Pimp My Kart

When I got my hands on ModNation Racers, my first thought was that my character was a cheeky little bastard. He was cute, sure. But he seemed a bit like Sackboy’s evil twin every time he nudged another kart off the road or brazenly gloated while passing a competitor. After spending a little more time with the game, I started to become quite attached to the impish creation, and it was a disarming revelation. Nowadays, it seems as if most multiplayer games take the fight online and erase any semblance of identity. ModNation Racers offers online multiplayer, but it’s about much more than pixels. ModNation Racers is personal.

We got a chance to try the new game while attending Sony’s recent press event, and our first impressions were overwhelmingly positive.  Afterwards, we caught up with United Front Games producer Dan Sochan in between laps around the go-kart track, and he was more than willing to share his thoughts about his team’s latest project.

Sochan readily agreed that ModNation Racers is a throwback to the days before online play, when gamers gathered around the N64 to squint at one low definition screen while launching a steady stream of verbal attacks outside the confines of the game. “I think we all look back with fond memories of all those amazing four player games, you know Goldeneye and Mario Kart, back in the day. I feel so many games now are just single player, where you sit back and you’re waiting and watching for your turn.”modspot_01

ModNation Racers bucks that trend with a heavy emphasis on multiplayer of both the online and local varieties. According to Sochan, the numerous possibilities separate ModNation Racers from the rest of the go-kart pack. He says, “You and I could jump online and challenge anyone else in the world. Or we could do four-player split screen to get that fun couch experience of trash talking your buddies, or you can have that that family experience where everyone creates their own character, their own kart and all go together.” It’s that personal multiplayer flavor that keeps gamers coming back for more. Sochan confesses that, “All we’ve been playing lately is four-player split screen,” indicating that the developers still haven’t gotten tired of the intra-office competition.

The rambunctious racers may do some taunting for you, but ModNation Racers is far more than a vehicle for trash talk. The game allows for an unprecedented level of customizability, with some of the friendliest design tools around. I was able to put together a track in about five minutes, and it was no isolated line of pavement. My rugged alpine racecourse meandered past majestic mountainside chateaus and was littered with speed boosts, power ups, and livestock. ModNation fans should expect to see thousands of tracks uploaded to the Internet, greatly expanding on the 28 tracks that will ship with the disc.

The ability to create characters and karts truly allows players to put a personal stamp on ModNation Racers. There are already hundreds of different options for customizability, and the artistic toolbox will continue to grow after the game’s release. Sochan revealed that while United Front does not have any immediate plans for new track packs, their DLC strategy will provide players with plenty of new toys to enhance the creative experience.

“We’ve got a full downloadable plan, and that was really important for us to make sure the community stays fresh and vibrant. It’s about giving more content for people to build more unique tracks. More obstacles, new elements you can put onto your characters and karts.” He pointedly asks, “Why are people going to want more United Front Games tracks when everyone in the community keeps building awesome things that are sometimes better than what we’ve built?”

From what we can tell, the gameplay is a balanced mix of weaponry, racing, and defense. Drafting behind other karts charges your boost gauge. Those lagging behind can use the meter to catch up, while frontrunners can use it to power up shields and maintain their advantage. It makes the game very fair, as good drivers are rewarded for their racing prowess. United Front Games has deliberately cultivated that, drawing inspiration from past games to craft a better racing experience.

track6_12“We’re big racing game enthusiasts,” quips Sochan. “We looked at some of the best ones, the Crash Team Racings, the Diddy Kongs, the Mario Karts, and what they do well, what were the common elements.  And really, the big thing was, no matter where you are in a race, you don’t feel like you’re out. In a true racing simulator, you know, a Gran Turismo, if you have a bad turn in corner one, you’re sort of out of the race, but that’s what the game is meant to be. That’s realistic. With kart racing games, the fun part is I can get some power ups, I can get back in the race with some sort of catch up logic.  When we looked back at the old kart racing games, there are the blue shells, the rubber band logic. You’re in the back of the pack and suddenly you’re driving twice the speed and everyone else is going slower.  We tried to approach it in a more creative way, of how can we help people level that playing field, but so at the same time it won’t just be luck that you won.”

During our brief time with the game we didn’t come across anything too exotic, but the ability to charge up every projectile will satisfy any arms enthusiast. It also adds a cerebral element to the races. Exercising a little patience allows your solitary lightning bolt to grow into a towering thunderstorm, and the best players will learn how to be judicious with their weapons.

Sochan admitted as much to us while discussing the strategic innovations that ModNation Racers brings to the table. “When do I want to use boost versus when do I want to save boost and bring up a shield? Do I want to hold the weapon, or see if I can level it up? The risk is that if I hold the weapon and I get hit, I get knocked down one level on that ladder. It’s all about risk versus reward and I think it takes our gameplay and brings it to the next level.”

Still, the same elements that make ModNation Racers so personal also make it unique. Touting his game’s customizable features (and perhaps taking a subtle dig at the competition), Sochan says, “I think it’s pretty hard to put out another kart racer where you have to use their set characters, their set karts, or their set tracks.” Indeed, there’s so much customizability that you might almost expect the developers to be going through some post-partum depression as they approach the impending release of their project. Sochan insists that that’s simply not the case. His enthusiasm is palpable as he anticipates the audience reaction once they get their hands on his team’s creation.

“That’s the most exciting part. It really is. In the public beta, once it had been out for a week or so, someone would yell in the office ‘oh, you’ve gotta come check this out,’ and everyone would run over and huddle around the desk and look at how someone had taken our accessories and made a character that we wouldn’t have thought was possible. The more open your game is, the more people are able to innovate and express their creativity, and that’s really what we wanted.”

Sochan also commented on the comparisons to LittleBigPlanet, Sony’s other customizable phenomenon. He has nothing but praise for the game, but he believes that ModNation Racers is “edgier” in a way that older audiences will appreciate. The mischievous character animations provide some of that charm, while the ability to make slightly more grotesque avatars and tracks broadens the appeal with some more adult humor and sensibilities. Sochan says, “The target audience is 8 to 88, and we really like that.”

Having sampled the finished product, we can’t blame him. ModNation Racers has something for everybody, and is well worth checking out when the game hits later this week.