ModNation Racers PSP First Look

We get an exclusive hands-on with Sony's impressive portable version of the upcoming PlayStation 3 kart racer.

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ModNation Racers is the upcoming kart racer for the PlayStation 3 being developed by United Front Games that is set to carry on the "play, create, share" movement introduced in Little Big Planet. The game was first shown off at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo and offered a fresh addition to Sony's growing PS3 software library. While we've had a few updated looks at the game in the months since its debut, it looks like Sony has been keeping a secret that we discovered on a recent visit to SCEA's San Diego development studio: a PSP version of the game. While it may sound like crazy talk to hear that the ModNation Racers experience is being converted to the PlayStation Portable, we're pleased to say that it's happening and is going well. We had the chance to get a look at an early work-in-progress version of the game and were shocked by how well it's coming together.

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If you haven't been following ModNation Racers, the unique kart racer features standard single- and multiplayer racing modes with a robust and easy-to-use content creator. If this sounds a lot like the model set by Little Big Planet, that's because it really is the spiritual successor to Media Molecule's groundbreaking game. One of the key differences in the experience--aside from the difference in genre--is an even more accessible, and surprisingly robust, content creation tool that's basically a triple threat. The game's three creation "studios" let you create unique mods (drivers), karts, and tracks using thousands of props and a free-form road-layout tool for a staggering number of combinations. While this whole package makes sense on the PlayStation 3 given its processing power, a successful and faithful portable conversion clearly poses a pretty hefty challenge.

Sony tapped its San Diego development studio to take on the task of creating a unique ModNation experience on the PSP that was faithful to the PS3 game. To pull off the ambitious task, the team reached out to two studios: United Front Games, which was pretty well versed in the ModNation world, and Studio Liverpool, Sony's UK development house responsible for the awesome Wipeout games on the PSP. United Front Games offered guidance and assistance around the assets used for the game to ensure that the art style remained faithful to the overall aesthetics of the PS3 version. Studio Liverpool made a unique contribution to the project in the form of the game engine the team developed for the Wipeout games on the PSP.

The result of this work is a full-featured re-creation of the PS3 game on the PSP that comes packing nearly all the content from the console game, sharp visuals, and an impressive sense of speed. The game retains the urban vinyl look of its console cousin while sporting a stylized look that fits the action. There are some trade-offs to detail given the PSP's horsepower and display resolution, but Sony San Diego's work to tweak the Wipeout engine for its needs is paying off nicely. The game looks supersharp and retains its quirky personality.

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On the content side, ModNation Racers PSP features a single-payer story mode that has you working your way through a series of levels facing off against bosses. In addition, the game features three content creation studios that let you customize your driver and kart as well as create entire tracks from scratch. While this may sound daunting, each of the studios features an easy-to-use interface that makes it a breeze to make use of the hundreds of different items to create something. Many of the items in each editor feature some level of additional customization, such as color or detailing, that you can use to fine-tune your items to your liking. The game stays true to the interface of the PS3 game's content creation modes and should be accessible for just about anyone to play around with. The track editor is especially impressive given the scale that you work in.

As far as the multiplayer goes, there are a few options to choose from. The multiplayer experience lets you mix it up in ad hoc or infrastructure matches for up to six players. You'll find all the different match types from the PS3 game on hand in addition to a brand-new mode for the PSP. Besides the traditional multiplayer options, ModNation Racers will let you upload your custom content as well as download the work of other players.

But while this all sounds well and good, cool graphics and content creation tools don't mean much if the game sitting at the heart of everything isn't good. We got some hands-on time with two tracks in the game and are pleased to report that the racing mechanics are sound and the controls are responsive, which makes for a fun kart experience. Your goal, as in the PS3 game, is to outrace your opponents on winding tracks filled with hazards, weapons, jumps, and shortcuts. An interesting new wrinkle to this solid set of mechanics is a new stomp move added to the PSP game that lets you smack around an opponent even if you don't have a weapon on hand. One of the big keys to the game's success here is the frame rate, which is fast and smooth even in its unfinished state. The game's audio wasn't quite as polished up as the visuals were, so we didn't get a proper sense of what to expect, but we reckon it should be pretty close to what we've heard in the PS3 game.

So after going through ModNation Racers PSP, our big question was around how or if the game was going to sync up with the PS3 game. The team was pretty tight-lipped on any cross-platform communication or functionality, although it noted that its goal, as well as that of United Front Games, was to make the best possible game experience on each of the platforms. We're curious to see just what, if anything, ends up going on between the two platforms, but we have to say that the PSP game stands up pretty well all on its own.

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Based on what we saw and played, ModNation Racers is shaping up to be one of the most promising PSP games we've seen this year. The game's smart and faithful conversion of the PS3 game is an impressive feat matched only by its smooth frame rate. Those hungry for some kart racing or content creating on their PSPs will do well to keep an eye out for the game. ModNation Racers is slated to ship later this year for the PSP in tandem with the PlayStation 3 game. Look for more on both in the coming months.

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