We’ve paid a lot of attention to customization in our past previews of Sony’s upcoming kart racer, which borrows heavily from LittleBigPlanet’s “Create, Play, Share” mantra. But while you can customize pretty much anything in the game (characters, karts, tracks, and so on), eventually you’ll want to start racing your creations against other players. This week we got our hands on some PlayStation 3 preview code for ModNation Racers and had the chance to test out the game's multiplayer component.
At this stage, the multiplayer part of the game appears to be just one simple four-player split-screen mode that allows you to tweak a few things before you begin the race. Rather than provide a standard scrolling menu, the game mixes it up a little with an interactive menu screen where you can drive your character between different bays depending on what you want to do (for example, Career mode, split-screen, customization menu, and so on.)
Once you're in the split-screen bay, you’ll be asked to add in one, two, or three players and start playing around with the race options. The full version will support up to 12 online drivers per race. In the preview build we saw, there were 12 tracks to choose from, each imaginatively themed with the kind of environments you’d expect from a kart racer. These included beach, pyramids, desert, jungle, castle, market, and even a farm track. You can then pick the number of laps you want (up to nine) and the number of AI racers to fill in the gaps in offline play. With three or more players racing on the same console in split-screen, there will only be one AI character. There is also an option to pick the speed class of your vehicle (rookie, pro, and elite), but there is not a great deal of difference in how the cars in each class perform. Finally, you can pick the difficulty of the AI, with the harder settings making for more pesky and aggressive AI opponents. With the easier settings, you'll be left to your own devices.
Like most arcade racers, the racing physics and control scheme are easy to master. The general idea here is to drift and build up your boost meter so you can burn rubber when you need to or trade speed for safety to use your boost to perform a bubble shield. The interesting part is the various power-ups you can pick up while you race, which work in three stages to do exponential damage. The items themselves are nothing new--rockets to blast opponents, lightning bolts to zap them, an earthquake pulse that shakes players off course, and a teleport pick-up that lets you shoot miles ahead on the track. The first time you pick up an item, it will do a certain amount of damage; the second time, the damage increases until finally, with the third pick up, you’ll get an off-the-scale miniapocalypse, which is a lot of fun. This gives you an incentive to build up your power-ups and race strategically rather than go crazy deploying items as soon as you pick them up.
Multiplayer is a lot of fun given the combination of power-ups and well-designed tracks. You don’t have to dedicate too much attention to the actual controls, which means you can spend more time concentrating on organising your plan of attack for getting rid of your opponents and muscling your way to first place. Even if you fall behind and lose all hope of coming first, you can still have plenty of fun during the race. The cartoony environments are interesting enough to hold your attention and there's none of the cement-and-the-occasional-shrubbery look you get with sim racers. There's also plenty happening on the track to keep you on your toes. For example, opponents will keep hurtling their power-up items, but the game will give you a three-second warning to give you the chance to deflect incoming attacks with your shield.
At the moment, we’re not too sure if the final build of the game will include other multiplayer modes, but this is doing the trick for now. From what we’ve seen so far, ModNation Racers multiplayer is as fun and interesting as the rest of the game. You can zip around the virtual track when it hits the PlayStation 3 and PSP in late May this year.