ModNation Racers Was My Favorite Low-Expectation Game Of The Show

I care little for kart-racing games and seldom generate any user-generated content. So, to be honest, I did not rush at the chance I was given last week to play ModNation Racers at Game Developer's Conference 2010. My mistake.

ModNation Racers is indeed a kart-racing game built on a foundation that supports and encourages user-generated content.

The game's features no longer scare me away, because the 20 or so minutes I spent trying it and hearing about it from Dan Sochan, producer at ModNation development studio United Front Games, convinced me this game can be a lot of fun.

Sochan first had me try "Drive to Create," possibly because this is a delightful element of the game. Using the PlayStation 3 controller's triggers and thumbsticks as if I was controlling a racing game, I drove pavement around a vast expanse of track. I was driving a track into existence. When I wanted my track to turn, I steered and the paving steered with me, in real-time. When I wanted elevation, I tilted back, as if my car was about to jump (or was a plane taking off) and the track elevated. The ground bulged from beneath to meet it. When I wanted to decline, I dove my paving down to the ground and then into it as the earth was pushed down for me.

I tried to break this thing, of course. I looped my road back and, from a 90-degree angle drove it at itself. Doing that at a different elevation automatically constructed a bridge over the crisscrossed track or dug a tunnel beneath it. Doing it at a physically impossible elevation of intersection — too close to the height of the piece of track in my way — caused my movement to stall. The game won't permit the creation of a broken track. It will auto-complete a track, I was happy to discover, considering that I'd driven my track into an elaborate twist.

Drawing my track was little more difficult than waving my hand in the air and expecting my hand to have laid down pavement for a toy car to drive over, except that in the game, you actually do wind up with a virtual paved track for a toy car to drive over. While still in the editor mode, I took control of a ModNation go-kart and sped around my track.

Sochan, the United Front producer, wowed me with a deluge of attractive track customization options. We raised and lowered ground, dropped houses on the sidelines and "painted" a tunnel right over our track, all of this with no lag and much visual splash. He showed me an option that had the game automatically place power-ups on the track, explaining that some of the track-creation in the game can be left to processors, if we want that to be the case.

I tried some races. They're playable without much thought needing to be paid to them. Even I have enough Mario Kart muscle memory to get around a new track, collecting items and shooting them. ModNation Racers offers upgradable track power-ups that, as in the upcoming Activision racing game Blur, become more powerful if you pick up multiple copies of the same one. It lets the players earn energy for mid-air spin-tricks, drafting and other minor stunts. The energy can be used for speed boosts or for a shield, the latter, Sochan pointed out, making racing in first-place a less vulnerable experience than it usually is.

ModNation Racers Was My Favorite Low-Expectation Game Of The Show

As a fan of single-player games, I wedged in questions about the campaign. The game's United-Front-made levels, all made in the same editor I described above, will be connected with a light story, Sochan said. Our racing hero, Tag, joins the ModNation League and attempts to both win and bedazzle the somewhat dreary competitors and crowds who usually check out the races. Think of the movie Pleasantville, in terms of a black-and-white world getting some color, though Sochan said that the evolution of the crowds in ModNation Racers' campaign won't be as stark a transition from no-color to color. It will be more like an awakening of a crowd to the fun spirit of modding, which I guess is a thinly-veiled metaphor for what Sony and United Front hope this game can do with consumers. The single-player will include grudge matches and even some boss battles.

ModNation Racers is built to network gamers. It has a hub zone called the Mod Spot, which will be populated by up to 23 other gamers who the player can challenge or just see. The spot will also showcase statues representing the the best racers in the world, as well as those on your friends list. The tracks players make are designed to be easy to swap and share online. Each is only a couple of hundred kilobytes, Sochan said.

The characters and carts of the game are heavily customizable, though ModNation Racers breaks with its PS3 stablemate, LittleBigPlanet in not allowing users to upload their own images and put them in levels. MNR instead offers a Forza-style decal-layering system that gamers are sure to explore and, probably, exploit. The kart variety I saw was terrific, as was the news that kart bodies won't affect racing performance — so I can race my laps in a lawnmower without concern that I'll be smoked for that.

ModNation Racers will work well if it attracts a large community and if the game's online infrastructure can support quality content-sharing and racing. A recent North American beta was plagued with server problems, but Sochan said that those issues, a result of the beta involving new Amazon servers, were resolved in time for a European version of the beta. He expects the game to run well at launch. And I — I'm surprised to write — actually expect to have fun with this game.

ModNation Racers will be out for the PlayStation 3 on May 25.

(Video of Drive To Create snagged from ModNationRacers Beta, via Kotaku commenter Cyruss)