ModNation Racers: Road Trip Review for PS Vita

ModNation Racers: Road Trip Review for PS Vita

Karting Off A Cliff

ModNation Racers, Sony’s answer to Mario Kart, ain’t looking so hot these days. The company just announced that the Big Kahuna of its first-party franchises, LittleBigPlanet, will soon be invading the world of kart racing—a move that would render ModNation pretty much redundant, considering its main departure from the Mario Kart formula is a LittleBigPlanet-style focus on user-designed content. And if ModNation’s Vita launch title, Road Trip, is supposed to convince us that ModNation is here to stay—well, let’s just say it doesn’t.

It’s not that Road Trip is a bad game, per se. In fact, it does a great job of bringing over many aspects of the original Modnation Racers PS3 game. The steering controls feel amazingly tight, the addition of a second thumbstick makes other maneuvers feel more natural than they did in the previous PSP port, the cheery pop-rock music keeps your spirits up, and, most impressively, all the user-designed content from the PS3 is available for download. (More than half a million tracks!) If you’re a kart racing fan and you find this game in the discount bin a few months from now, it could prove a perfectly legitimate way to spend a few weekend afternoons. But it doesn’t do what a launch title is supposed to do: prove to you that your hardware investment was worth it—that the new console does a lot of things your old one didn’t.

ModNation Racers: Road Trip Screenshot

On Vita, ModNation Racers retains its basic racing formula of Mario Kart plus a little bit of complexity. You still race around, drift to acquire boost, pick up items, and attack other players, but you have other options as well. If you pick up a second item before using the first one, the item becomes more powerful; there are three levels of power total. You can flick the right joystick to sideswipe your opponents, and at any time you can erect a shield that protects against projectiles (this drains your boost bar).

The game also offers a full suite of customization options. You can craft tracks using the touchscreen and rear touchpad (though there’s a bit of lag between your applying pressure and the game’s response), design your own karts (though most of the changes you can make are merely cosmetic), and design a character to race as. The track-designing options are particularly detailed—you truly feel like an artist as you sculpt the contours of your track and add visual details. Before too long, Vita users should be adding thousands of their own tracks to the PS3 users’ database.

ModNation Racers: Road Trip Screenshot

The problem seems to be that in order to get the game ready for the Vita’s launch, the developers had to pick and choose which features would be cut, which features would be half-implemented, and which would be included fully. The result is a game that doesn’t even come close to showing what the Vita is capable of—a game that isn’t a terrible buy for fans of kart racing, but that will be quickly forgotten. The developers should have taken their time and skipped the Vita launch.

You might have already heard about one feature that’s missing entirely: online multiplayer. While you can play locally against other Vita players, there is no online functionality to the racing beyond the ability to download other players’ ghosts and tracks. This is actually a step back from the PSN version, which is quite frankly embarrassing for Sony.

So, if you’re in a one-Vita household (as I am), your main racing option is the career mode, a series of six five-race circuits. (You can also do single races and time trials, of course.) This is quite a bit of content—30 races in all. Too bad it’s not that enjoyable to play.

ModNation Racers: Road Trip Screenshot

The new tracks are decent for the most part, with plenty of twists and turns and insane jumps, but many have incredibly frustrating elements to them. Whereas Mario Kart’s track designers are careful to strike a balance between randomness, difficulty, and playability, the people who made this game think it’s perfectly appropriate to have you come around a blind curve, launch off a ramp, and crash straight into a tree. Plan to start memorizing tracks before you get halfway through the game—this isn’t a fun learning experience, but rather a frustrating process in which you figure out how to avoid all the cheap gadgets that stop you as you try to race.

Also, the developers didn’t quite get the rubber banding or the difficulty right. I went rather abruptly from winning races on the first try to having trouble finishing better than seventh. And once you master the harder tracks, even your better-run races won’t always lead to a good finish—the rubber banding keeps the other racers too close to you, even when you drive perfectly, and if you happen to fall victim to a projectile or trap on the last lap, forget about it. If you’re the type who gets angry when games cheat or when you lose thanks to randomness rather than your own bad playing, work on your self control if you don’t want to throw your spiffy new Vita against the wall.

ModNation Racers: Road Trip Screenshot

And perhaps most bizarrely, Road Trip doesn’t work very well on a technical level. Of course, the problems here—long load times, textures that belong on a PSX and not a “mini PS3,” 3D objects that go right through each other—can be found in plenty of games, even on current-generation full-size consoles. But if a launch title is supposed to show off the new hardware, Road Trip will leave people wondering what was so outdated about their PSP—that it didn’t award them “Mod Miles,” good for in-game bonuses when they happen to travel long distances with their Vitas? Heck, at least on the PSP they could race their friends online.

If the decision was between releasing this version of Road Trip at the Vita’s launch and releasing a fully realized Road Trip six months or so down the line—that is, between putting out a forgettable launch title that fails to promote the system and dropping a good game that could sell well over the holidays—I think they made the wrong choice. The single-player career mode and customization options make this a fun diversion, but it’s not as addictive or polished as Mario Kart, it lacks key features, and it fails to take full advantage of the Vita’s hardware. This is a bargain-bin purchase for people who love kart racing, not a must-own title for gamers of all stripes. I, for one, will not be disappointed if LittleBigPlanet’s entry into kart racing means ModNation’s demise.

Yikes. This game doesn’t come close to fully utilizing the Vita’s hardware. 4.0 Control
There’s some lag during customization, but the driving controls are amazingly tight. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The cheery pop-rock music keeps your spirits up. 3.0 Play Value
This is a fun diversion, but key features are missing. 3.2 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.

Review Rating Legend
0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid 2.5 – 2.9 = Average 3.5 – 3.9 = Good 4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
2.0 – 2.4 = Poor 3.0 – 3.4 = Fair 4.0 – 4.4 = Great 5.0 = The Best

Game Features:

  • Brand new Career mode – Get ready to take on the challenge of 20+ new tracks filled with 3 new weapon classes (Fire, Ice, Earth) for your Kart’s offensive arsenal.
  • Never-ending tracks – Access and enjoy close to 500,000 user-generated tracks (and growing), from wherever you are.
  • Introducing ModTraveler & ModMiles – Keep connected on the road by photographing your Mod’s in exotic locations or earning miles while racing MNR tracks away from home, both of which will unlock rare and unique items to add to your collection.
  • Racetrack design in under a minute – Access all the new touch-create tools and design, decorate, and customize your own tracks for everyone to play in record time.

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