Review: ModNation Racers
We're on the final lap of the trio of arcade racers; first I looked at Split/Second and last time it was Blur. ModNation Racers has an aesthetic immediately familiar to me, as it seems heavily based off the Mario Kart series: Cute little avatars shooting powerups at each other on cartoony tracks. It's obvious where the design influence came from.
What ModNation does differently from Nintendo, though, is build out a robust online mode. The central hub of the game offers easy access to the top kart, avatar and track downloads and it was easy to slip into a full room of players for a race. The deep creation mode ensured that there were a ton of interesting tracks to go through, from jumping tracks through flaming hoops, richly themed tracks and powerup-heavy levels. Avatar creation was one of the deepest I've ever seen; Mario and other famous characters have been re-created and look surprisingly like their originals.
All the creation and sharing in the world can't save bad gameplay, though, and that's where my problems with ModNation lie. The controls are very touchy and sensitive, which I got used to fast but never feels completely comfortable. Drifting is a bit too easy for the game and is essential for building up your power meter, which you can use as a boost or to shield from powerups. Powerups concern me since there isn't much strategy to them as they all do the same thing – hit opponents ahead of you (one of them is a speed boost, though). Collecting more powerups will increase the strength of your weapon; getting a weapon to level 3 is devastating and also really easy to use, since it homes in on everything in front of you. The power meter mechanic feels unbalanced as well, with boosting not being particularly strong and using it to power a shield drains it at a breakneck pace. The limited time in which you can shield forces you to time a block extremely well; what makes the mechanic more frustrating is how the “warning siren” to alert you of an incoming projectile is entirely unreliable. I’ve had times when it would go off 3-4 seconds in advance, or sometimes with second or less, or sometimes it wouldn’t go off at all before I’m hit by a weapon.
ModNation is centered on the multiplayer experience, which left single player feeling a bit dry by comparison. Events are always races and goals start simple but become annoying fast. Even when you complete goals (such as drifting a lot, not hitting walls or destroying the “boss” kart) they only count when you get first place. The mode feels boring and shallow as a whole. You can change how your car looks, but there’s no customization at all for tweaking speed, acceleration or turning. Single player is entirely linear and meeting goals and collecting medals on the track do nothing for you except for unlocking more doodads to pimp your creations with. This element in particular can cause frustration, since a lot of the time much-desired objects you want to use are locked behind annoyingly difficult challenges, so to be a creator with the most objects you need to also be a good racer. The one nice touch in single player are the cutscenes and silly story, narrated by two announcers for the racing circuit your character is in. The story is silly but is full of heart, and the interactions between racers before the race start are often cute and funny.
The final nagging point of ModNation Racers is the load times; I recommend bringing a laptop or smartphone with you when you sit down to play the game. In multiplayer I often felt like I was spending more time in the lobbies and the load screens than I was in the game. Loading screens are littered at times like before the race, after the race, in the lobby, to get in and out of hub areas, before company logos at startup and after company logos at startup. What blew my mind is that load times were allegedly worse before a patch hit, but even after that they are still unacceptable for a fast paced racing game.
I think you’ve connected the dots for my thoughts on ModNation Racers by now, but here’s a summary. The game may have a cute aesthetic appeal to it both from graphics and the thrill of playing as Mario / Master Chief / Ratchet look-alikes, but don’t be fooled: weak gameplay, lackluster single player, frustrating challenges, lack of any real unlockables or progression, and more load times than gameplay make ModNation a big disappointment. I hope Sony’s Play Create Share “genre” makes a comeback with LittleBigPlanet 2, since this game is simply a weak argument for the viability of creation-focused games.