When it comes to kart racing games, the market has generally been dominated by Nintendo – ask just about any gamer to name a kart racing title and chances are one of the first they’d think of would be Mario Kart. This is probably because when Nintendo first came up with the idea of sticking Mario, Luigi et al in little go-karts for a racing game, they got it pretty-much right first time and since then most companies that have tried to change the formula have created games which simply don’t measure up. Those which have worked – Diddy Kong Racing from Rare, for instance – have basically just been clones of Mario Kart in terms of gameplay, with different graphics and characters.
Which is probably why United Front Games, the developer of ModNation Racers, has also stuck with the tried and tested gameplay that fans of Mario Kart will be familiar with, but then worked on expanding the concept in other ways. The clue to what makes ModNation Racers different from the numerous (generally unsuccessful) Mario Kart clones on the market, is hinted at rather heavily in the title, the key word being ‘Mod’. For this game is all about the modification.
Set in the fictional land of the ModNation, players take on the role of a rookie kart driver, setting out to make a name for himself in the (fairly) high-octane world of kart racing. This he does initially by racing numerous competitors on a variety of different tracks, using shortcuts, weapons and power-ups which are collected in-race to supplement his driving skills and make it to that number one spot each time. So far, so just about any other kart racer you care to name.
Where ModRacer sets out its stall though, and says ‘THIS is what makes me different’, is in the way that just about everything in the game can be modded. There’s the drivers to start with, who look like the over-priced Japanese collectible figures you find in branches of Forbidden Planet or the ‘cooler’ independent clothes shops. You know the ones – they cost about £5 each, and you don’t know which ‘limited edition’ figure you’ll get because all the boxes are sealed? The idea being that you’re supposed to spend a fortune trying to ‘collect’ the whole set? Well these are what the driver characters look like, and you can change everything about their appearance, from the shape of their eyes and their body colour to their outfit. Doing well in races unlocks more clothing items and features, and the result is a wardrobe akin to that gamers got to play with in creating their own Sackboy in Little Big Planet, so expect limited edition themed ModNation ‘outfit sets’ to be available in the PlayStation Store soon, if they’re not there already.
Then there are the karts themselves – like the characters, you can change just about everything about them, building on a variety of different basic shapes and then customising everything from wheels to engines, giving them deluxe paint jobs and using the seemingly endless variety of sticker kits to create that ‘essential’ ride.
So far, so aesthetically pleasing, but while online users can vote on the looks they like, and the fact that the collectible bits and pieces you can earn on each track do add to the replay value a little, it all basically comes down to cosmetic changes at the end of the day, which might not necessarily excite everyone who’s not obsessed with watching Pimp My Ride and the myriad copycat shows on TV.
What should catch everyone’s attention though, is the track creation option. One of the simplest to use, and yet most versatile that I’ve ever come across, this tool is what raises ModNation Racers up above the rest of the kart racing pack. It’s very nearly a case of ‘if you can imagine it, you can create it’ (barring a very few restrictions to the size of the track) and as a result while you might get through the story mode in just a few days if you’re someone who spends a lot of time playing games, you’re going to take a VERY long time to tire of the infinite variety of tracks which you can create and share with those online, and likewise, sample their creations too.
I spent around two hours creating and refining my first track, and I have to say I found the experience almost as exhilarating as actually racing round the track. Even if my ridiculously hilly track did end up being not half as much fun to play as I’d thought it would. I can easily see racing fanatics spending days, or even weeks, creating ultra-devious circuits with which to test the racing skills of their online friends.
So all in all, a top-notch kart racing title which, while it won’t necessarily appeal to those who want the realism offered by something like Gran Turismo, is going to find plenty of fans out there. The only thing that really lets the game down is the loading times. I’m not normally one to bitch about these, because when I was growing up, we’d think nothing of waiting 20 minutes for a game to load in off a tape (note to young people – tapes are the things that music came on before someone invented CDs. Note to REALLY young people – CDs are what we used to use for music before MP3 players came along!) As a result of this, I’ve always been more forgiving of lengthy loading times than many, but it has to be said that the loading delays in ModNation Racers are too long, whether you’re opening up the track creator or simply starting a race in Story mode. Presumably it’s something to do with the fact that the game has to load all the modifications to the characters, karts and tracks in each time, but whatever the reason, at times I started to have flashbacks to my beloved old Spectrum 48k, and in these days of Attention Deficit Disorder and Sky Plus, where we’re used to getting everything what we want, NOW, that’s not a good thing. For this reason, ModNation narrowly misses out on an 8 out of 10 ‘Excellent’ rating, but it does earn a deserving ‘Very Good’ 7 out of 10.
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