Building permit
Vintage Game Club 2.0

Race, create, share


I try not to let anticipation get the best of me. Too many letdowns. Too many broken promises. Hype-fatigue. Dubiosity.

But sometimes I can't help myself. A game appears on the horizon, and the old intoxication sets in. The fervid calendar watch. The release date countdown. And why not? It's fun to be excited. The worst that can happen? A game disappoints, I get over it, and my gaze returns to the horizon. All the while, a library of terrific games awaits at my fingertips, ready to be played. Yo ho, a gamer's life for me.

ModNation Racers is my horizon game, and it's got me in quite a state of commotion. If this game delivers on its promises, and I have reasons to think it may, ModNation Racers could turn out to be something very special - and Mario Kart, one of my favorite game franchises of all time - may have finally met its match. 

In case you haven't heard, ModNation Racers is a kart racing game from Vancouver-based United Front Games. Sony likes to describe it as a cross between Mario Kart and Little Big Planet, and while you should always be wary of "if you liked game X, you'll love our new game Y" PR drivel, this time the description is spot-on. 

ModNation Racers marries LBP's "Play, Create, Share" mantra with Mario Kart's player-friendly racing formula, including all the familiar MK elements (boost, weapons, drifting, upgrades, etc.). Having played the beta last December and a recent preview build, the racing part of the game looks to be solid. MK vets will find that the MNR karts feel heavier, and drifting feels like a cross between MK and Burnout. The game is a visual treat, mixing realistic environments with MNR's urban vinyl-inspired cars and characters.

All of this matters, of course, because MNR is, at its core, a racing game (with local 4-player split screen and 12-player online modes). None of the user-generated content will amount to much if the racing fails to make creating stuff feel worth doing.

But what most distinguishes MNR from other games - not simply other racing games - is a set of creation tools and a content sharing system that practically compel you to start making things from the moment the game begins. MNR enables you to create and fully customize your character and your kart, and then it hands you a incredibly intuitive track editor and says 'build it.' 

Essentially, MNR translates track building into 'paint driving' - you paint down a track as you drive over a flat terrain, adding other elements like surface textures, water, mountains, trees, and weapon items later. 29 types of terrain and landscape elements like bridges, tunnels, and trees can be painted on with a virtual spray-can. If you grow tired of track building and find yourself with an unfinished circuit, MNR will complete it for you at the press of a button.

If you're wary about designing a track from scratch, you can download someone else's creation, including tracks built by MNR's dev team, edit it to your heart's content, and then upload it for others to try. The original creator's name remains affixed to the track, with you listed as a modder.

The designers at United Front have spoken about their efforts to build a toolset that strikes a balance between depth and usability, noting that this aspect of development presented a bigger challenge than designing the racing game itself. 

From what I've seen of MNR, their efforts have paid off handsomely. This game, which clearly owes a debt to Little Big Planet's player-as-creator ethos, is a clear advancement on LBP's powerful, but difficult to use level editor. Some would-be designers will balk at the limits MNR imposes its track creator, but I found it surprisingly robust, with just the right balance between power and ease of use. Those wishing for more design content will likely find it arriving in a steady stream of post-release DLC.

As always, the usual provisions apply. I'm writing about an unreleased game that may contain more or fewer features than I've seen. Server reliability will be vital for online racing and sharing content, and we can only hope that system works well. Load times were an issue in the beta, and the in-game track announcer drove me batty. Here's hoping he arrives with far more and way better quips...or an off switch. 

If ModNation Racers can be the game it wants to be, players and creators alike are in for a real treat. Mario, my friend, it's your move.

I encourage you to check out the Sony-produced MNR tutorial videos. PR propaganda aside, they do a nice job of illustrating how the track, character, and kart editors work.