Who doesn't love Mario Kart? Well, OK, some people can't stand the way the power-ups mean you can be winning one second then last a few moments later. But most of us love the fact that it's a racing game that everyone can play. Whether it's you and some mates all sat on the same sofa, playing split-screen, or you against the rest of the gaming world online, something about Mario Kart has stuck, meaning the same basic formula has remained great fun for years. You'd think copying it would be easy, but there's a reason other games in the genre haven't had similar success. ModNation Racers, the exclusive PS3 kart racer from Sony and United Front Games, is the latest to try its hand at the ever popular arcade racing experience.
One of the biggest hurdles ModNation Racers faces is the fact that you don't get recognisable characters to race around as or themed courses to race at. Instead of Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser and co, you get strange anthropomorphic plush-toy-like creations that can be customised to reflect your own personality. While Sony doesn't have the wealth of famous, family friendly characters Nintendo has, an all-stars racing line-up would have added some much needed likeability and personality to the package. Still, the character creation tool is easy to use and allows everyone to race as their own Mod or Mod-ette.
This creation runs through to the karts themselves, too, with a variety of body kits, wheels, engines and accessories able to be combined to form crazy contraptions. The more races you win and objectives you achieve on the track, the more parts you have to use in the creation suite. You're not free to sculpt something exactly as you wish, but the variety of karts on show already, purely in the test network alone, suggests there's plenty of scope for originality.
All this character and car customisation is good, but it's not a patch on the quite brilliant track editing suite. Whereas we've seen level creation done well in the likes of LittleBigPlanet, in ModNation Racers the tools are so easy to use that anyone could put together a drivable track in minutes. This is going to be key to your enjoyment of the game, as it's by far the title's defining feature.
I'm not arty in the slightest and got bored after a few hours of messing about with the level creator in LittleBigPlanet, but I had a good time making fantasy tracks in ModNation. How professional the final track is will depend on how much time you spend placing environmental objects and adjusting the lay of the land, but it's perfectly feasible to create something and be racing on it with other people in under 10 minutes. For that United Front should be highly commended.
The ModNation hub, a drivable menu of sorts, lets you access all the game has to offer. The best characters, karts and tracks are all put on display, while hot laps and the like are easily challengeable. If you like what you see you can leave feedback or rate creations, and there's obviously the option to download and try out what others have made.
There's so much to the create and share aspects of ModNation that it's easy to forget that there's actual racing too. You've got powersliding crazy karts, shortcuts, ridiculously powerful weapons, turbo boosts, shields and even on-track traps. The racing boils down to a neat jump-to-slide mechanic, with karts then able to hug the racing line while retaining good speed, earn boost and then turbo off into the distance. The handling is good, with skilled racers able to powerslide and boost for most of each track, but it doesn't feel quite as refined as the handling in SEGA's recent All-Stars Racing.
As always the use of power-ups will rub some people up the wrong way as they give lesser drivers a chance to catch up, but on the whole the best players will still come out on top. There's some depth here that might not be obvious from the start. Weapons have three levels of power, able to affect more rival drivers as you level them up by collecting pick-ups, and a neat shield system provides you with some protection if you time its use correctly. There's also a barge move, lifted straight out of Midway's underrated Wheelman - a quick flick on the right analogue stick and you'll send your kart flying sideways into whoever happens to be jostling for position. The on-track traps sadly feel a bit gimmicky and don't add much to the arcade action other than the odd annoying moment.
Track designs are good and the locations varied, but aren't as charming as what we've seen down the years in Mario Kart, and more recently in Sonic and SEGA All-Stars Racing. This is ModNation Racer's biggest problem: it just feels a bit plain. Whether you're playing alone in single races or through the career, online with friends or split-screen on one TV, there's fun to be had, but you can't escape the feeling that there's something missing.
A lot of effort has gone into trying to give the career mode a story, but, quite frankly, the pre and post race cutscenes are terrible. If you're of a certain age you'll remember MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch. The commentators you'll grow to hate here are from the same school of cheesy dialogue, but aren't as potty mouthed, resulting in the kind of banter you'd find in a primary school playground. It's all been put together very well, but these sequences don't hit the mark.
In-game visuals are clean and sharp, although the tracks lack the spark I'd have liked to see. There's nothing breathtaking on show here, and in many ways the course designs in Mario Kart Wii, a game on a significantly underpowered console, are more visually appealing. There's the odd frame rate stutter, but for the most part you'll be screaming along at a nice steady clip, often soaring high into the sky off turbo charged ramps. The music is annoying in the extreme, though, and not something you'll be glad is lodged in your brain after a few hours with the game. Most unforgivable is the terribly slow load times, which really start to grate after a while. Considering the game has a mandatory install before you begin, the huge wait between races is hard to understand.
As an example of a game that gives users the tools to create their own content, ModNation Racers is up there with the best. The track creation tools are brilliant and for many gamers will justify the price tag on their own. With some neat sharing functionality there's every chance excellent, new, free content will be appearing for some time. If you're more interested in the actual karting experience, though, you might find ModNation to be ever so slightly lacking in personality. It's good fun with mates and has a surprising amount of depth, but lacks the magic that would have elevated it to a must own title.