Thursday, December 24, 2009

ModNation Racers Preview


If its beta is any indication, ModNation Racers might be the first kart racing game in a long time that's worth getting excited about. It's definitely not trying to innovate on how kart racing games actually play during races, but everything else is shaping up to be pretty amazing. The only thing that could hold it back is the plethora of technical issues to fix before the game's release in a couple months.

The most important part of any kart racing game should be whether or not it's fun to race, and ModNation Racers doesn't try anything risky here; it sticks very close to the tried and true Mario Kart formula. You can press X to hop and launch into a powerslide. You can pick up power-ups like boosts or homing missiles. And even if you feel like you're comfortably in first, something can always go terribly wrong to send you straight into last place, so you need to keep on your toes.

To its credit, it executes on all of these mechanics very well, so that important core foundation is there. It's just personally a little disappointing to see that the changes to the kart racing formula have been so minimal since Super Mario Kart came out in 1992. Thankfully, everything outside of races is so radically different that it would be difficult to criticize ModNation Racers for not being innovative enough.



One of the most interesting and least discussed aspects of the ModNation Racers beta is called "ModSpot." When you load up the game, it dumps you into ModSpot with other racers. ModSpot is the central area to access all the different features of the game while interacting with other players. Most people seem content to spend their time powersliding circles around the ramp in the center of the area, but I've already seen a lot of good interaction going on. Players talk about the game, their latest creation, or compliment each other's characters and cars. ModSpot feels a lot like a less boring PlayStation Home.

The Creation Station of ModSpot is where all the user-created content is made and distributed. It's also the driving force in convincing me why ModNation Racers could turn out to be a really cool game. You can make your own little racer (called a "Mod") and a car to accompany him, and design tracks from scratch. Creating Mods and cars has easily been the most fun part of the beta.

Most of the customization options are locked out right now, leaving a scant few options to toy with. Yet even with the limited set, it's still very possible to make iconic and recognizable characters. I made The Riddler with a matching car and a MotorStorm logo guy all pretty quickly, but the surprising part is that I'm happy with the results. Browsing through the user-created Mods is my new addiction though. What people have been making is absolutely insane, and I've included some of my favorites at the end of this article thanks to the game's photo mode.



The problem with LittleBigPlanet's level creator was that it was so in-depth and powerful that it intimidated a lot of people. Personally, I had a lot of ideas for great levels, but my ambition far outstripped my time and patience. ModNation Racers avoids that by making track creation so streamlined and easy that you can make good tracks within minutes. You just drive along and the track will be laid down as you go, and then the game can auto-populate the track with power-ups, boosts, and scenery if you so choose. For track designers that want to delve deeper, however, the option is there to make shortcuts, add specific set pieces, and otherwise exert more control over their tracks.

As this is beta software, it is not without technical issues. While this is to be expected of any beta, it helps highlight some very important issues that need to be fixed. By far, the biggest of these is the long load times. Being able to jump into races quickly is key to this game's success, so United Front Games needs to work hardest on achieving that. As well, the frame rate needs to be smoother because dips are extremely noticeable in this game, along with lag. Again, this is a beta, so expecting it to be perfect is silly, but it definitely helps identify the areas they need to work on most.

So far, the ModNation Racers beta has been pleasantly surprising and very promising. Racing seems pretty standard for the genre, but every single other aspect is incredibly refreshing, especially the character customization. It's crazy to think that a kart racing game can be this innovative.





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