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.
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.
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.
Biff and Gary return to voice extensive tutorials for the character, kart and track editors, but you can get up and running very quickly without them. As Christian Donlan noted when we first met ModNation Racers, United Front favours accessibility over precision, but it's good to discover that the precision is also an option if you're prepared to dig around for it.
That arguably sets ModNation Racers well apart from the more intense LittleBigPlanet, which is no bad thing considering that you have three editors to worry about. Within minutes of beginning, I managed to put together a rabbit-eared, kaleidoscopic top hat-wearing nuke advocate with a lopsided grin, built him a steam-powered clockwork station-wagon with amped rear suspension to blast around in, and even failed miserably to recreate Mario Circuit 1 in the track editor.
For the latter, I printed off the layout from the internet and simply drove around in the little steamroller that lays down track. While the default view apes the driving perspective, and even shares many of its controls, it's also possible to watch from above, which is handy for measuring out turns. Test-driving and even test-racing is absurdly easy too.
In other words, it's not the game's fault my track didn't work out. The problem is that my thumbstick control is about as subtle as a foghorn with a pompadour, leading to some intriguingly shaped corners. Then I hit the wrong button, so rather than being left to sculpt the famous shortcut sandpit and position power-up spheres, the game filled in the blanks for me.
However, this was actually a blessing in disguise, because it introduced me to the game's autocomplete functionality. If you're laying out a track the editor overlays a faint grey line leading from where you are back to the start/finish line, and if you autocomplete then it simply picks an efficient route back there and puts the tarmac down for you. What's more, if you finish planting the track and aren't too fussed about what goes around it, the game will even add terrain variation, scenery, weather effects, power-ups and other props while you watch.
Away from the track and the drawing board, the game already seems coherent, with a nice hub world that lets you cruise between activities. It's arguably just a fancy menu, but it justifies itself by doubling up as a doorway to community.
The best and most popular cars and avatars are right there in the plaza as towering statues, you can kick off pickup races with friends you see driving around, there are DLC previews to watch on big screens and other feeds. It's sort of what PlayStation Home sounded like before it all went a bit "chilling out here on the deck".
Question marks still remain. It's easy to believe the developers' boasts that sharing and downloading content will be simple and speedy, but it's more difficult to accept that the relatively bland gameplay and stock track design are incidental just because the creativity of people who dig into the editors will steal our hearts.
Then again, it's tempting to give United Front the benefit of the doubt for another reason. The slate is blank again, yes, but the sweet-natured presentation, intuitive editor design and thoughtful labour-saving tools scattered across the game all suggest that the Canadian studio knows all about the blank slate - and the fact it's kart racing means it's more obvious what to put on the slate anyway.
You'll need to care, just as you did with LBP, but perhaps ModNation Racers' thoughtful design will put more of us onto the road of least resistance.
ModNation Racers is due out for PS3 in the US this May, and should be out in Europe around the same time.