ModNation racers really impressed me when they first showed it at E3 2009 and they built a track in about five minutes on stage. The idea of mixing LittleBigPlanet levels of customization with the simple fun of kart racing seemed like a natural combination. Did this basic idea work? Absolutely. Is ModNation Racers without flaws? Absolutely not.
One of the reasons that I decided to offer some thoughts on this game and not a full review is because I wanted to get straight to the subject: what’s wrong with ModNation Racers? Remember when Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out? In that game, which is generally heralded as a great casual party game, you had to play through a god-awful, broken, fifteen-or-so hour single player story to unlock all the characters. This was a problem because you couldn’t just rent or pick up the game, invite some buddies over, pop it in, and buckle down for some mayhem with any character. I’m not saying the characters should have been all unlocked from the beginning but, rather, that they should have been made available through playing the game how it was designed to be played: in random matches with buddies.
How does all this relate to ModNation? It suffers from the same problem. ModNation follows the principle advanced by LittleBigPlanet that customization parts (in this case for characters, karts, and tracks) can be unlocked by playing through the single player campaign and then used across the board. Now, I have no problem with slowly unlocking more parts and features over time, even if it is a bit of a trick to pad out gameplay time. My problem is that in ModNation you have to play through the terribly balanced single player career to get these parts. The difference being that in LittleBigPlanet the single player was actually good and had a wonderful progression of difficulty.
The point is: ModNation’s career mode is hard—but not for the right reasons. Let’s take a moment to look at why this is the case. One of the greatest sins of racing game design is to add rubberbanding to the AI racers. For those of you who don’t know, rubberbanding is where the AI opponents slow down when they’re ahead of you and then speed up like crazy when they’re behind you. Not only that but the AI is absolutely deadly with the weapons that you can pick up on the tracks.
These things compound together to create this situation: you’re on lap three. You’ve worked the entire race against the stubborn AI to get into first place and you’re nearly at the finish line. Suddenly, three or four AI racers behind you launch weapons at you (and, being in first place, you’re pretty much the target of every weapon fired). In ModNation, you can use your boost bar (which is built up in a similar fashion to the one in the Burnout games: drifting, jumping, etc.) as a shield as well to defend against such weapons. The problem is that it still requires precise timing to use the shield, as well as a healthy chunk of your boost bar. So you may manage to deflect two or even three attacks, but there’s no way you can defend against so many at once. A single attack will hit you (they auto lock-on) and then the rubberbanding AI will rocket past you in a boost of speed, costing you several places in the last couple seconds of the race. This will happen all the time, too; in fact it’s standard procedure for ModNation Racers.
You can imagine how this might get frustrating fast. But how does it relate to unlocking upgrade parts? In order to unlock more parts to build more crazy characters, karts, and tracks (building crazy things being the major selling point of the game), you have to complete objectives in these absurd career races while getting first place for any of them to count.
I’m not here to just criticize without offering solutions, however. Why not allow customization parts to be unlocked in every aspect of the game? It would make sense, considering customization is the major aspect of the game. The online mode includes a leveling system in which you earn exp from every facet of online gameplay: online races, creations shared online, etc. Why not have the career races give exp as well so that every aspect of the game is contributing to the same goal? If you want to keep career mode as brutal as it is, that’s fine—just up the exp reward from those.
Maybe that’s what the whole problem with ModNation is: it’s so disjointed. In Smash Bros. Brawl, you needed to play the terribly long and out of place single player mode to unlock all the characters for multiplayer play. In ModNation you need to play the broken and frustrating single player mode in order to unlock all the options for creating stuff to share in multiplayer. This creates a weird sort of experience where there’s no focus, and every part suffers as a result.
There are other problems in ModNation. The load times are way too long for a game that installs on the hard drive. Once you finish an online race it kicks you back to the main lobby before asking if you want to start another, effectively making you sit through two load screens where zero are due. In the end, the game (like Smash Bros. Melee) is just a weird sort of disjointed experience where features that are not the focus (singleplayer) have drastically bad effects on the features that are the focus (multiplayer, customization). While I believe that my suggestion of every aspect of the game contributing exp to the same cause is the best solution to this mix-up, United Front Games has announced that a patch is on the way to add a “casual difficulty” to the single player career. We’ll see if that remedies the situation.