"My kids are hooked on ModNation Racers," a friend recently e-mailed me. "They love anything where you get to create your own character."
ModNation Racers is a go-kart racing game similar to the ones that have made the Mario Kart series a success. Because everyone is pretty much zooming around the tracks in custom-designed milk crates, the intricacies of tire surfaces and engine idle are less important than lobbing bombs at opponents and knowing where the racetrack's shortcuts are located.
The vehicles have a limited rate of acceleration unless a player drives over a speed-booster or grabs a power-up. The karts skid smoothly around corners, making the loopy tracks a lot of fun to slosh around on, but the vehicles rarely spin out of control. Racers can coast along in the draft behind other drivers, or pull up alongside them to elbow them into the walls. It's all done well even if it has all been done before.
But if ModNation Racers is fairly standard under the hood, the hood itself is wildly original. Custom coats of paint, doo-dads and stickers that can be enlarged, rotated, skewed, colored, styled and spaced, make the surface of the karts a canvas for the racer's imagination. The racers who sit in the karts are equally customizable, with a range of voices, gestures and facial expressions. Already, players online have created credible versions of famous videogame mascots, cartoon characters and pop culture icons.
ModNation Racers is also an example of a game where the player's avatar is both an in-game character and the environment that surrounds that character. Players can construct their own racetracks complete with hidden shortcuts, traps, bonuses and thematic sideline settings. It's a bit more involved and less intuitive than styling the racers and karts, but it enlarges the scope of what character can be, giving the game a hook to capture the player however they want to play.
THE GOOD: Based on its title, I'm hopeful that we will see a series of games that brings Racer's smart system of personalization to other genres. ModNation Brawlers would be a good start, and it would bring the PS3 some of the character combat craziness that the Super Smash Bros. series has given to Nintendo's consoles. ModNation Tennis, Golf, or whatever other sport they want to attempt could also be a blast, and a welcome change from the Mario Sports series that are starting to go stale. If Sony develops this right, they could be onto a durable franchise that replaces iconic characters with individual characterization.
THE BAD: The loading times between races in ModNation Racers take longer than many of the races. Quite often, when I was craving some quick competition, I would resist turning on the PS3 simply because I dreaded sitting around watching the spinning circle-of-purgatory while the game loaded a racetrack into the system's memory. This eternal delay is especially puzzling considering that ModNation Racers loads a substantial chunk of files onto the machine's hard drive. An improved data loading system would have been appreciated. Nothing is worse than slowing down a game that is all about speed.
THE BOTTOM LINE: One nation, custom mod, individual, with liberty and personalized racers for all.
Rated Everyone; PlayStation 3