ModNation Racers Preview

Grading on a curve.

It may be the so-called ‘Triple A’ and ‘top-tier’ cash-cow mega-titles—or their predictable litters of sequels—that end up dominating the gargantuan, seizure-inducing video-display walls (and obnoxious, building-wide, visible-from-orbit banners) at the Electronic Entertainment Expo every year… but for my money, the real soul of the gaming industry still lies in those relatively unsung projects and promising, oddball, up-and-comer games. Throw in the promise of letting players make, tweak, and tool around in our own (easily-created) content and, well, you’ve also just thrown a potentially fascinating wrench into the whole anticipated-games grading-curve.

[image1]Now, add in actual grading and curves—literally designing and laying out race tracks—and start muttering “kart racer” and “Little Big Planet” in some of the same sentences, and you’ve really got our attention. You’ve also got the promise of SCEA’s forthcoming ModNation Racers. Think “Little Big Circuit”, and you’re driving in the right direction.

In the wake of Little Big Planet‘s phenomenal critical success, something like ModNation Racers seems damn-near a no-brainer. Give PS3 owners the tools to create, play, personalize their unique kart-racing experiences—the track-laying control, the ground-grading/terrain-sculpting tools, the decorative environmental fiddly-bits, and the character-/kart-customization options players need to create their own little 150cc Circus Maximus of straightaways, banked turns, ramps, hairpins and finish-lines. (You show me a gamer who doesn’t want to lovingly craft and meticulously landscape his own little kart-racing paradise—and to then populate said racetrack with the items and weapons necessary to blow all of his friends the happy hell right off of said racetrack—and I’ll show you a godless communist).

Of course, some big, messy box of virtual tools isn’t in and of itself a ‘game’. Boosted at Sony’s E3 demonstration as “the most gorgeous, most physical, most interactive car racing game you’ve ever seen,” ModNation Racers will—like its free-creation inspiration, Little Big Planet—feature the single-player equivalent of a Story Mode to teach beginner players the basics of kart-racing and track-planning. Narration, gradual challenges, and baby-step rewards—they’ll all be there, in a straight-up Race Mode to accommodate players who don’t ever want to touch the potentially-hazardous time-sink of the game’s track-creation tools.

Collectively called TrackStudio, the creation tools are designed to be as user-friendly as possible, to allow even newcomers to create a playable track in minutes. A function easier claimed than provided, of course—but we’ve actually witnessed the basic creation of a small playable course in just under 30 seconds or so.

[image2]TrackStudio employs the same regular driving controls one would use in playing a race, with the addition of elevation control on the right stick—just start out in your little kart-racer on a featureless grassy plain, spooling out smooth new track behind you (as if you were the fastest, most maneuverable asphalt-laying truck in the world). Then head out in a straight line, cross back over your original direction to form a figure-8… and when you make your way back around to close the loop at your starting-point you’ve got yourself a nominally-useable track. The tools can auto-create an overpass at the point where you cross your own creation path, or you can fiddle out your own changes in elevation along the way via the right stick.

As soon as you close the loop, you’ll find your little kart-racer cruising down your new track (with a few complimentary AI racers dropped in there for good, testing measure), just to get a basic feel of what you’ve so quickly wrought. Of course, this rough-draft of a course is only the barest, most experimental form; next, it’s time to start finessing, tweaking, and adding touches.

Options in your radial-menu toolset include surface-paving choices – slick asphalt, loose dirt, cobblestones for some rumbly Sixaxis action, etc. Perhaps you’re ready to take your environmental paintbrush beyond the boundaries of your track, and start raising majestic ranges of decorative/functional hills around your circuit. Just hold down the proper button and drag across the initially-featureless map, and watch as a line of randomly-generated slopes erupts into easy-peasy existence in seconds—the Genesis Device has nothing on TrackStudio. Ditto on the inverse for gouging out valleys and caverns and other depressions (auto-filling with water when you dig below the determined sea-level line).

Once you’ve knocked out the crude, broad-stroke Creation, you can fine-tune the landscaping, smoothing out differences in terrain elevation, and laying down surface pattern/texture options like so many overlapping layers of three-dimensional spray-paint. A patch of dirt hardpack here, a hillside copse of pine trees there, a natural guard-rail of rocks hereabouts, a grassy slope (or two, or six) way over-yonder. And perhaps entire blocks of quaint, trackside village-buildings called into existence with a single effortless sweep of your magic, digital paint-tool. (We even saw a few packs of innocent, bleating sheep called into existence by the side of a fully-realized race-course that took no longer than five slapdash minutes to construct).

[image3]And of course, you’ll want to stock your custom track with interactive objects, obstacles, and ordinance. From what we’ve seen, you can choose—with the same ease of placement—from a huge creation-palette of rocks, ramps, pick-up items (nitro boosts, leave-behind bombs, drunken-missile launchers), various flora and fauna, and other imaginative impedimentia. In a subtle creative touch, it’s even possible to set the angle of the ambient daylight, for high-noon showdowns or races set against a dramatic sunset.

All of this user-created content can be instantly tested and tweaked, shared (and played) online, or downloaded and ‘remixed’. The nigh-endless possibilities of side-scrolling worlds in Little Big Planet was a dangerous enough time-sink… but ModNation Racers looks like it could be an absolute menace to sleep-schedules, romantic relationships, and/or gainful employment around the world when it peels off the starting-line in 2010.