After a sublime start with the wonderful LittleBipPlanet, Sony’s ‘Play, Create, Share’ campaign gets its second outing with karting construction set ModNation Racers. Armed with a similar ethos to provide players with deep creation tools smothered in layers of accessibility, ModNation oozes a cartoonish visual charm reminiscent of its stablemate, and packs a community focus to match. Whilst the core racing engine is nothing to write home about, the endless variety of design and creativity of the user base is more than enough to recommend a purchase.
And for those of you put off by LBP’s somewhat steep learning curve, fear not. Developer United Front Games has clearly studied the feedback that Media Molecule received for its fantastic but often baffling-for-newcomers interface, and ModNation benefits from streamlining and automation in all the right places as a result. Within an hour of starting, you’ll have several characters, vehicles and tracks to be proud of, all of which stoke the fire to improve your designs, to perfect, to obsess, to learn, to share.
Yet it all begins in such a traditional fashion. Before access to the main interface is granted, ModNation requires a selection of tutorial races to be completed, all of which progress on a somewhat unexpected barrage of cut-scenes that introduce a vague semblance of a plot. These cutesy sequences carry on throughout the single-player career mode but smack of a token effort to appease traditionalists or the 1% of purchasers that won’t have an internet connection. This isn’t what we’re here for after all, and be under no illusions that ModNation is anything but online-focussed beneath the trimmings.
At its heart are three separate design tools that focus on racers, vehicles and tracks. As the most basic and least visible of those creative pillars, character creation is perhaps the most limited. There are no differing body shapes or height settings to worry about, and every new racer begins as the same blank mannequin canvas. Players can then choose from a vast selection of Mii-style facial features and hairstyles, whilst clothing options are also considerable in scope – with further unlockable accessories depending on progress. Delving a little further, there are also options to create your own accessories from primitive shapes, layering options to place textures and objects in suitable order, and a multitude of colour tweaks to personalise your creation to the nth degree.
Of much higher profile is the vehicle creation tool, which takes a similar form but fills out its roster with all the options one would expect from a racing sim. Tyres, bodies, engines, spoilers, steering wheels, licence plates, mirrors and various other paraphernalia can be bolted on, with the preset graphical kits ranging from old wooden kart pieces through to futuristic vehicles – any piece of which can be combined with any other and tinkered with to your specification. In addition to those options, primitive shapes can be added and textured, and the sticker system allows for a limited degree of vinyl control – similar in nature to that found in the Forza series.
But whilst both of those are intuitive and deep, the track editor is easily ModNation’s crowning achievement. Choosing from one of four themed construction sets (no doubt more will be added via DLC), laying out your design is a simple case of steamrollering a path to form rough curves and straights. Height can be controlled as the path is defined or tweaked afterwards to create tunnels, flyovers, bridges, jumps or banked turns, with the engine showing an admirable ability to guess exactly what you want to accomplish without the need for prompting. Specific editing is also possible for perfectionists, and delving into the menus allows for subtle adjustments to camber, texturing, water, elevation, objects, powerups, scenery and various other accessories placed anywhere on the track or trackside.
An array of landscaping tools complement the tarmac roller to provide for the creation of hills, craters, lakes and various other environmental features, and combining the two, players are able to swiftly work up some fantastic original creations, or temptingly, facsimiles of real-world racing tracks or locations. A generous autocomplete mode allows the engine to take care of scenery, trackside or on-track elements if you can’t be bothered, whilst the editable area in each arena is suitably vast. If the current split of uploaded content is anything to go by, remakes are proving popular, with Monaco in particular coming in for considerable community homage.
And surprisingly, copyright issues seem to be a non-entity compared to the draconian measures LBP swiftly introduced. At the time of writing you can happily download Mario, IronMan and even Gordon Freeman lookalikes from the marketplace, whilst the community itself appears to be buzzing and new content uploaded frequently. Tellingly though, hardly anybody seems to be racing.
Like so many other games that focus on user-generated content, ModNation unfortunately suffers from a slight lack of quality in its core gameplay. The kart handling model is loose and modestly satisfying, but a general air of twitchiness permeates the controls to a noticeable degree. As for the peripheral elements, the usual roster of projectile and homing powerups litter each track, with speed boosts, jump pads, fire gates and retractable barriers serving as help or hindrance. You can activate a manual jump, sideswipe or a temporary shield as way of a defence when leading the pack, but the timing is overly-tricky due to a general lack of visual feedback on an already busy screen.
Single-player career races are challenging and entertaining enough thanks to the comedy commentary duo, but multiplayer is really where ModNation shines. Split-screen is as riotous as you’d imagine, and once enough folk gather in a lobby for an standard non-xp online race, the creativity of track, vehicle and character design make for a unique experience. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the majority of players I encountered in ModNation were actually using a headset, which is still an annoying rarity in PS3 territory.
Overall, whilst there is very little in the core racing engine that isn’t expected or improved on other titles, to hold that against ModNation would be a crime. After all, LBP suffered from similar control foibles, but the sheer variety of inventive content quickly drowned out that discussion. And so it holds true here. ModNation might not be the greatest kart racer that you’ll ever play, but the endless invention of the userbase will keep it fresh long past others that are put out to pasture. Highly recommended.