If United Front is at one distinct disadvantage as it presents first offering to the public, it’s that comparisons between ModNation Racers and Mario Kart are as inevitable as a blue shell honing its way up the race track.
ModNation Racers isn’t the first to attempt usurpation of the kart racing crown - others have tried. But when the hairpin pile-up clears, Mario and company have always stepped away from wreckage unscathed. Ever since 1992, the portly plumber has been the undisputed podium-topper.
Instead, ModNation Racers has sought to distinguish itself by adopting publisher Sony’s “Play, Create, Share” mantra, the same first outlined by platformer LittleBigPlanet.
The game has an urban vinyl collectables presentation and is doused with an Electric Kool-Aid colour palette. Most importantly, it’s distinct and sure to leave an impression. But it also makes the game approachable for a wider audience – the same audience who are usually turned off by videogaming’s too-frequent depressed shades and ominous tones.
No doubt, ModNation Racers has it hand over fist over Mario Kart off the track. The game arms players with a vast arsenal of customisation tools that allows them to modify karts and racers with thousands of options. If you can dream it, you can create it here. Additionally, many more spray jobs, engines and stickers, eyes, ears, noses and shirts can be unlocked by completing career mode objectives, or by gambling tokens at in-game slot machines.
If anything, the creation tools proved too powerful for our poor artistic skills at Gameplanet HQ. It's overly-critical to take exception to it, but there’s a small paradox of choice involved with such robust customisation. When you’ve got so many creative options to choose from, simply getting through them all can be a task in itself. Finalising your selection – and creating something that doesn’t look like its own mother would recoil from it in horror – can be a difficult challenge in itself.
What’s important is that they’re there, and they’re very easy to use. Anyone with a creative streak will be like a kid in a candy shop. Further, any usability questions can be checked against a quick and painless tutorial, nothing is arcane.
The kart editor is similarly varied. But whether your kart has rocket packs precariously strapped to it or looks like it needs to be powered Flintstones-style, the difference is purely aesthetic. All karts handle exactly the same on the track. The only real changes that can be made are courtesy of two bars that let you exchange acceleration for top speed and vice versa, and also handling or drift.
However, the jewel in ModNation’s crown is the track editor. Once again, it’s incredibly easy to use. Players select one of five generic backdrops, such as “Alpine” or “Jungle” and pave a race course by driving a steam roller across the plain.
The steam roller uses the same driving controls as the karts themselves, with the added ability to pitch, meaning they can move upwards to create hills or burrow downwards to create gullies. Where tracks cross over themselves, the game automatically creates bridges or tunnels. Hold down reverse and the tarmac will be slowly deleted.
Once the steam roller reconnects with the starting line, the track is complete. Players can then either choose to auto populate the race course, or carefully add assets one by one. Once again, adding assets manually is much easier than expected - if time consuming - and a helpful tutorial is a menu away. But the auto population tool is especially noteworthy. As advertised, it instantly adorns the track with themed buildings, trees, spectator stands and chevrons - all as you complete a lap of your newly-minted course in auto-pilot. Any particular can easily be tweaked, deleted or embellished using the manual editing tools.
Finally, you’re able to race against the AI on your track before making any further adjustments and sharing it with others. The “share” part of the equation has also come a long way since LittleBigPlanet’s “moon.” Sony’s ever-improving online platform asks the community to vote and rank one another’s content, allowing you to quickly find quality tracks without having to wade through the usual dross.
But the quality of the community and creation tools might all be academic if ModNation Racers can’t deliver on the track.
The kart driving model is simple and intuitive. Happily, players can also retain some control as they drift through corners, straightening easily. Performing drifts and jumps, and attacking other players, powers up a boost gauge which can be deployed to accelerate your kart to the head of the pack or charge your side-swipe attack.
As you race you’ll collect weapons scattered around the course. They come in only four varieties: a sonic pulse, a lightning attack, guided missiles and boosts. Even though each weapon has two tiers (upgraded by collecting the same weapon twice), it’s not exactly a bounteous spread.
To counter these weapons, players have a limited number of protective shields that they’re able to deploy against the designs of others. Unfortunately, timing these shields correctly can prove extremely challenging. They have a window of only a few seconds, and while the game’s HUD clearly lets you know when an attack is closing in, its proximity can be difficult to determine.
When you’re caught with your pants down (or shield, as the case may be), you’ll discover that the upgraded weapons can be too devastating. The issue is exacerbated by ModNation Racer’s common inclination to reset karts on the track after they’ve had a minor spill, rather than letting them try to drive their way out of a pickle. The time lost accelerating from a stopped start is frustrating.
Nobody has yet accused kart racers of playing fair, or indeed of trying to simulate real driving conditions, but the ruinous impact created by an upgraded sonic attack as you’re closing on the finishing line might cause you to brand the controller into the screen and before settling into a pitiless sulk.
The computer AI in career races and quick matches is also fairly ruthless, and occasionally you’ll be left pondering how your vast lead, your timely shield and your judicious speed boost still saw you bettered by a robot.
But if you’re not playing a kart racer with friends either online or split screen, you’re not experiencing the best the genre has to offer. Against other players, the field is levelled and ModNation holds its own.
Add to that the innovations and user-friendliness of both the editing tools and the community platform, and United Front’s debut offering becomes a particularly attractive. ModNation Racers demonstrates that customisation and kart racing are a happy marriage. If it hopes to prise the trophy from Mario’s clutches, it will need to be done with community-created pliers.