If you're a PlayStation 3 owner, you've probably played LittleBigPlanet, which was one of the most creative and interesting games for the system at the time, and it still holds up today. What makes it creative is not the game itself but its built-in creation tools. LittleBigPlanet gave players the chance to create their own Mario-style platformers, rather than simply being constrained by the developer's ideas. By giving players nearly unlimited freedom to come up with whatever they'd like, LittleBigPlanet allowed for some amazing user-generated content. ModNation Racers is built on very much the same idea, but instead of Mario-style platformers, it lets gamers improve on another of Nintendo's classic titles: Mario Kart.
At first glance, ModNation Racers looks a lot like a slightly modified Mario Kart. In many ways, the basic game is almost identical to Nintendo's popular cart racer, but there are enough differences to make it stand out. Unlike Mario Kart, your kart choices are all basically superficial. You can design and customize your own characters, but this is to alter their appearance but not their play style. Every racer starts out on evil footing, which should be a welcome bit of change to Mario Kart players who found themselves scrambling to get the "best" character.
Racing is fairly straightforward. Players are encouraged to zoom around the track and overtake other racers. Like in Mario Kart, however, this is made more complex by the addition of weapons and items that are scattered in floating boxes located around the track. Running into one of these boxes yields a weapon, which can be anything from homing missiles to a speed boost to a laser blast. These weapons are single-shot but can knock an enemy racer for a loop, allowing you to make up some much-needed ground. You can actually "upgrade" your item by holding on to it and collecting another item. This means that it might not always be worthwhile to hit that boost the moment it comes up, and it adds an interesting layer of strategy to the title.
One of the most interesting ways that ModNation Racers deviates from the Mario Kart formula is the Boost Gauge, which fills up as you perform tricks such as drifting, hitting enemies with weapons, and performing stunts in the air. You can use the gauge to boost and get a leg up on the competition without having to worry about the whims of fate.
In addition to boosting, the gauge can be used for offensive and defensive purposes. You can spend some of the gauge to activate a special shield that allows you to block weapons at the press of a button. This "costs" a fair amount of your boost gauge but can protect you from danger. You can also use the right analog stick to sideswipe an opposing car, which is a valuable attack that can be used at any time but also costs some boost. This adds a layer of skill that games like Mario Kart lack, as you're no longer completely at the mercy of weapons. A skilled player will be able to boost, shield and sideswipe his way through opponents, hopefully alleviating some of the "Blue Shell" problems that plague Mario Kart.
Before you even get into the races, you're going to want to customize your racer. Like LittleBigPlanet, Customization is the name of the game. It may seem simple enough to customize your racer, especially since all of your options are completely cosmetic, but there's a ridiculous amount of available options. Not only can you customize every aspect of the person riding your car, but you can also customize the vehicle. You're effectively given a blank slate to work with and can select from a staggering amount of different parts to create the perfect racer. My favorite bit of customization was being able to alter the car's engine sound, which is a feature that can quickly become annoying in a kart racer unless you find just the perfect rumble. There are also simpler changes, such as colors and symbols. You'll find that making the perfect car and driver is a very addictive way to spend your time, and the creation process is almost as fun as the actual racing. You can even trade characters with other players to see others' creative ideas. If you're feeling less creative, you can also randomize everything to yield some rather hilarious-looking weirdos.
The real selling feature of ModNation Racers is going to be the track editor. The game ships with a handful of developer-made tracks, but the replay value is going to be in seeing exactly what users can come up with. Creating a track is surprisingly easy, and there are a lot of options for what you can do. Before you begin laying the track, very simple tools allow you to alter the time of day, weather, and even the ocean level of the racing area. You can create mountains, valleys or lakes to add a little extra spice to the track, or you can choose to keep things simple and level. Once you've created the racing area, you make the track by simply controlling a steamroller that lays asphalt as you drive around. You can alter the elevation of the racetrack with a button press, and the game will automatically delete obstacles in your way, so all you have to do is drive the path that you'd like to race. Another nice feature is the Auto-Complete option, which will automatically loop the track back to its starting point. Once you've created a loop, your racetrack is complete.
It wouldn't be really interesting to race on a bare track, though, would it? Fortunately, you can also populate the track with various obstacles and props to make things more interesting. Boost pads can speed up racers, and ramps allow for awesome jumps and extra stunt chances. If you want to make things tougher, you could place obstacles, such as trees or parked vehicles, for racers to run into. If you wanted to create a racetrack surrounded by a wooded forest and small ranch houses, you could … but if you're in a more sadistic mood, you can force players to dodge between those same obstacles. Those worried about the tedium of individually placing each item will be glad to hear that the game also features an Auto-Complete option, which automatically populates your track with basic props that you can modify and edit. We didn't get to see every single unlockable piece for level creation, but from what we did see, there is a tremendous variety. A well-designed race track has the potential to be as fast, frantic and exciting as any Mario Kart stage, and with the creativity of the entire PlayStation Network available, you're certain to see some pretty amazing levels.
ModNation Racers has the potential to be one of the biggest hits of the year. It's rare to find a gamer who doesn't enjoy Mario Kart, and United Front Games realizes this. They've slightly improved the formula to allow gamers to retain the same basic crazy fun that makes Mario Kart so appealing. At the same time, some new mechanics offer the chance for more dedicated gamers to really improve their skills. As if that weren't good enough, the available customization options are mind-blowing. Being able to create an infinite number of racetracks has the potential to give ModNation Racers nearly unlimited replay value, especially since the track creator is both easy to use and full of options. While some of the more complex elements were locked in our preview build, what I saw made it obvious that dedicated creators could make some truly amazing tracks. Assuming everything comes together, ModNation Racers could be the surprise hit of the year for Sony, and those with a PS3 should make sure to check it out when it hits in 2010.
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