My mods; let me show you them
Reviewer's note: I realize this is a game from summer 2010, but there were a number of loading issues with this title that have been since patched. Also, I feel when dealing with a strong community oriented game, it's only fair to give it a few months to breathe. I feel those two things make it a different game than it was at release.
Something eventually will topple Mario Kart. I probably won't happen this generation, but you can't fault a compony for trying. United Front's debut, ModNation Racers, tried a different approach from the countless failed mascot kart racers by allowing you to create your own mascots and karts. Stealing a page from Media Molecule (and who wouldn't? The Little Big Planet series is the best thing going for the PS3), Modnation Racers is basically Little Big Kart. While the track editor is no where near the depth as LBPs level editor, i'd argue that the character creator a cut above. The option to add stickers to outfits and create objects with geometrical shapes breaks the creative plain wide open. I can race a bumper car powered by a tesla-coil, dressed in a Polysics jumpsuit. That alone is worth a star in the rating!
It's when you actually hit the road when the proverbial wheels come off. I hate how disingenuous this sounds, but I'm not convinced United Front has got the chops to make a racing game. Through the entire campaign, I barely felt I had confident control of my kart. The steering feels very fidgety, almost too reactive. I had a lot of trouble picking up items on the tracks, because just a slight notch in direction unpredictably sent me careening. Normally, I'd be first to blame the much contested Dual Shock 3 controller for this, but having recently finished Split/Second with no complaints, the blame lands squarely on UFG.
The faults don't end at controls though. The amount of times I went off track and was never respawned were unforgivable. There are a few problems which most racers have in common, such as rubber banding, and being trapped in that 3-9th place warzone. The weapon system has a bit of variety on the surface, but basically all can be blocked by the shield, and all do the same thing to a racer (stop them in their tracks for a moment). The weapon tier system is at least interesting, and provides a bit of strategy to your race, but again, the rubber banding is so bad, that you will probably not want to use any of it until the last third of the last lap.
Not many of these problems will annoy you if you simply play through the campaign just to get to the end credits. Most of the races only ask that you place 3rd or better to advance, and will take you two or three tries at most to complete. It's the course objectives that drove me to the brink. You see, the reward for completing a couple challenges in each race is more junk to create characters, karts, and tracks. Creating is by far the most fun part of this game, and I don't mean that in a backhanded way. I had a blast, even in 2011, creating a Ghostbuster racer, or a 1930's mobster themed kart. To acquire more creation tools, you have to complete these mind-crushingly difficult trials.
Firstly, many of these challenges are poorly explained. Some vaguely state "get 20000 spin points", get "70000 road points", or "get 10000 wallride points". I have no idea how to get a "road point". At no point in the game do they explain how to do these things. There are tutorials for a whole lot of obvious things, but not the goals they put in front of you, such as spin. Other objectives are combat based, like "Take out Bolt at the canyon!" … Ok, well, this whole track is a canyon, so what part of the map are you talking about!?! I've never had to visit gamefaqs for a game as often as this.
The game's entire means of communication is just very strange and full of holes. One challenge demands you to find three shortcuts on a track. As it turns out, those "shortcuts" are each of the three forks the track splits into at one point. It isn't a shortcut if it's part of the main track! It's also a real kick in the nuts that every challenge states that you must also place 1st in the race for the challenge to count. It's a ridiculous demand, because many challenges require you to do things like take longer routes, or force yourself to fall behind the pack in order to interact with them. All the while, your coach will radio in with words of encouragement that this will help you win the race. "Well, I'm in 9th place trying to do stupid tricks. Being in 1st would help me win the race!!"
I should say a few things about the narrative presentation, as it is just as spotty and assuming of the player as the in-game instructions. The whole plot is very simple. No complaints there; but even in its simplicity, it still felt lazy. As they were hitting the usual beats of a pro-sports underdog story-arc, they were glossing over a lot of the character and situational flavor that would make it unique. There is a commentating duo for each race in the game. Typical straight guy vs angry guy routine, but the relationship never fluctuates. It's just one dude insulting another guy over and over again. Boring and pointless.
The whole game has a very stale modern day Simpsons kind of humor to it. Brushed over plot points, jokes that lack character and timing, to many "hang a lantern on it" style gags. At least the character design, look, and direction are all very good. It's basically just bad writing. Nothing any gamer hasn't overlooked in the past. Normally I'd forgive a lousy script, but when I have to hear those terrible jokes with no context over and over again as I continuously fail the race challenges, I want to rip my ears off.
Even little things began to get on my nerves; like the fact if I won a race they couldn't praise me enough, but if I finished 2nd by less than a second I was a laughing stock. Even the loading screens could have provided me with some insight on - maybe how to gain wall ride points! But no, it's some dopey "trivia" about the track. "Many racers have died trying to cross the bridge on this track." Yes, that's an actual quote in the game. Because what I want from a wacky fun racing game is a reminder of our own mortality. Thanks.
Like the minor complaints over some of the race mechanics, all this humor stuff could have been overlooked. But I had to suffer through every painstaking reminder of it as I replayed the challenges that unlock the FUN part of the game. If they simply made them easier (like maybe not win the race as well as complete them!), or just gave me the creation pieces up front, I'd be praising Modnation Racers for being the most successful (not Mario) kart racers ever. I should have just played the basic campaign and just downloaded community created Dexter Morgans and Batmobiles. Unfortunately, I got a long hard look at its ugly side, and I'm not sure if I can look at it the same again.