If we had to pick three words that we come across far too often in our daily trawl through gaming news and press releases, they must surely be “grim,” “gritty” and “dark.” It’s as if a game’s success hinges on its ability to identify with teenage angst.
Occasionally, that’s quite true. But given that the coveted audience for videogames is the disposable income-endowed 15-35 year old male (and given that the average 25 year old hasn’t just sat down at their console in a huff after telling their mother they didn’t ask to be born) we’re going to go out on a limb and say that games needn’t be grim, gritty and dark to be successful.
Here are two words we almost never hear in communications from developers and distributors: “fun” and “entertaining.” We think that’s rather curious for an industry housed under the umbrella term Interactive Entertainment.
ModNation Racers is fun. The debut title by United Front Games for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable, it’s a kart racer that builds upon the “Play, Create, Share” maxim first outlined by Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet.
To that end, it’s the kind of Sony exclusive that prioritises engaging entertainment for a broad audience. Box art poster boy Tag will be ordered in your collection next to Ratchet, Clank and Sackboy, somewhere removed from the shelf bowing under the metaphorical weight of Heavy Rain and God of War.
Its buoyant colour palette and Urban Vinyl collectables art direction is anything but grim, gritty and dark.
There’s no menu the first time you play the game. Instead, it cinematically teases the career mode and explains the game’s premise before dropping you into your first race and introducing gameplay mechanics.
Now that you’re a Mod racer, you’re introduced to the game’s interactive menu, a kind of PlayStation Home away from Home, wherein the top racers and vehicles are on display, where you can continue in singleplayer career mode, or where you can modify, create and share your kart, your racer and your custom race tracks.
As a kart racer, the game’s controls are simple. As you might expect, United Front has two buttons to spare on the sixaxis – three if you include braking which has no discernible use. Racing mechanics are fast-paced and forgiving – you won’t find yourself ploughing headlong into barriers without the assistance of other racers’ weapons.
Fine, so far, so Mario Kart.
Where ModNation Racers may distinguish itself is with its user-generated content. Racers can be customised with hundreds of options for features and clothing, karts can be kitted out both aesthetically and mechanically. But it’s the track editor that will really sell the “Create” part of the development equation.
Firstly, it’s incredibly user-friendly – much more so than Media Molecule's editor in LittleBigPlanet. You choose one of five backdrops ranging from desert to jungle and are then placed in the driver’s seat of a steamroller on a starting line.
Using the same driving controls as a kart with the added function of trajectory, simply carve out your course, descending into the earth to create gullies, ascending beyond it to create hills and – where you’ve back tracked over or under track you’ve already laid – bridges. Reversing back peddles your progress.
Once you’ve connected the course back to the starting line, the game will instantly populate the race course with assets. As you race around the course in auto-pilot, trees will spring from the ground, a grandstand will appear at the starting line, and arrows will indicate hairpin corners, all of which can be tweaked or replaced with a range of customisation tools. It’s a system that makes the lowly finger painter look like an Elam graduate.
Moreover, once you’re comfortable with your creation, you can test it against AI racers before sharing it – a function sorely missing from many other racing games that include track editors. Unfortunately the code provided to us was lacking in online connectivity so that's about as far as we could get, but we'll be sure to get a more complete build prior to release.
If we had to take exception to something it’s that ModNation Racers may not be taking full advantage of the PlayStation 3’s GPU. The game world is lacking in rich textures, although we should stress that this is an early build and therefore almost always subject to ongoing modification. In any case, if it's textures you're after, Sony have another racing title coming up shortly - perhaps you've heard of it? Gran Turismo, or something.
In the meantime, those that delight at the thought of a genuinely creative and fun party racing title would to well to follow the progress of ModNation Racers, it's due out towards the end of May, and Sony appear to be doing their best to release it to PAL territories at the same time as North America.