Recently, my fellow editor Sophia Tong took a trip to Vancouver to meet with United Front Games and get an extended look at its upcoming project ModNation Racers. A PlayStation 3 exclusive, ModNation Racers can be thought of as a spiritual successor to last year's Little Big Planet. It's a kart racer with a heavy focus on user-generated content, allowing you to design your own driver, karts, and obstacle-laden tracks and then take your creations online and share them with the world.
Sophia's preview--viewable right here--is the product of a thorough look at the game. She got to spend a hefty chunk of time with it right there at the development studio, so it's a story you should definitely check out. I, on the other hand, recently took a much briefer look at the game at a recent Sony event in New York. ModNation was just one of dozens of games playable that evening, so I didn't exactly get to spend a lot of time with it. This being the case, I thought it would be interesting to offer up some of my thoughts on the creation tools as a sort of comparison to what Sophia experienced up in Vancouver.
The very first thing I accomplished in the game was also what I assumed to be the most daunting, and that was to make an entire track. While I had a United Front staffer on hand to guide me through the experience, he dropped me right in the track editor without even letting me get my feet wet with the character creator. Clearly, he was feeling pretty confident about the accessibility of the track creation tool, and you know what? He was right. It's surprisingly easy to not only design a track, but also flesh it out with visual flourishes and those sorts of obstacles you'd expect to find in a zany kart racer.
You start by molding the terrain. Basically, you select how you want to raise or lower the earth with a simple tool that lets you select the size or type of mountain or valley you want to make. From there, it's the fun part: laying track. You basically pretend like you're flying a slow-moving plane that leaves a streak of asphalt behind you. You use flight controls--tilt up and down, roll side to side, and so on--to determine the basic lay of the track as you guide yourself along and eventually meet back up with the first bit of asphalt to complete it. What's cool is that you can either choose to have the asphalt snap to current terrain or let yourself float freely and automatically raise or lower the mountains and valleys you'd previously design to fit with your current track. If it sounds complicated, don't worry: it's really simple.
After that, you can elect to change the type of road and roadside decorations out there manually, or let the game "auto-populate" your track with the best obstacles and boosts it can think of. I went with the latter option, and it worked out for me quite well. The game is really smart about how it inserts stuff onto your track, automatically laying down speed boosts to help you up really steep inclines and adding arrows to indicate a sharp turn coming up ahead. But even if you auto-populate your track, you can still go in and manually tweak everything. I added cows and sheep crossing the track behind a blind curve to give my AI opponents a good fright. I also added a litany of hazards like a flame pit and a giant crusher that drops a huge piston right onto the track at random intervals, or when you attach it to a nearby pressure pad. You can tweak all these obstacles to determine the frequency at which they rough up the drivers and other sorts of variables. For the most part, the menus used to adjust these settings are pretty clean and simple, relying on radial layouts that keep you from scrolling too much.
After that, I got to test-race my track. Despite the fact that I added maybe one or 10 too many obstacles (this thing was pure chaos), it was quite rewarding to see the fruits of my labor play out in the form of a race. I didn't manage to win, but I was very pleased with the way the track worked. Had I not been so happy, I could have easily jumped back into the editor menu and tweaked all manner of obstacles and decorations and then jumped back into the test race just as easily.
All in all, ModNation looks like an interesting and quite promising follow-up to Little Big Planet's "Play, Create, Share" mantra of building a game around user-generated content. I was able to create a fun and functional track in no time flat, showing that you don't need to spend a day at the developer (sorry, Sophia) to make something cool. There are still some kinks to be ironed out, like an occasionally stuttering frame rate and a camera view that's fixed a little bit too closely behind your kart, but those are things that seem fixable before the game's 2010 release date. You can expect to see more on ModNation Racers over the next few months.