How hard can it be to create your own race tracks? They're just a series of straights and corners, built out of tarmac, so surely anyone could do it if given the right tools. Well, that's what PS3 exclusive ModNation Racers aims to do, being the LittleBigPlanet of the racing game genre. And, as it turns out, track creation isn't hard at all. It's a piece of cake. Just as in LittleBigPlanet, though, the best creations are going to come from those of us with some real creative talent. Rules me out then.
Before talking about my incredible creations, it's worth talking briefly about what the racing's actually like. The preview build we received featured only four tracks, but they were enough to understand that this is very Mario Kart, although from what I've played it lacks that game's charm. Comparison's to LittleBigPlanet also come unstuck here, as the level of artistic freedom on display isn't close to what Media Molecule sewed into every one of Sackboy's seams. ModNation Racers is, based on what I've played, a fairly generic kart racing game.
The handling model is what you'd expect, with agile karts able to corner easily, while a slide mechanic lets you whiz round trickier bends. Slide enough and you'll fill a boost meter, which lets you zoom past rivals. There are even the fairly standard power-ups to collect, and none seem to stand out as anything overly original. It is still good fun though, and will be playable online and on a single machine via four-player split-screen - something that's essential for this kind of racing experience. And the less said about the career mode the better. From what I've played it seems aimed squarely at young children.
I'm willing to give developer United Front some slack at the moment, as the preview build is only packing a fraction of the content the final game will offer, but even so the bigger draw certainly comes from the game's creation tools. At a basic level, gamers who don't want to mess about with the track creator can quickly and easily knock together a customised Mod (your racer) and kart. It's all done via a series of easy to understand menus, and if you're really lazy the auto create option produces some funny results.
What the hardcore will want to jump into, though, is track design. This is split into the creation of the area in which your circuit is set and the layout of the track itself. I set about building a level in a jungle, although after 20 minutes the end result was like nothing I'd ever seen before, or should that be, like a mishmash of every other race track I'd seen before. It's a good job the sharing functionality, which will let users upload and play other people's creations, isn't working in this build, as I'd have been shamed by the community.
Firstly I roughly whizzed about the area with my painting tool, raising and lowering terrain in real time. The size of your brush can be altered, but the tools here have clearly been designed to be easy to use rather than offering exact precision. After a few minutes I'd made a mountain structure, constructed some odd looking volcano-like towers and created a small pond. Next I had to lay the track, ideally running over my mountain range to give it some much needed elevation changes.
From either a bird's eye view or from on-board a track laying machine, to place down tarmac you simply drive where you want the track to be. It's remarkably simple and works extremely well. The game will either build on top of or through your environment, so with the correct option selected I was able to run a track up to the top of my mountains and then back down again, running alongside my pond and to the finish line. The process took no more than a few minutes, but after a test drive (something that you can do at any time) it was clear that the scenery was bit bare.
To the menu I went, this time to the props. To be fair, from this point onwards sense went out the window in favour of what I thought would look cool. You can either choose to lay down items next to the track, with your cursor locked to its edges, or place them anywhere you like. Trees were planted along the starting grid and then the more extravagant stuff came out. I wanted boats, and not just little sail bots; proper Titanic-sized monsters. Not content with one almost blocking the track, I placed two more around the third corner.
A series of pipes, some blimps and plenty of huts later, my track was complete, although it was missing something. That small pond needed to be expanded. Effortlessly switching back to the terrain building tools, I altered my brush to lower land, and dug a great big lake in the middle of my track. Three small boats later, it was time to test drive. As you progress through the game's career you'll unlock new items to use in your creations, just as you did in LittleBigPlanet, so hopefully United Games will manage to put together a series of races that excite more than what I've played so far.
As it stands ModNation Racers is a fun, but unoriginal kart racing game, complete with an excellent set of customisation tools. Within days of its release in May I'd be amazed if an absolute ton of excellent tracks weren't created, so easy to use are the tools. I struggled to make even the most basic of levels in LittleBigPlanet, whereas here I'd made a perfectly playable, fun, if somewhat bizarre race track, and it had only taken me 20 minutes. If you happen to have some creative bones in your body, I can only imagine what you'll be able to come up with.
ModNation Racers will be released for the PS3 in May.