Anyone who had a go-kart as a child knows how much fun can be had from a simply constructed box on wheels. And every big kid who subsequently purchased real cars will secretly assess each potential set of wheels with fun in mind, not practicality.
Mario certainly never saw the need to move on from the kart, and nearly every other famous (or infamous) gaming personality has followed in his footsteps in their own kart racing title. ModNation Racers has no such celebrity endorsement, but instead places the onus on player creativity, and generous flexibility.
The resulting potential is dizzying, and certainly no less charismatic, but imprecise controls and a somewhat sluggish pace mar what could easily have been a must-buy title.
Building on Sony’s current 'Play, Create, Share' mantra, ModNation Racers follows in LittleBigPlanet’s footsteps by empowering the player with an in-game editor. Such is the dynamism of these tools that it won’t be long before you're producing something as good as, if not better than, the developer’s own content.
Whilst the Mod (as the game’s titular protagonists are known) and kart editors are comprehensive, it’s the track editor that makes the biggest splash. Cleverly enabling you to draw the track by driving the course you wish it to take – tarmac streaming out behind you like paint – the immediacy is striking and genuinely groundbreaking.
While there are only four environments to choose from right now, the variety of props and detailed options with which to tweak your sketched circuit (raise or lower the ground; adjust the width and camber; change the surface and run-off types; add boost pads, etc) mean that a unique creation is never far away, and tracks are pleasingly distinct.
This imbued personality is also present in your Mod and Kart, the large selection of comedy and ‘serious’ components allowing for the creation of genuinely charming avatars.
Career, single-player, and community options are offered, with single-player yielding Action Race (with weapons), Pure Race (without weapons), and Last Kart Standing, in which the kart in last position is eliminated after a timer counts down. Brilliantly, Career integrates the creation tools and a compelling story told through cut-scenes between each race.
Tears for peers
The panache demonstrated by the game’s creation tools doesn’t survive entirely intact once the starting lights turn green, though. The sense of speed is lacklustre, and drifting round corners is difficult to master as a result of somewhat unresponsive, imprecise steering.
This is especially frustrating when coupled with the kart racing genre’s propensity to send you from pole position to last in the blink of a red shell. Well, missile, in this case.
There's also a little too much to remember. You can earn boost in a variety of ways (spinning while jumping, drafting behind opponents, drifting, and so on), but the accumulated energy can also be used to power your shield, or offensively to sideswipe or stomp opponents.
Balancing all that is required of you in order to win is hard work, and holding a drift round a tight bend whilst trying to sideswipe an overtaking opponent and avoid being hit by mines or missiles can be overwhelming.
The weapons at your disposal are bombastic and hefty but, revolving as they do entirely around projectiles and lasers, lack imagination. And whilst technical details such as the draw distance and detail on the tracks is genuinely impressive, the colours feel washed out, lacking vibrancy (a problem not shared by the excellent cut-scenes).
Multiplayer is robust, with ad-hoc and online options, and all that aforementioned personalisation comes to the fore when playing against friends. Better still, the ability to share your creations has the potential to engender a vibrant community, and the ability to download other people’s work provides inspiration.
A voting and comments system will hopefully make it easy to find the best content, whilst the online stats and leaderboards will ensure a healthy amount of friendly competition. But all the connectivity and creativity in the world is for naught if the game isn’t fun to play.
Go-karts are fun because they're lightweight and direct, but add all the computerised aids commonly found on cars today and that fun is marginalised. Whilst Modnation Racers is by no means a bad game, the racing component feels stodgy and remote, falling short of the stellar experience promised by so much innovation elsewhere.