At first, ModNation Racers delivers quite a sucker punch. Dressed up like a Saturday-morning cartoon, the cheeky racing game for the PlayStation 3 lulls newcomers into expecting a joyride, then leaves them in the dust bruised but laughing.
ModNation stands as a refreshing example that games can be slapstick without being childish – challenging but not cynical. The game wants fast learners, but gives them a delightfully zany spin around the racetrack.
The game’s storyline sends players hurtling down a variety of tracks in hot pursuit of racing greatness. Chasing all the way are not only opponents’ cars but also their missiles and other tools of playful destruction ready to knock you off the leader board. Outrunning the pack demands a healthy mix of jumps, drifting, speed boosts, shortcuts, and tossing your own cartoon cannon volleys at every tailpipe in sight.
To cram in all these tricks, ModNation takes advantage of every button on the controller. Such complexity would feel overwhelming if not for the game’s well-paced coaching. For the first couple hours, every race introduces a new power or wrinkle and doles out rewards for experimenting with each. Still, victory requires very precise thumbwork. The constant demand for speed pushes racers to accelerate well outside their comfort zones. The resulting desperate, madcap battle to stay on the road makes for some exhilarating finishes – and, for players able to laugh at themselves, some pretty spectacular disasters.
If the competition ever grows too intense, ModNation Racers includes a welcome palate cleanser: tools to create individualized racers, vehicles, and tracks. Slap on gremlin ears, a walrus mustache, vampire fangs, and glam-rock glitter, then hop into a tricked-out hotrod, go-kart, or tour bus. While ostensibly just a digital Mr. Potatohead, this creation mode offers surprising control. Users have already crafted remarkable doppelgangers of Batman, Monopoly mascot Uncle Pennybags, and the entire Super Mario Bros. crew – all of which can be downloaded for free. Paving custom racecourses comes easily, as well. ModNation even avoids the vacant feel that so often plagues player-created levels, thanks to options that auto-complete and auto-decorate your masterpieces – a feature long overdue in video games. Excitebike this is not.
For a game all about speed, ModNation asks players to endure a lot of downtime. Obnoxiously long loading screens stand between each race. These pauses even spoil some otherwise clever aspects of the game. The main menu system, for example, is actually a drivable patch of asphalt surrounded by concession stands for each game option – a dynamite idea drained of its excitement by a 30-second loading window before you enter, and perhaps a longer wait as you leave. Sony, who published the game, says it’s investigating a software patch that might speed up some of the stoplights. No word on when, or if, such an update will arrive. Thankfully, once a race has loaded, only your dastardly rivals can slow you down.
In a way, ModNation Racers shows all the classic personality traits of a second child. Born as the kid brother to the 2008 masterpiece LittleBigPlanet, this racing rendition of the “Play. Create. Share.” brand inherits all the zany, creative, craftsman charm that runs in the family. Yet its younger-brother roots shine through: ModNation feels rebellious, dramatic, and eager in a way LBP did not. None of these are flaws. In fact, the sassier feel complements the rollicking madness of the genre. What more could you want from cartoon racing heroes?