Little Big Planet brought the "Play, Create, Share" ethos to the PlayStation 3, and ModNation Racers applies the same concept to the kart racer. The result is a game that offers you all the tools you need to create your own karts, tracks, and racers and then easily share your creations online with the community. These features are excellent--both simple enough for beginners and powerful enough for creative types to match anything from the developer. The fiercely competitive AI makes the single player career more challenging than it needs to be, and long load times are a bind across all game modes. However, played with friends locally or online, ModNation Racers is a fun, rewarding and novel addition to the genre.
Once you've played the first tutorial race, you're dropped into ModNation Racers' central hub, which connects all of the play, create, and share elements of the game. You can select game modes either by browsing the menu system or by physically driving your kart to the corresponding area of the hub. If you're online, the world is populated by other racers whom you can communicate with, share content with, or challenge to a race. The hub also highlights some of the highest rated content from users around the world, with statues of user-created characters, such as Mario, Ryu, and Spider-Man, and karts that have been made to look like locomotives, aeroplanes, or even the A-Team van. There's a clear emphasis on sharing at all times--you can drive up to anything you see and press the square button to browse, rate, and download items. It’s a brilliantly implemented system, with seamless online integration providing a stream of new content.
The gameplay is based around karting staples--drifting and drafting are key, while power-ups and boost pads keep the action frantic. ModNation Racers introduces quite a few variations on these themes, though. The power-ups fall into four categories: boost, missile, sound, and lightning. As in Diddy Kong Racing, the more power-ups you collect, the more potency you add to the original pick-up. For example, the first rocket is a tiny little explosive that you have to aim manually, but if you wait and pick up two more power-ups, you'll be upgraded to a shower of rockets that will home in on an opponent.
You gain points by drifting, drafting, and spinning your kart in mid-air, all of which fuel a power bar that allows you to boost for short periods of time, put up a temporary shield or sideswipe opponents. The shield protects you incoming attacks, which are preceded by a warning siren, and as long as there's some space between you and the person who fired it, you can usually time a deflection. You can also use the power bar to sideswipe your opponents using the right analog stick, which can help you earn race-specific rewards or knock players off the track.
These gameplay mechanics mean that there's a lot going on in ModNation Racers, and it's definitely one of the most advanced kart racers on the market. The risk/reward nature of the power bar adds plenty of depth, while the tracks reward replayability with an abundance of shortcuts and unlockables. The racing is fun, with many courses offering long corners to drift around and massive jumps to stunt off. There's certainly a lot to take in at first, but these elements all come together to make a deep and rewarding kart racing experience.
The single player career mode will be the first port of call for many, where you unlock much of the creator content as you progress. You control a graffiti artist called Tag, and it’s your job to take him from the amateur ranks to the top of the ModNation Racing Championship. The aim of each race is to come in third or above, which unlocks the next track in the series. However, the better you perform in each race, the more unlockable content you get--specific challenges such as "earn 3000 drift points", or "smash up the roadside furniture", reward you with even more items. Unfortunately, you also have to finish on the podium or in first place to get the reward, which becomes very difficult about halfway through the career. Most races are standard three-lap affairs, but stunt races and grudge matches mix things up, as you have to out-score your opponents or physically take them out, respectively.
The career mode is a bit more frustrating than it needs to be thanks to an incredibly punishing difficulty level. The AI racers are very skilled, gaining an advantage early on in most races and becoming proficient with weapons and shields once you get past the first tour. The track designs also become fiendishly tough at around the same time, with obstacles, traps and ravines to avoid and shortcuts to find if you’re going to win. This means it can take multiple attempts to learn the best route through each course, but extra content is rewarded to those who spend the time to really master them. The career is also punctuated with TV-style race reports and story elements, and while they're cute and light-hearted with occasional laughs, they lack the charm necessary to stop you from skipping over.
Things improve when you leave the AI racers behind and play with other people, either in four-player split-screen or the 12-player online modes. Online, you can either jump into a ranked or casual game; the former rewards you with racer experience points, while the latter is unranked. The host can choose the course and the number of players, and if any players are missing the requisite content, the game automatically downloads it in the background.
The creation elements of the game are very impressive, allowing you to build and customise characters, karts and tracks. The tools have been superbly designed, with a firm emphasis on ease of use, with lots of powerful customisation options available as you dig further. The player and kart creators work in similar ways--you start off with a blank canvas and add layers of customisation from there. Both drivers (called Mods) and vehicles can be fitted with accessories unlocked in the career mode, while colours and styles can be swapped out quickly and easily. If you're advanced, Photoshop-esque layering techniques allow you to place text on top of backgrounds to create your own logos, for example. If you're not in the creative mood, though, you can simply randomise a character, choose a premade one, or download a community creation that you find after searching for certain keywords or high ratings.
The track creation tools are also impressive, and allow you to create enjoyable courses within a matter of minutes. You start by driving out a track in the same way you control a kart, but with added pitch controls so you can create slopes. Everything is worked out on the fly, so bridges and tunnels are worked out for you, and you can hold X to automatically complete your track at any time if you can't figure out where to go next. Once you have the basic shape in place, you can ask the game to populate the course with environmental details, hazards, and power-ups and then be up and racing in a matter of minutes.
The real fun comes from using the game's video tutorials to get into the nitty-gritty of track design, though. Great circuits are made by fine-tuning them--using different track materials, adding shortcuts, and placing items--all of which takes imagination and a lot of practise. Thankfully, you can jump in and test tracks at any time, or watch how the AI copes with your creation from a bird's eye view. As with Little Big Planet, the only limit is the building budget--every item has an overhead, but the ceiling is generous and you can be resourceful by replicating the same item rather than using lots of different ones.
ModNation Racers has clearly learned from other user-generated content-based offerings, so sharing is woven into every area of the game. You can choose which of your own creations you want published online, assign your own keywords so people can find them, and decide whether people are allowed to remix them in the future. Item downloads, views, and ratings add points to your Create XP rating, which helps you rise up the ranks as a creator for other players to find. Thankfully, players are already adding content in droves, meaning the game is populated with classic '80s TV show cars, homages to Mario Kart tracks, and even a playable Mod fashioned after Jesus Christ.
The cute and colourful visual style suits the creative nature of the game well. The mod and kart designs are charming, the tracks are varied, and the frame rate remains high even during splitscreen. The soundtrack is made up of generic video game pop, and while it's not particularly memorable, it keeps things light during the menus and the gameplay. Sadly, there's a really big problem that affects all of the game modes--the incredibly long load times. The quick nature of the racing is spoiled by prolonged periods of inactivity--often about 30 seconds between races.
ModNation Racers boasts some of the most impressive creation tools yet seen on a console, and the active community is already using them to make excellent content. It also makes sharing content completely seamless, constantly promoting a stream of new material to your console. The single player career can be difficult, and the long load times quickly become a bind, but ModNation Racers succeeds in providing outstanding online sharing facilities and great multiplayer fun.