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ModNation Racers (PSP) – First Impressions

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So last night, Sony very sneakily uploaded the new ModNation Racers demo for PSP to subscribers of Qore. I happen to be one of the few, the proud, so I downloaded it and spent a couple hours with it. Is this a potential Mario Kart killer for Sony? Or does it bite its own dust? Read on to find out what I thought.

I was lucky enough to take part in the first open beta for ModNation Racers for the PS3, and put countless hours into it. The interface left me a bit tepid, but the game itself played beautifully. Only a couple options were open, but you could tell this game is gonna be huge. Upon firing up the PSP demo, the first thing I noticed is that they definitely didn’t lose much in the translation. This game is just as fully-featured as its console brethren, judging by the menus. In the PS3 beta there were several tracks unlocked and creation tools available for your Kart, Mod, and Tracks, along with online play. For the PSP demo, there are really only two modes available to the player: Action Race and Track Editor. By scouring the menus, though, you can see that all of the other game modes from the PS3 version will make it to the full version.

Action Race is pretty much your standard single player race against the AI. There are two tracks available in the demo: Flaming Jumps and Lost Temple. There are also 6 karts to pick from, and 8 pre-made characters.

I started out on Flaming Jumps, which sounds more exciting than it is. This first track was kind of stale and felt a bit like auto-pilot track design. You have your standard bends and jumps, with Mario Kart-style speed boost strips and gaps. The track left a lot to be desired, and had me worried. I easily placed in first without any knowledge of the controls or mechanics (a quick options menu with the layout would have been appreciated; instead, you’re thrown in and have to wait until you either figure things out or you see the loading screen that briefly shows it to you.) That’s not to say the controls aren’t intuitive, because they are. They pack a lot of gameplay into a few tiny buttons.

You accelerate with the R button and steer with either the directional pad or analog stick. After messing around with it a bit, the PSP analog stick once again proved itself useless. The d-pad is just way more responsive and less touchy, especially when in mid-air. I messed around with the buttons a bit to figure out what did what, and found that the X button jumps, Triangle uses boost, Circle brings up a quick shield, and Square uses your power-ups. The L button is your brake/reverse, but after learning that a double jump triggers your drifting, I never found a need to use it again. Select allows you to respawn in case you fall into a lava pit or get stuck on a fence.

Power-ups are your standard fare, here. You can hold one at a time, and it’s displayed in the bottom righthand corner with an icon that is mostly meaningless until you memorize what means what. If you’ve played Wipeout, more than a few of these will ring some bells. There’s a standard missile that shoots straight ahead, a three-missile spread projectile, a blue burst that shoots to either side in a limited range, a speed burst, and one that drops a little bomb in the road similar to a banana in Mario Kart. They’re nothing special, but they serve their purpose.

The gameplay in the first track seemed shallow, but once I got to the Lost Temple track, I started to appreciate the depth. This track is what I was looking for in ModNation. Total insanity in all directions, with road hazards, shortcuts, multiple paths, out-of-the-way power-ups, non-racing critters that get in your way, etc. The racer AI also took a step up for this race. I raced a few times playing the way I had in Flaming Jumps, and had little to no success. This is when I started discovering and exploring the deeper aspects of the gameplay.

Throughout your races, you’ll notice a bunch of numbers pop up in the upper righthand corner. I initially dismissed them as insignificant scoring multipliers, but the track brought me to a better understanding of them. You get points for every trick or move that you do. This includes achievement-type things such as overtaking another player, finishing a lap in first place, etc. You also get points for executing things like big jumps, drifting, drafting, hitting someone with a power-up, spinning in mid-air and landing in the right alignment, etc. These numbers actually do mean something. The more points you get, the more speed boost you obtain, which is key to winning against the craftier enemies. The points also power up special moves that I hadn’t noticed or used in the first track. By pressing up on the d-pad, you can execute a Sideswipe, and down on the d-pad does a Stomp move. These can make or break you in a race and give some melee options for those who get a kick out of Road Rash-style smash and crash. With all of these moves in my memory bank and at my disposal, Lost Temple was at my mercy.

After messing around with the available tracks, it was time to create one of my own. They did a good job here of giving you a nice sampling of the tools you’ll have in the final release. First, you get to pick the setting for your track. Only the Alpine landscape is available in the demo. You create your track by placing the finish line and then driving the path you want your track to be aligned in. The R button lays down pavement, and the L button allows you to back up and direct it somewhere else. By pressing Triangle, you can allow the track to be finished for you. This is a really intuitive way of connecting the end of the track to the beginning, because otherwise it could get messy.

From there, your creativity takes over. You can place your own road hazards, speed boosts, ramps, and power-ups. You also have control over the roadside attractions, like trees, houses, sheep (yes, sheep!), tents, spectator boxes, etc. You can also paint the road however you like, make it a dirt or paved road, and more. The most impressive feature was the warping tool. With this, you can raise the terrain into huge mountains or lower it into a riverbed. It’s all seemless and happens instantly, and the road changes its shape accordingly. In practically no time, I’d created a track that was at least on par with Flaming Jumps. After the track is all done, you can race on it by yourself and adjust the slope of the track in real time as you go. Then, you can save your track and race against enemy AI. Just for fun, I made a track that was practically unraceable and incorporated every item that was available to me. Racing on it against the computer was one of the most memorable videogame experiences I’ve had on my PSP. Chaos was all around me as everyone (including me) was dodging and boosting and jumping all over the track, wiping out on about 15 obstacles per lap.

Altogether, I had a TON of fun with this demo. There are hours of gameplay here, and for such a limited amount of modes and tracks available, that really excites me for the full version. Throw in the fact that the Community features will be open in the full version, allowing you to race online and upload all your creations for everyone else to see and play, and I’m overwhelmed with the potential this game has. Is it a Mario Kart killer? To me, they do enough of the standard kart racing things very well, and throw in enough extra incentive to stand out from the pack. I dare Nintendo to be as innovative with their next Mario Kart title. This game is not just good, it’s stellar. With the massive amount of options, I doubt this will be leaving my PSP for too long after it releases in May.

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  • I got an early access code for this demo last night. Realized I didn’t have enough room on my memory stick. From the E3 announcement I was really excited for this game. After seeing some videos from this demo, it reminds me A LOT of Mario Kart. Will probably be playing it on the PS3 though aside from this demo.

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  • gnm

    WHY THE HELL DOESNT ANYBODY CARE ABOUT THE PS3 VERSION???!!! AAAARRRRGGGGGGGH!!

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  • Cory Donchez (El Donch)

    I definitely do care about the PS3 version, and as I said, I was in the beta for it. However, to me the kart racing genre is better suited to the handheld market. Not only is it a game that’s great to just pick up and play, but it’s also one of those genres that to me is a tough sell at a $60 price point. Kart racing is fun, but when I have the choice of playing ModNation Racers or, say, Uncharted 2 on my TV, Uncharted 2 is just a fuller console experience. Same thing goes for Mario Kart. Yeah, it’s a ton of fun, but if I have the choice of paying $50 for the Wii version, or $30 for a handheld version that’s practically identical and still having money left over for Super Mario Galaxy 2 or Metroid: The Other M, to me it’s a no-brainer. So odds are, I’ll buy ModNation for the PSP and use that extra $20-30 towards Lost Planet 2 or Red Dead Redemption. Just a personal preference.

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