Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

ModNation Racers


Year: 2010
Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PS3
Metacritic score: 82
VGChartz sales to date: 1 million 

WHAT MADE IT GREAT
Kart racers are great games because they combine the thrill of competitive racing with the hilarity that ensues from blasting your friends with crazy weapons.  It's a testament to the genre's staying power that a spin-off series like Mario Kart can find success across so many console and arcade releases  That level of greatness takes a careful mix of control and chaos but a healthy dose of speed helps too.  In a lot of ways ModNation Racers nails the combination but what puts the game over the top is the crazy degree of customization.  The multiplayer portion of the game is where you can build custom tracks, karts and racers and share them with other players online.  You can race against up to 12 others using your creations or you can download from thousands of options already online.  Just about any character, car or theme you can think of already exists in dozens of variations.  This social aspect of the game has earned it many comparisons to Media Molecule's 2008 PS3 exclusive LittleBigPlanet, and true to form ModNation Racers is a game that doesn't fully come to life until you've explored the ability to create and share with others online.
It's-a me, Nintendo's legal department!  This is-a DMCA take-a down notice.
The career/story mode is probably where most people will first dip their toes into the water.  The story follows an up-and-coming racer named Tag trying to break into the Modnation Racing Championships, or MRC.  You'll compete in a series of race circuits, each one consisting of multiple events at a number of different tracks.  The track designs in the career mode are top notch with the right mix of zany obstacles, shortcuts and jumps without being too confusing to follow.  There are weapon pickups scattered around each track which will randomly give you one of four weapon types: speed boost, missiles, electricity or sonic waves.  Each weapon type has three levels and driving over successive pickups will increase the level whatever weapon you currently hold.  Every stage of every weapon also has two firing modes, either front-fire or laying it down behind you like a mine, so there's plenty of variety in the mayhem being dished out all around you.  Luckily you've got a full arsenal of offensive and defensive tactics to get you to the finish line alive, most of which make use of the boost gauge you fill by pulling off tricks, drifting or performing other actions.  The boost gauge determines how long you can use your kart's turbo boost but it can also be used up performing other actions.  In addition to the weapons above, you can also use a little boost to sideswipe opponents riding alongside you by flicking the right analog stick.  One of the most critical actions you can use boost for it triggering a shield that will briefly protect you from any oncoming attack.  A warning system lets you know when someone is targeting you but you'll need quick timing to make sure you pop your shield just before getting hit or it won't do much good. 

Better hope you didn't pop that shield too early, or those missiles are gonna hurt
To move onto the next race you've got to finish in the top three, but if you complete all three objectives on each track you open a grudge match challenge against that tracks local lap leader.  There are also five hidden tokens on each track waiting to be collected which can then be exchanged to unlock new items to trick out your character, kart or tracks in the Mod Spot.  Since most tracks have multiple routes which can sometimes be hidden the tokens encourage you to explore a new course each lap and can lead you to discovering useful shortcuts.  Clearing every track objective while picking up the tokens and still taking 1st can be extremely challenging, so thankfully you don't have to do everything in a single race, but it certainly adds to your bragging rights.  This game is no pushover, the AI of your opponents is based on your own performance, so if you're having a lightning lap it means everyone else likely is too.  This helps prevent blow-out wins regardless of your individual skill level, but it can also make come from behind wins hard to pull off.  Throughout the race your pit boss will chime in with helpful information, and there's also biting commentary from race announcers Biff and Gary before and after the flags come out. 

Once you've mastered the basics in career mode it's time to enter the Mod Spot.  This is an open online lobby where you can drive around to various game modes such as single player or online races, the garage where you can create and modify content, and areas where you can view top created content, view lap leaders for the ever-changing Hot Lap competitions and much more.  If you're just looking to hop into some races it's as easy as driving through the right gateway, but you can also host matches if you have specific tracks you want to play.  As with any game with such a heavy online component, your mileage will vary in your interactions with others and the quality of the user-created tracks.  Most tracks are just as polished as the ones created by United Front Games, and there's plenty of examples that completely outdo what the developers included in the box.  You will come across maps that are confusing, unfinished or downright annoying in their design but the robust community review system makes it easy to filter out the chaff.  Once you find a rotation you like, it's easy to keep your tires hot by seamlessly re-joining the same lobby to wait for the next race and even in it's third year ModNation has plenty of others waiting to play any time of day.  Connection issues or waiting to join a race is something you will very rarely experience.  It's also fun just to see what characters and karts other players are using, and with text, voice and gesture based chat you can always share with someone when you find a design you like.  You can easily spend dozens of hours in the Mod Spot just designing or modifying user-created content and watching one of your creations rack up hundreds of downloads can be even more rewarding than dominating in the races.  For those who lack the patience to design content yourself it's great being able to search through the vast existing catalog of creations to find exactly what you want.  By creating a shared space where players can create content, join races or just mill about and socialize the game takes on a life of it's own.

The robust track editor let's you whip up tracks as wild as your imagine will allow and includes a dizzying array of details to play with.  It's easy to spend so much time constructing a city for your track to go through that you forget to make the track.

WHAT WENT WRONG
Leaving all the creativity up to the player makes for a bland experience right out of the box.  Having an intricately detailed and massive focus on user-generated content helps give your game staying power, but you still need an enticing style and design straight from the developer to draw players into your world.  While I'm sure the mostly blank canvas design was an intentional decision by the developers to encourage people to add their own creations, it nevertheless makes the series blend into the background.  The game did a lot to earn it's comparison to LittleBigPlanet, right down to squishing together separate words in the title while still capitalizing each one.  But Media Molecule injected an immense amount of style and feeling into their homemade arts and crafts setting whereas ModNation feels much more generic.  The characters in the story are mostly boring designs, with the biggest offender being the mostly silent protagonist Tag.  Thankfully you can use your own characters or karts even in the career mode so you're not stuck with bland Tag and his plain black kart the whole time, but it's still hard to engage with the story when all the characters in it are about as stimulating as soggy cardboard.

Didn't I see these guys in a Wii Sports game?  Wait, no, I think they're Xbox Live avatars.
This inability to stand out in a crowd despite the game's unique approach was especially disastrous because of the unusually large number of releases in the racing genre during it's launch window.  Two other racing combat games, Blur (from the studio behind Project Gotham Racing) and Split/Second: Velocity both released the same month.  Both these games offered up photo-realistic graphics that contrasted sharply with ModNation's cartoon style.  If that wasn't enough, the series that defines the racing genre more then any other made it's first major release of the generation when Gran Turismo 5 came out later that year.  These games likely drew away most of the die-hard race fans who opt for realism over karting, but who may have otherwise gotten into the ModNation community if there hadn't been so many alternatives.  ModNation couldn't even boast of being the only kart-racer released that year since Sonic & Sega Al-Stars Racing beat it to shelves by a couple months.  Reviews were overwhelmingly positive though the long load times were criticized and some felt the dynamic difficulty balancing was too aggressive, which can be especially punishing when getting hit downgrades or removes your current weapon leaving you helpless to retaliate.  Sales were good enough to justify releasing later versions on handheld systems, but it was obvious that a simultaneous release of multiple games in the same genre in the same week hurt sales for each of those games.  While LBP had sold 3 million copies by its second year (having themselves suffered from a competitive release schedule) ModNation is closing out its 3rd year and sales have petered out around a million behind that benchmark.  

WILL WE SEE IT AGAIN

Yes and no.  Even though most gamers let this one pass them by, ModNation Racers found enough success to see continued releases on PSP and PS Vita.  The game is a The PS Vita version even supports limited Cross-Play with the PS3, allowing you to share created content across platforms (but sadly not race head to head).  As for a true sequel to the game, well that's kind of a tricky proposition.  You see, when ModNation Racers came out in 2010 a lot of reviewers described it as LittleBigPlanet meets kart racing.  But then in November 2012 Sony released an actual LBP karting game called, fittingly enough, LittleBigPlanet Karting.  Media Molecule actually shared development of that game with...United Front Gaming.  No, seriously.  

It's not very often that two competing developers collaborate on a game that is directly positioned against each of their own flagship products.  Sure Nintendo and Sega are happy to pair up Mario and Sonic every now and then, but it's usually some bizarre spin-off that ends up demeaning them both.  In this case however, both developers got to do what they do best, with United Front Gaming providing the karting mechanics beneath LBP's unique style.  While it's a great karting game, it doesn't feel like a true follow-up to ModNation because no matter how creative you are, everything you make still has that homemade LittleBigPlanet feel.  Even though ModNation wasn't as interesting up front, it was like a lump of clay that can be molded into something so beautiful you forget what it looked like at the start.  There's still hope for a return since even as LBP Karting was in development United Front Gaming was releasing ModNation Racers: Road Trip for PS Vita. Hopefully they'll wave the green flag on development of a sequel soon, because racing endless variations of characters and karts around millions of original tracks can't stay this fun forever, can it?

Gentlemen, start your copyright infringing
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