ModNation Racers: Road Trip Hands On
Developer: SCE San Diego Studio / Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment / Played on: PlayStation Vita / ESRB: Not Yet Rated / Release Date: 2012
When a Vita loaded with ModNation Racers: Road Trip dropped into my hands, some assumptions came with it.
- Assumption 1 – since the game is a handheld title, it probably won’t control or play very well.
- Assumption 2 – because the game utilizes player-created content, the content will have that weird, janky feeling that player created content often does.
- Assumption 3 – content creation tools on a mobile platform will probably be horrible.
It wasn’t until I saw that all of those assumptions were 100% incorrect that I realized how cool of a game ModNation Racers might be.
I’ll tick through those assumptions. First and foremost, Racers plays extremely well. Drifting through turns strikes that great balance between loose and tight controls. Pulling through a turn sideways on a perfect line and coming into a straightaway is every bit as gratifying as drifting through corners in Ridge Racer or Burnout. Drifting expectantly fills a boost meter, but that energy can also be spent on shields that will protect your kart from incoming weapons for a few seconds. Used properly, you can protect yourself from the end-race heartache synonymous with Mario Kart where you get nuked by a powerful item inches from the finish line.
On to number 2 – Racer’s content is top notch. Player-made content tends to look like one of those foam 3D puzzles – despite how good the tools are, you can generally see the building blocks behind the facade. Racer’s tools produce tracks that look every bit as hand-crafted as developer-created content. The track that particularly impressed me was set in a jungle, complete with crumbling Incan-ish ruins strewn about. The ruin pieces aren’t just window dressing like you might expect. Trees and chunks of rock projected into the track, and one jump even sent me over chunks of ruin that I had to dodge in mid-air. The developer on hand even described an earthquake-themed track that had you racing up the sides of toppled buildings. Typically user-created content has a very strict line drawn between functional building blocks and background aesthetic, but Racers looks like it will let you blur that line significantly.
Of course, any blurring of lines generally means the content creator has to be that much more complicated. Somehow Racers accomplishes the impossible; its tools create incredible looking content while being extremely easy to use. Creating the basic path for your track is as simple as tracing a line on the Vita’s touch screen. If you want inspiration from the world around you, you can take a picture with the Vita’s camera and trace over it, allowing you to create a track baced on your friend’s face (or junk) or a real life track like Laguna Seca. From there, you zoom down to a track that follows a spline of the path you traced. As you scroll along the track, a marker of five nodes can be pushed or pulled with the touch screen to shift any part of the track in three dimensions. With this, you can easily create S-curves, banked turns, and giant ruts in the middle of your track… if you want that for some reason.
Adjusting terrain is incredibly intuitive thanks to the Vita’s dual touch screens. To lower terrain, poke the front screen. To raise it, poke ‘er in the rear. It’s a simple but natural implementation of the hardware’s capabilities that just feels right. Once you’ve laid in all the broad strokes of your course, you can hit an auto-populate button to have the game fill out the window dressing automatically. Trigger this, and you’re treated to an automatic run-through of your track while trees and rocks magically sprout from the ground surrounding your track. The effect here is magical — a track can go from a sterile path snaking through a bare countryside to a visually dense jungle in seconds. If you’re so inclined, you can then share your creation with other folks on the Internet, or download one of the hundreds of thousands (yes really) tracks made by other players for some inspiration.
I’ve accepted the inverse relationship between community-created content and the quality of that content as a given for years. ModNation Racers: Road Trip is not only bucking that trend, but doing it in a handheld form factor. Because of this, it’s one of the more fascinating games I’ve seen on the Vita so far, and can’t wait to see what mad creations the Internet will offer after its release.