For almost 20 years, the iconic Mario Kart series has reigned as the undisputed champion of the kart-racing circuit. However, the critical acclaim and consumer traction so long attributed to Nintendo's racing juggernaut might soon experience something of a seismic shift, leaving Mario Kart choking on the fumes spewing from the twin exhausts of imagination and creativity attached to its first truly worthy challenger.
And that challenger is set to arrive as Sony and United Front's hugely ambitious ModNation Racers, which, while offering up the same frantic flavour of kart racing that has served Nintendo so well for so long, could potentially transcend all that has come before thanks to the power of community-created content. Presently working its way through beta ahead of a full retail launch later in the spring, ModNation Racers could essentially be for the kart racer what LittleBigPlanet (LBP) was for the platformer.
More pointedly, while the game promises to cater for 'instant-gamers' with Quick Race, Career and Online modes populated by varied default race environments and characters, its core longevity is firmly centered on the Creation Station toolbox that enables players to craft and publish all manner of personalised drivers, karts and tracks. And, unlike LBP, those eager to join the ModNation and channel their imaginations as budding track designers won't be left floundering amid supposedly simple level tools quick to break all-but the most dedicated of creators.
Ultimately, ModNation Racers promises to be genuinely user friendly, which is the one defining community-based facet that LittleBigPlanet failed to deliver. So, duly armed with our invitation to the game's current European beta, I've spent the last few days putting ModNation through its paces - both on and off the track. And the verdict? In short, Mario Kart's days are officially numbered.
In terms of its track-based gameplay, ModNation offers up typical breakneck racing that involves repeatedly exploiting a boost meter filled by successfully drifting through bends, while also seeking out handy shortcuts, launching off ramps, leaping chasms, thrusting over acceleration pads, and utilising pick-ups and power-ups against fellow racers. Although all fairly standard components within the kart-racing genre, ModNation's engine handles these elements well enough at this juncture - although maintaining drifts takes a little getting used to and basic kart control sensitivity is currently somewhat twitchy through the DualShock's thumb sticks.
Without wishing to dwell too much on similarities with existing titles, it is rather difficult to describe ModNation's aesthetic appeal as anything other than a vibrant hybrid of Mario Kart and LittleBigPlanet - so much for not dwelling, eh. That being said, there's plenty of depth to be had through character and kart customisation, and the game's lushly themed environments (only a few of which were available during the beta) are more than ably supported by the processing muscle of Sony's powerhouse console. In short, it's an extremely pretty game that runs with a pleasing flow.
As things stand, when viewed without its Creation Station platform, ModNation looks and plays very much like a thoroughly decent kart racer - and perhaps one that could compete with the genre's greatest on just its gameplay merits. However, when married with its community-based toolkit, ModNation takes on a whole new dimension that's capable of pushing against gaming boundaries without pushing gamer patience.
Character and kart modification is both simple and straightforward, involving everything from the application of alien skins, crazy clothing and crazier colour combinations, through to pumped and lowered suspensions, flamboyant decals, and outrageous chassis designs. But, despite the wealth of items and options at the player's fingertips (all of which can be re-sized, skewed and duplicated to create outlandish and original designs), it's the game's near effortless track creator that steals the show.
Crafting, testing, saving, uploading and sharing new and unique tracks can be as simple or as complex as the player wants it to be, which will cater equally for uber geeks and those just looking to enjoy fresh slices of racing in a matter of minutes. It may be hard to believe, but track creation in ModNation Racers really is that easy.
For example, the player is presented with a section of road on the themed background of their choice and then simply told to 'drive' their design directly onto the screen. Doing so essentially paints the track wherever the player goes until they eventually return to the start point to complete the new track. During the driving process, the gradually emerging track can also be elevated above ground level or ploughed beneath it, in-so-doing it helps create a basic undulating, banking and tilting raceway.
Once happy with the basic design, which often resembles a somewhat shoddy Scalextric set, players can then immerse themselves in the minutiae of ModNation's considerable customisation by steadily adding environmental detailing, props, power-ups, and everything else a fully-fledged track would and should contain. It's all very impressive. Yet, if you're like me - namely not blessed with much of a patience gland - the creative process also offers a sexy single button press that seamlessly populates the track and the entire surrounding game world in just a few seconds. Now that's impressive.
Whether looking to lose yourself in the challenge of complete creation and the obsessive control that comes with it, or merely carving out and publishing an instant track, the Creation Station isn't just an entertaining distraction, it's looking set to be become a superb mechanic capable of providing every gamer with the ability to be a creative genius. Factor in the thrill of the game's racing and the very real prospect of perhaps never competing on the same track twice, and the future for ModNation Racers and its waiting community looks very bright indeed.