Version tested: PlayStation 3
Well, I managed to resist it. In all the hours I spent toying around with ModNation Racers' fantastic suite of creative tools I restrained myself from making a single character which even vaguely resembled a set of genitalia. Nor did I craft any of the Mario Kart characters. I didn't even infringe the copyrights of Batman, Wacky Racers or the Dukes of Hazzard.
Not that it's impossible to do so - the depth and flexibility of the editors on offer here is more than capable of translating almost any popular character, car or track into the game's shiny, colourful engine - but to use these abilities to imitate just seemed like a bit of a waste.
Instead I, a man of limited artistic ingenuity, rattled off any number of unique and striking little creations, starting simply and progressing to more subtle, layered designs. These, although lacking the professionalism of the offerings downloadable from the United Front development team, managed to make the atrophied creative centre of my brain quite chuffed with itself.
Alright. I gave one driver a little set of boobs. More nipples, really. Hardly noticeable. Look, I got carried away - and felt really quite guilty afterwards.
The point is that the track, car and driver editors of ModNation are incredibly accomplished, in-depth and intuitive to use, with handy tutorials for advanced techniques. Stickers, accessories and parts are unlocked by completing races or sub-objectives, or by gambling collectible tokens on an in-game slot machine, unleashing an almost inexhaustible array of creative possibilities. If you've ever looked at one of those tiny, pricey, vinyl Qee toys and thought you could do better, then ModNation is the perfect opportunity.
Sadly, much like those arresting little vinyl bears, whilst cars and drivers look good on a shelf, their practical applications are fairly limited. All karts have exactly the same driving model, apart from two sliders allowing the preference of drift versus handling and acceleration over speed. It's more of a simplified tuning system than anything else, and so tucked away in menus that I didn't realise it was there until I'd been playing for hours.
Drivers make no difference to racing skills whatsoever, and move way too quickly to distinguish on the track, meaning that their appearance is only really appreciable on the podiums of the modding centre or during the beautiful and generally amusing cutscenes. Still, art for art's sake and all that, and that's certainly not a negative aspect in itself.
Tracks, of course, are a different story, and the ease with which they can be shared or downloaded is a testament to the PS3's improving online structure. Track creation itself is a breeze, dropping players into a track-laying machine which is simply driven around a blank arena, depositing tarmac behind it. These bare bones circuits can then either be auto-populated with the various on- and off-track accoutrements, or managed down to the very last detail, including sun position, weather, surroundings and short-cuts. The finer points take some getting the hang of, but the ability to create, test drive and host a race on your very own track within minutes is a very praiseworthy achievement, especially given the restrictions of working with a pad.
The other half of the package, the races themselves, start well. A gentle introduction to most of the game's mechanics occurs over the first few tracks, and the modding tools are revealed over the first hour or so, too. Initially it's arcadey and fun, a chaotic love-letter to the accessibility and enjoyment of the genre, with more than a few nods to the SNES family sire. In following that line, however, ModNation has picked up rather too many of the frustrations which should have been left by the wayside.
This is a racer very firmly in the kart racing tradition. Tracks tend to be wide and fairly forgiving, with sweeping drift turns, speed-boosting chevrons, huge assisted jumps and those all-important weapon pods. Weapons are divided into four classes: boosts, lightning, sound and missile, each of which can be powered up twice by hitting other weapon pods without discharging.
The most important thing on the screen during a race is the boost gauge, represented in thermometer style on the right side of the screen. This is filled by performing various racing manoeuvres such as drifting, slipstreaming or aerial spins, as well as attacking other racers. Its main function is to fuel the boost, giving your kart the extra speed to overtake or dodge a trap, but it also powers the kart's shield and its side-swipe attack.
The side-swipe is something of a last gasp defence, but effective enough to push a racer out of a pack or knock them over a precipice on some of the less forgiving arenas. The shield is there to protect you from the weapons of your rivals, and it's something you'll be using a great deal.
When you have incoming ordnance you'll get a warning siren, its timing and duration reliant on the nature of the weapon and the distance of its launcher. A small symbol also pops up underneath the kart to indicate what it is that's tracking you down. Hit the shield at the right moment and your tiny creation will be sheltered from harm. Miss your timing and you'll either be stunned or forced to start from a standstill.
It's a nice idea, and what seems like a natural progression for the genre, but in practice it rarely works so efficiently. For a start, ModNation suffers a little from blue shell syndrome - named after Mario Kart's leader-seeking super-weapon of the N64 era and beyond. Top-level attacks are far too effective.
For example, fully-powered sound weapons jump from a localised thump through a spread of sound "grenades" to an incredibly destructive sonic wave which clears the entire width of the track for some distance. Used behind a group, it's absolutely devastating, and the AI will utilise it fairly often.
Not so bad, you might think; after all, you do have a shield to protect yourself. However, getting the timing right is extremely hard, especially as a full boost gauge will only provide a second or two of shield. The sonic wave detonates in front of the player too, travelling before him and emanating waves of blue noise, making dodging it almost impossible in the heat of a race. Even if you do manage to dodge a third-tier weapon, all too often it's followed up by another assault, and with your shield spent there's nothing you can do.
But that's the genre, to some extent. This is a game of unpredictability and sudden reversals of fortune, not an accurate racing sim. Nonetheless, there are so many opportunities to take a battering in ModNation, from the weapons, the traps, the drops or the incredibly aggressive AI, that before long the single player becomes frustrating in the extreme, removing nearly all semblance of skill and judgement from the driving and replacing it with chance. Far too often I was picked off on the last corner of a race, dropping from first to sixth or seventh because of a weapon fired almost directly behind me, giving absolutely no warning.
It's a familiar feeling to any Mario Kart veteran: that inescapable certainty that the AI is cheating, generating weapons as and when it needs them or pootling past you on the final straight when you're at full stretch with boosters wailing. I've no idea whether it's the case, or if the opponents are following the same rules to far greater effect, but the overall impression in many of the later, tougher races is that you're operating at a distinct disadvantage.
Remove that AI from the equation and the feeling of equanimity is restored. Played online or amongst friends in the four-player split-screen, ModNation allows its own charm to shine through. There's still a high degree of chaos to balance the field, but at least you can be sure that every opponent is open to the same sort of abuse. Furthermore, weapons can be banned completely, although the barrel launchers, blockers and thwomp-like devastators remain.
Load times are a bit of a bind, although that's lessened somewhat by the almost instant restarts that are available after failed races. Because there's only ever one unfinished track available at a time in single-player, however, and given the levels of teeth-grinding which some of the more unfair outcomes can produce, you might find that quitting out to soothe your rage with some gentle creativity punctuates a fair few of your racing experiences.
United Front deserves to be praised for much that they've done here - putting so much creativity and community in the hands of the player is something which only LittleBigPlanet has pulled off on console before. It's just a shame that that success had to be tempered by a somewhat overenthusiastic approach to the unpredictability inherent in the genre. That said, those with a calmer and more artistic temperament than I, with a little more patience, can probably add another mark to the score - especially online.
7 / 10