Wine enhanced impressions #1 – ModNation Racers

An occasional late-night series in which coherent arguments are stymied by the influence of alcohol…

ModNation Racers, then. One of the easiest descriptions ever for lazy videogame journos – it’s Little Big Planet with cars. And while that’s a stock line, it’s actually pretty accurate. The main reason for this isn’t the Create + Share principle of the game – it’s that in its beta form (that we Europeans gained access to today on the Playstation Store – only 100,000 downloads available, though, so diiiiiiiive [/Blessed] quickly, chaps), MNR makes exactly the same fundamental flaw as LBP did: its creation tools are far better than its gameplay.

Yes indeed, Little Big Planet should have been the bestest game ever. With platforming as tight and awesome as the Mario series, combined with intuitive yet deep creation tools, it had to be 10s all round, stackloads of awards, and almost every gamer on the (Little Big) Planet never ever needing to buy another jumpy game ever again. If only it were so. LBP did get the review scores and the awards, but many gamers weren’t that happy at all. Unfortunately, the platforming was pretty mediocre due to the horribly floaty controls, which in a platformer was a pretty ballbreaking state of affairs, and for some (ie. me) this made the fantastic creation tools fairly pointless. It was like expecting Andy Murray to win the Australian Open while being right side up.

But, with the danger of making this entire blog post be about Little Big Disappointment (sorry, Media Molecule. I’m really sorry. I was rooting for you. But some things just have to be said), let’s get back to the matter at hand. ModNation Racers currently has exactly the same major flaw. If anything, the creation tools are more intuitive than “that game”, with it being very possible to create a track that looks very spangly indeed in under 10 minutes. While many of the terrain options are locked in the beta, what’s there allows you to raise or lower the landscape to your whim, play around with the resultant rockface and valley possibilities, and fiddle with features such as lighting, cloud cover and water. Once happy with the way the ground looks, you can then lay your track with nice direction and elevation possibilities, which apart from a few bugs in the “autocomplete” system when you inevitably don’t quite join your circuit up correctly (this version is only beta, let’s not forget), is a pretty fast process. With a natty feature allowing you to populate your track with various roadside details without having to manually stick every tree and house down yourself, the creation stuff is really nice.

Sharing your track is easy too, with saving, naming your circuit and uploading it to the servers being a very smooth process. Searching for other people’s inevitable Mario Circuit 1 remakes is also simple, and their tracks can be downloaded, raced and rated in short order. Overall, the community features of ModNation Racers are already excellently integrated into the experience and this bodes very well indeed for the finished game.

But the gameplay is where things start to fall down. This game at present (beta, remember. That’s my get-out. That’s my “phew, it’s just a cat running across the motion tracker” hope), is no Mario Kart. And let’s be honest, Mario Kart is no Mario Kart at the moment when you compare it to the original SNES version. I digress. Anyway, the handling’s iffy and the framerate’s absolutely terrible in this version, but more importantly the camera is way too close to your kart as things stand. At faster speeds the view zooms out a little bit, enough for you to have a chance of seeing a flat track ahead of you (but noticeably, when it’s a track with any hills in it, you won’t be able to see a bloody thing), but at Trulli-train velocity – when you crash, for example, or at the start of a race – you can see precisely bugger-all. And what’s weird is that there seem to be no camera controls at all. Hmmm. I would blame schoolboy error, but I have the horrible feeling that the developers have locked the camera where it is to prevent it impacting the framerate and draw distance still further.

Also annoying are the weapons pickups, for which there are no instructions anywhere (what does what? Who knows? Public beta = help, please), and the opposition AI, which seems to be pretty bloody rubber-banded. Hey, you shouldn’t try to copy everything in Mario Kart, right?

The loading times, too, are beyond horrendous. 40 seconds to go between lobby to creation tools, from creation tools to lobby, from lobby to race? I know, this is a beta. I keep pointing that out myself. And apparently there’s a post somewhere from the devs today that says the snoozeathon is being fixed. Hooray! Let’s hope it’s the case! Also, the online racing is pretty laggy as things stand, but again, this “should” be smoothed out for release.

Unfortunately, having tried out ModNation Racers, I don’t know much more about the final game than I did beforehand. I knew the creation tools were robust and intuitive. I knew that the sharing had a lot of potential. I knew that the gameplay videos looked pretty dodgy. Nothing much has changed, despite the hands-on.

There are some betas where you know the final version is going to be brilliant, but those early offerings tend to look suspiciously like marketing tools rather than anything where proper feedback is being obtained. Something like Call of Duty 4 was already amazing, and wouldn’t have been released to the public in anything less than an already superb state. Despite ModNation Racers being far from fully formed at this juncture, I think Sony should be admired for being willing to release betas to the public, warts and all. This pattern has been established by the likes of SOCOM, Killzone 2 and MAG, all of which tended to be blighted by server outages, long load times, crashes and then a mega-patch or two.

But can the public really give any more useful feedback to the ModNation Racers team than “making a track’s fun, the racing less so”? And are the developers actually going to sort the gameplay before release, when you consider that LBP’s platforming flaws were more than identifiable in that game’s beta, yet little was done about them? We’ll have to wait and see. I’m still looking forward to ModNation Racers, but I’m worried that the gameplay seems to have far less attention paid to it than the creation mode, and if unchecked, this will be its undoing.

This post was brought to you by Tesco’s 3 for £10 on Shiraz.

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