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ModNation Racers - Annoyingly Close to Perfection

One question lingers above the head of ModNation Racers, casting its ugly shadow on the game’s cute facade and refusing to budge until a satisfactory answer is provided once and for all.

Is ModNation Racers better than Mario Kart?

After all, Sony’s newest kart racer is clearly lusting after the throne. They have set out to infuse the user-created madness of LittleBigPlanet with the core kart racing gameplay of the king of the genre, Mario Kart.

Have they done it? Has the king been dethroned?

Sadly, in a plot twist straight out of a bad sports movie, ModNation Racers came within ten feet of being the king of the hill and then tripped over its own feet and rolled all the way back down to the bottom.

Mario Kart’s simplicity is one of its defining features. Anyone can pick up and play it with ease. ModNation Racers was unlikely to beat Nintendo at its own game, as so many other terrible kart racers have so aptly demonstrated, so it went the smart route of making a deeper racer with the same cartoony core racing philosophy. It succeeded, despite a learning curve that will turn some away.

For starters, the all-important weapons, while seemingly few in number at first, are all easy to use and distinct from one another. The game allows you to charge them up to three different levels of power by picking up more item boxes. As each power level has a distinct function, this increases your strategic options. Do I dare wait long enough to charge my simple missile into its level three multi-missile heat-seeking incarnation?

ModNation Racers also takes Nintendo’s heavy reliance on the drift mechanic to the next level. By pressing one button you can easy drift around corners, making turning easier and quicker. By doing so, you gain drift points which add to a boost meter on the side of the screen. You have a number of other options for increasing the meter as well, such as getting airtime, drafting, or performing spins in the air with the right stick.

But the boost meter isn’t only used for boosting. You can use a bit of it to sideswipe competitors with the right stick and slow them down. You can even use it to trigger switches by tapping R1, which can open new paths, alter the behavior of roving obstacle bots on the track, and more depending on what course you’re on.

Most importantly, you can press the circle button to funnel your boost power into a temporary shield that you can use to protect you from enemy fire. Combined with the ability to shoot powerups behind you or hop over obstacles by tapping the drift button, you’ll quickly find that you have a lot of defensive options.

Unfortunately, utilizing these protective tricks can be decidedly difficult. The shield in particular is hard to time correctly and eats up so much of your boost meter so quickly that what could have been an excellent strategic tool is reduced to an oft-frustrating guessing game.

The end result of all this is a far more complex, involving racing game. Unfortunately, too many peripheral problems bog down the experience and induce enough frustration to keep it from reaching the finish line.

If you’ve ever once hurled an angry insult at Princess Peach in Mario Kart for being a cheap, cheating, rubber-banding bitch, then ModNation Racers is going to chew you up, spit you out, and laugh at your sorry fuming ass as it bullies its way to victory. Don’t let the kiddie exterior fool you, this game is unrelentingly brutal.

Every AI racer, down to the poor sap in last place, has intimate knowledge of every shortcut, boost pad, and item box, coupled with an uncannily good aim and ability to perfectly time shield bursts to deflect your attacks, not to mention a frightening penchant for stealing the race from you at the last second in that worst of all AI sins. At least there’s a difficulty setting in quick races, but you get no such luxury in the single player campaign. You’ll quickly reach a point where every new course will be another maddening battle with frustration.

The special challenges you have to complete, above and beyond the already tough act of simply winning, to unlock items for the customization modes are another matter of needlessly high difficulty altogether.

Unfortunately, aside from making the latter stages of the single player game nigh impassible to us normal humans, the cheating AI more or less ruins what was otherwise an equal to Mario Kart on almost every level.

See, you can’t just ignore the single player mode. The painfully unfunny cutscenes before and after every race, the cheating AI, and the brutal difficulty will all make you want to just skip the mode entirely. If you want to experience the game’s strongest asset to its fullest, you don’t get that luxury.

Customizing racers, karts, and especially tracks in ModNation Racers is immensely entertaining to a degree that’s hard to accurately convey. The tools are incredibly powerful yet so easy to use that it’s a simple matter to jump right in and build something cool. The feeling is terrifically satisfying. I never even tried making a level in LittleBigPlanet, but I made several tracks in ModNation Racers and loved it. It’s also a simple matter to hop online and download stuff made by others, extending the game’s replay value to nigh infinite levels.

I don’t want to sell this feature short. It truly is fantastic. For a certain type of gamer, the customization alone will be enough to make the game worth a purchase even in the face of the game’s other issues. It’s just too bad the problems with the core game weren’t ironed out to give these budding level designers a more compelling platform to show off their stuff.

In a baffling design choice, you’re forced to play the single player mode to unlock stuff to customize your creations. Forcing players to slog through the single player to unlock items for the fun part of the game was a monumentally terrible decision. Many players simply won’t have the patience, the skill, or the time and thus will miss out on a large number of items, making even the otherwise brilliant customization less rewarding.

The item unlocking nonsense isn’t the game’s only issue. That all-important “out of bounds” detector that is supposed to determine when you’ve gone sailing off into no man’s land and need to be reset doesn’t work as well as it should. It’s all too easy to get stuck on the wrong side of a fence and lose precious seconds by realizing you need to manually reset yourself. This would be less of a problem were it not for the already punishing difficulty.

Additionally, all these little custom bits wreak total havoc on the load times. Waits of 30 to 45 seconds are the norm to get into a race and the menus are peppered with even more short waits. Just to start the game you’re forced to wait through two loading screens and two unskippable developer intros, and that's before you even get to the 30 second wait for the race itself. Loading screens constantly pepper the experience to a truly unacceptable degree. The developers say a patch is on the way to address this and let’s hope that’s the case because the current situation necessitates keeping a magazine on hand to keep yourself entertained between races.

Oh, and speaking of annoyances, do yourself a favor and turn off the cockpit commentator before you race. That jackass does nothing but spew annoying, unfunny, repetitive comments every 30 seconds or so. Much like the cutscenes in the single player campaign, the game seems to think it’s much more clever than it actually is here. The volume slider to shut the bastard up is buried in the Advanced Settings menu. You can thank me later.

All this is such a shame because the core racing mechanics are absolutely solid enough to rival Mario Kart. There’s a steep learning curve that might turn off more casual players and some kinks in its potentially interesting defensive strategies, but once you spend a couple of hours mastering the game’s mechanics there’s far more depth and strategic options to be had here than in Mario Kart. Coupled with the customization aspects, this could have been an absolutely killer title.

ModNation Racers is worth a rental for any fan of racing games or LittleBigPlanet if only to glimpse at its potential and play around with creating awesome stuff. My problems with it aside, I’m glad I was able to try it. That said, I can’t recommend a purchase unless you have a large group of friends to share the experience with.

If you’re anything like me, playing a game like this online with random strangers doesn’t hold a lot of appeal. It’s sure as hell better than playing against the AI, and probably your best bet if you’re looking for a good time out of this game by yourself, but it’s not the same as booting it up with a bunch of good buddies. On that note, the split screen options here are very much appreciated, though I didn’t get to try them myself. Same screen multiplayer is far too uncommon these days and it’s good to see it in a game where it’s such a good fit.

There is incredible potential for fun in ModNation Racers, but the AI spoil it at every opportunity if you’re by yourself. Customization is clearly the game’s strength, so those that choose to spend their time creating more than actually racing might find themselves more at home here.

Sony’s kart contender does enough right to be a serious threat to Nintendo’s throne, but perhaps bites off a little more than it can chew. By hiding important content behind an intimidating wall of difficulty and teaching its AI all of the most annoying tricks in the “Don’t Let Your Computer Players Do This” handbook, ModNation Racers bungles what could have been a flawless victory. As it stands, players either have to put up with frustrations to enjoy the fun or wait for a sequel that might add some polish and truly put Mario Kart in its place like this title should have.

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