked to do. The downside to this complexity is that it will be harder to get your significant other or non-gaming friends to play with you; those with a few hours of practice will have quite the advantage.
Here’s how it works: by drifting, drafting, jumping, and attacking the other racers, you’ll gain points used to give yourself a boost, sideswipe your opponents, or activate a shield that protects you against attacks. When you run over a pick-up and gain a weapon, you can use it then or power it up by running over multiple pick-ups. The weapons level up: at first it gives you a small boost, and when it hits level three you shoot ahead, fire under your tires, and teleport… just like in Back to the Future. It’s great fun to watch simple attacks turn into acts of god by level three.
All these things force you to constantly make decisions while racing. Do you use your power to boost and gain a few positions, or do you save it for a shield in case you’re attacked on the last lap? Should you use your single missile now, or upgrade it into a swarm? The longer you hold onto your abilities the better the chance you’ll lose them, but the trade-off is power. Using items, side-swipes, boosts, and shields wisely goes a long way towards ensuring a win, but your opponents are also managing their own tools of mayhem.
The AI drivers, in fact, are ruthless. They are out to destroy you, and they’ll capitalize on your every mistake. Even on the first few races, you will have to earn your victories.
The tracks are their own characters
A kart racing game is only as good as its tracks, and the tracks here are a delight. You’ll enjoy huge jumps, attractive scenery, multiple paths, boost pads; there are all sorts of surprises to be found. You’re also given ample reason to race each track multiple times, as you’re given a list of things to do in order to unlock the maximum number of items. Simply placing in the race will allow you to move forward, but you may have to find three shortcuts as a secondary objective, or use a certain attack a number of times. In some cases you’ll need to use the environment to your advantage. Each track has three tiers of objectives, and while you’ll be able to get all three in one pass if you’re good, expect to make multiple attempts on many of them.
Each track is also filled with tokens to collect. Some of these are easy to find, while some are cleverly hidden. The tracks don’t give up all their secrets easily, and the depth given here is welcome; players will be trading their favorite paths, tactics, and best times as they learn the ins and outs of the game.
In the career mode you’re also introduced to the track editor, which gives you a taste of how to create your own tracks to share. The tools are simple, but that’s not a bad thing; dedicated gamers will be able to tweak and adjust their tracks as much as they’d like. Just because the game gives you plenty of help at first doesn’t mean the content creation tools don’t have hidden depths for the hardcore designers. Once the game is released and players start digging in, you should expect to see some crazy things online.
What’s up with the loading?
The game deserves all the praise it’s getting, but the loading times throughout the game are hard to tolerate. Take a look at how long it takes to actually get to a race after putting the disc in. Keep in mind, this video was taken after the game was installed on the hard drive. It’s just unacceptable.
There is also a hub area you race around to get to the different aspects of the game, and for some reason the frame rate in that area is atrocious. You’ll see stutters and pauses, and that’s a shame. You should want to hang out in the hub, and displays showing new content and popular mods and karts give you a reason to do so. With such poor performance however, you’ll want to get to a race or start editing some content as soon as possible. At least the frame rate in the actual game is solid, and that’s the important thing. The graphics are clean and attractive, and it feels great to finally play a solid kart racing game in high definition.
The frustration comes from the fact there doesn’t seem to be anything that requires such frequent and annoying load times. Can the long waits be patched out? We hope so. It’s also important to point out that we were playing a prerelease copy of the game on our test unit, and there could very well be an update before the retail code is released.
It’s also available on the PSP
The game will also be available on the PSP. While that version of the game doesn’t have the graphical prowess of its big brother, the career mode is brought over and you’ll be able to design tracks on that system as well. You won’t be able to share tracks between the two versions, though.
So which version is better? The PSP version has much better loading times, but the PS3 version has button controls due to the dual analog sticks. It’s easier to make tracks on the PS3 as well. The real answer is that no matter what system you use to play the game, you’re going to have a good time.
This is a game that looks like it’s for children while delivering a very adult difficulty. Some people are still going to prefer the more casual offerings from Nintendo, but this is a wonderful kart game that blows past offerings away. It’s also something that will have a very long life, both on- and offline. It’s not to be missed.
Title: ModNation Racers
Developer: United Front Games
Price: $59.99 (PS3)
Platform: PlayStation 3, PSP