22 November 2009

ModNation Racers Hands-On

We visit United Front Games to take a closer look at the fully customizable kart racer that is heading to the PlayStation 3.

Next up in the Play, Create, Share genre that Sony initiated with Little Big Planet is ModNation Racers, a classic kart racing game that lets you customize your own character and racing kart and build a professional-looking track from scratch in just minutes. We made a trip to Vancouver to meet up with United Front Games, the developer behind ModNation Racers, and had the opportunity to create our own character, test our skills on the track, and use our imagination to create the craziest course possible. What surprised us is just how easy it was to make a fun little course, and given the powerful and easy-to-use editor tools, there should be some exciting tracks once this goes out to the entire public.

Before diving into the game, we watched the intro to ModNation Racers to get a quick glimpse of the story. We were introduced to Biff and Gary, two commentators who were discussing the new season of the ModNation Racers Championship (MRC), a premier international kart competition. They went on to talk about how the MRC got started and how it's all up in the air in terms of where the next champion will come from. We'll assume for now that it would be us. We were then taken to the modspot, an area that functions as an interactive menu in which you can jump into your racing career or race against friends online or offline. Other options in the modspot include the creation station--where you'll customize your kart and racer--and next to it was a podium with some of the best karts and characters. The latest news, coming attractions, hottest tracks of the day, and a list of players are all displayed and accessible by driving up to the signs. When you're online, you'll be able to meet with other racers and talk to them via voice message or text. If you don't want to drive around the modspot to get to where you want to go, pressing start will bring up a quick menu so you can just select which mode you want to play.

Our first stop was the creation station, where we got to customize our own racer. The wacky and customizable characters in the game are known as mods and were inspired by urban vinyl culture. It's like being able to design your own plastic toy, because you're given a blank mold to start with and you can immediately start to dress him or her up and slap decals and other fun stuff on. There's a randomize option if you want to skip the process, but it's fun to mess around because there are so many options when it comes to customizing your mod. You can easily spend a good chunk of time trying to create something classy, funny, hideous, or plain. The circular menus are self-explanatory and easy to navigate, and a help button is there if you need additional info. You can shuffle through a variety of eyes, ears, hair, skin, clothing, stickers, and odds and ends to add to your mod as well as change the texture of your character. To give you an idea of how many options there are, we saw 260 types of eyes, 315 mouths, 20 noses, 29 hairstyles, and 51 skins, and there's more. For more-advanced adjustments, you can rotate, shift, and change the color of accessories. A color wheel is there for you to pick the ride shade, and there's a match-color button if you want to be color coordinated in the least amount of time. The only thing you can't do is create your own designs from scratch, but you can layer decals to create your own unique designs.

After decorating our vampire bunny mod, we were eager to jump into a few races to check out some previously seen tracks as well as a couple of new ones. Unlike in some other kart racers, your performance is entirely based on your own skill and how you drive, because the customization of your mod and kart are superficial. By drafting, drifting, and spinning in the air during jumps, you'll raise your boost meter, which will help keep you ahead of the pack. The L1 button activates your boost, and it's important to make sure your meter isn't empty, because you need it if you want to swipe your opponents with the right analog stick. Gas is mapped to the R2 button, and the X button is used for hopping and drifting. For a quick start at the beginning, you need to hit the L1 button when the last light goes off, but the trick is that the three-two-one countdown is always timed differently. Even if you don't get a good start, the items you'll pick up on the track are dependent on what place you're in to help bring you up to the front if you're lagging behind. We saw missiles, spiked mines, portals that let you warp through some of the track, and powerful boosts that can easily move you up a few ranks. The square button unleashes the item that you've picked up, but you can hold it if you want to leave it behind you. By saving your item and picking up another, you can upgrade the weapon that you've picked up for an even more powerful attack later. As long as you have some boost left in your meter, you can shield yourself from attacks by using the circle button to bring up a bubble shield.

Things to watch out for on the track include a variety of farm animals, poles that pop out of the ground, moving platforms, rolling barrels, and machines that shoot out flames. The game is fast-paced so that sometimes you won't really see what just flew by, but you'll get to know the hazards well once you start playing around with the track editor. It looks like there will be several themes to choose from, but we were given access only to the alpine theme. Before paving our track, we decided to edit our environment first, and by using a variety of landscape brushes, we were able to manipulate the terrain with a simple push of a button. Watching the beautiful mountains rise instantly is impressive, and by pressing L1, we were able to switch the functionality of the brush to create lakes with very little effort. Once we were happy with our landscape, we switched to the track editor, which allowed us to drive around and find the perfect starting point. The drive-to-create track studio makes it incredibly easy to create the track you want to drive on. After putting down the starting line, a giant steamroller was ours to control as we weaved around the green pasture, leaving a trail of asphalt behind us. We could change the elevation at any time or drive through mountains. The best part is that other than driving into the track itself, you can go virtually anywhere, and the landscape will mold itself around you. If you want to go through a mountain, the rock will give way so that you can go through. You can choose to drive along the terrain so that you don't go through anything or stay in free drive. Either way it's incredibly easy and you're done as soon as you loop back to the starting line, or you can hit the triangle button to auto-complete.

A new feature that has been added is the auto-population command, which will bring your track to life by randomly filling up your track with props, boosts, and other items. This way, you don't have to manually place individual trees or houses to make your track look nice. It's going to look fantastic from the get-go, and once you do a test run on it, you'll know whether or not you want to add more boost pads or a jump somewhere, take out a fence or two, or throw in some cattle. There's an option to add more props along the track, making it easy to plop down items, and you'll conveniently be placed next to the last thing you put down when you enter a test run.

This entire track-making process can take as little as five minutes, but if you want to make something really incredible, it'll take a bit more time, though it's intuitive and easy to use. There are more-advanced options where you can manage the finer details, like adjusting the width of the track or the spline. The developers showed us a spectacular-looking track that took them weeks to create. It had moving platforms, banked turns, insane jumps, a spiral track, and a ton of triggers on the road to activate hazards. With the track studio, it's easy enough for anyone to come up with a functional track in minutes.

The most exciting part is seeing what the community can come up with, because once you've mastered the tracks that are included in a kart racer, there isn't much left to do unless you take the competition online. We really enjoyed our time with ModNation Racers, especially when playing around with the track editor. It's one of the easiest creation tools that we've come across, there are no long-winded tutorials to bog you down, and it hardly ever tells you that you can't put an object in a certain place. If you decide to put a ramp that is too big to fit on a particular section of the road, the terrain will adjust itself so that you can put that ramp down. As we mentioned earlier, as long as you don't steamroll your track into itself, you can go anywhere within the confines of the zone and place anything wherever you want and the editor will handle the rest. We look forward to spending more time with the game as it gets closer to its spring 2010 release date.


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