Perhaps it's the heat, or the mental strain of having to work within earshot of man-size speakers blasting out pop songs for a break-dancing stage show, but United Front's Dan Sochan uses the word "accessible" in his answers to virtually every one of my questions. As well he should, because as we discovered at E3, ModNation Racers is a game where you can roll your own Nurburgring or Donut Plains within minutes of picking up the pad. The good news at gamescom is that you can also be more precise than that.
Free placement mode may not be the focus of our initial presentation, but it's handy to know it's there, allowing you to distribute individual trees, houses, camels and patches of long grass to suit your fastidious goal. Free placement gets mentioned when I attempt to put a tower on top of a giant phallic rock emplacement at the centre of my track. You can do that, says Sochan, but you need to do it by hand. Sochan also confirms, in answer to my attempt to place a camel on top of a minaret, that you can stack certain objects. Although not camels.
ModNation Racers may be about making your own tracks, but it's also about making your own racer and a little car for him to drive around, and a whistle-stop tour of the options for both reveal impressive depth. Using an interface similar to LittleBigPlanet's Pop-It, you can texture your budding vinyl-toy Schumacher with a range of motifs, or compose your own with a custom palette, and then choose from a range of mouths, noses, ears, hairstyles (head and face), clothes and decals. As with LBP, we're in happy, quirky territory, and the result of a few shouted suggestions is a little chap with a ginger Santa beard, pink devil horns and a centurion helmet, with some fancy night-vision goggles to round things off.
Decals are also new for gamescom, and have been designed by a proper graphic artist, according to Sochan. You can apply them to different body parts and then transform, colour, skew and flip them, add rust effects, letter or numbers and generally muck about. You can have over 100 layers of decals. You can do pretty much all of the above for your car, too, and it doesn't have to be a standard kart - you can have sports cars, trucks, tuners, classics, dune buggies and various others. We're professionals in a hurry, so we just pick something random and move onto the track editor.
Building your own racetrack is also simple, although the similarity of the ring menus used to move between modes is a little disorientating to begin with. Once you're set, you can haul the terrain skywards or drop it down below ground level - creating lakes and rivers once it descends low enough - to sculpt the basic terrain, before hopping in your little steamroller and drawing racetrack onto the result. There's a meter at the bottom summarising track complexity, mirroring a similar feature in LBP, but there's also a mini-map top-down layout of your circuit as it stands, with a greyed-in area connecting where you are back to the start/finish line if you haven't got there yet. The grey area is the game's suggested route and the one you'll have if you hit the auto-complete button.
You can increase or decrease the width, gradient and elevation of the track, and handling banks and different levels of terrain is easy - there's even a toggle to snap the track to the appropriate terrain height or to go along at sea level regardless, with the latter option forcing the game to resolve problems, like track disappearing into the mountain, when you finish editing. It works elegantly enough, and once you're happy you can jump in and drive around - the game even fills in basic barriers around the track and gives you some AI opponents to race against for testing purposes.
It's not quite complete though, so it's back to the editor to throw in some tweaks. You can change surface types, which affects traction, and you can even leave open spaces in the track layout where there are no barriers. Given the potential for abuse, United Front includes some smarty-pants logic to figure out allowable shortcuts, and even the option to specify permitted routes by hand. Then dirt, grass and flowers can be sprayed on, and there are even prop sprays for those all-important camels, mud-brick houses and palm trees (we're being shown the desert terrain theme - one of four - today). Unable to position my camel as I like, I rebel by using the d-pad to transform it into a giant camel, which the game promptly doesn't render due to an unexpected bug in the build. Foiled again.
Sochan is adamant it will be as easy to share, download and race with friends on user-generated maps as it is to build them. "It's ridiculously quick," he tells me. "We knew immediately we wanted really quick file-transfer, because if I build a track I want you and whoever else to come play it, and if you have a 20-minute download to get that track, it's just not fun. We've created one of the most innovative file-sharing systems I've ever seen. Within seconds you have the track, the assets - everything you need." Sochan also says to look out for announcements soon on how the game handles sharing and online searching.
One of the least-discussed elements of ModNation Racers, oddly, is how it handles. "We didn't want that cartoony, stuck-on-rails feel you often get with accessible [there!] racing titles," says Sochan, so what we went with was a real-world physics model on top of that." It's tough to take much away from our few minutes spent actually racing, but with hop, drift, super hop, and boost accumulated by drafting, drifting and jumping off ramps, along with a sideswipe and downward stomp move, it comes off a bit like Mario Kart (there's a surprise) with some concessions to big-boy arcade racers like your PGRs and GRIDs.
All those antisocial buttons reflect the game's love of weaponry too (there are Mario Kart-style pick-ups on track, but you can also choose not to use them and wait for an upgrade pod, graduating from a forward-firing rocket to a heat-seeker for instance), and use of weapons is Sochan's answer to the touchy subject of whether the AI rubber-bands. "Our AI guy built a very cool system that is a lot more about pack racing. If you're driving within that pack, they're trying to stop and block you, but they're not going to cheat to catch back up [if you get ahead]," he says. "But, they are now more aware and try to use weapons against you. If I'm in 12th place, the guy in 1st shouldn't be slowing down to let me catch up; if I'm in 6th place, 5th is probably worried about me and the guy in 7th is trying to catch up with me."
But what about the fact that really good racing games are remembered as fondly if not more so for specific tracks than they are for their handling and other features? Isn't there a risk that a racing game built around UGC will struggle for an identity? "You know, not at all," says Sochan. "Someone asked me earlier about egos, and it's a different thing when you're creating a user-generated content game - it isn't that you've created the greatest track ever, it's more we're excited that we've made tools that are powerful and easy to use. I hope that within the first week there are 100 tracks up there that are amazing, and have things we never anticipated." Good thing it's accessible then, really.
ModNation Racers is due out exclusively for PS3 in 2010. There's a beta planned, access for which will be doled out to certain buyers of LittleBigPlanet's GOTY Edition, although presumably other ways will be announced soon.