ModNation Racers

Car tune network.

A small number of excellent people made an awful lot of brilliant things using LittleBigPlanet, but if Media Molecule's game taught us nothing else (apart from "don't sing the Qur'an"), it's that a blank slate can be overwhelming unless you approach it with a clear idea of what you want to do, especially in a 2D world where "platform game" is more of a suggestion than an instruction.

ModNation Racers may have more base items to mess around with (cars, drivers, tracks) and another dimension to worry about (the third - do keep up), but perhaps developer United Front still has it easier. Kart racing is a more organised proposition - the fate of your creations forever bound to the start and finish line and the train of human and AI drivers circling between them.

The preview version of the game sent out to hacks this month is certainly a humbler proposition than Sackboy's opus, opening with a CG cut-scene about a driver called Tag, and the silly events that put him behind the wheel of a kart in the world-famous Mod Racing Championship, where he is schooled by a moustachioed mechanic hoping to relive former glories through his generic new protégé.

The Career mode that soon opens up is a straightforward procession of races in unremarkable but distinctive locations, in which you're encouraged to race to win and also fulfil secondary objectives for bonuses. Before, during and afterwards, you're entertained by fantastically monikered pundits Biff Tradwell and Gary Reasons, who crack wise from behind a newsdesk.

On the track, steering control feels a little sloppy at the moment, but the X-button drift move is well executed, angling your car ever so slightly too far towards the inside kerb. This restrains you from gratuitous powersliding, because you'll either zoom into the barrier or need to decelerate if you release too late and regain traction pointing at something solid and damaging. It's a ploy that also allows skilled karters to take advantage of the speed increase it bestows under the right circumstances.

Tom inexpertly pilots his starter kart through the game's first race.

Power-ups, meanwhile, are as old as time itself (well, Mario Kart itself), and rather uninspiring at first glance. Nintendo's shells and banana peels really have stifled innovation in this genre - the leader-seeking projectile here even has the balls to be blue, which is hopefully some sort of tribute.

One variation is the multipurpose boost bar, filled by drifting, which allows you to sprint past your rivals or perform a sideswipe move, and also fuels a shield for deflecting incoming projectiles. This wolfs down your boost earnings, so it's a question of waiting for the right moment to deploy it, which requires a bit of skill when you're trying to string turns together.

Watch us put together a driver in ModNation Racers.

ModNation Racers' debt to the Mario Kart dynasty was always likely to run very red, but in some respects it's a little alarming - from jumps and shortcuts in mild disguise to boost pads, it's all in a language we understand and are perhaps a little tired of practicing. Presumably the idea, as with LittleBigPlanet's approach to platforming, was to encourage people to delve into the creative side of the game by making the core gameplay as familiar as possible.

With only four tracks in our preview copy, it's to the creator we next turn ourselves. Like LBP, you unlock new things, including car parts, clothing, track furniture and stickers, by playing the Career mode. Some are awarded for winning, some for secondary objectives (use three boost pads, get 3000 drift points - that sort of thing), and there's a hidden token to collect on each track, which can be spent at the shop.

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