Start with Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet, refashion it as a kart-racing game, only more robust—and more importantly, with more accessible make-it-yourself tools—and voilà, you have ModNation Racers. The bright, shiny exterior makes it easy to dismiss the whole operation as a kid’s game. Using silly weapons like lightning bolts and sonic booms to destroy opponents makes it easy to dismiss the game as a Mario Kart clone. On both counts, it deserves far more credit.
Finishing in first place isn’t necessarily the object in ModNation Racers. The true primary object is to stay with the pack of racers—a rubber-band effect ensures that no one is ever far from first place—and have a bit of fun at your opponents’ expense. This might be as simple as experiencing vertigo during a moon-shot jump across the roof of a barn. Or it might be as complex as accruing a level-three Sonic Cannon (unlike in Mario Kart, the power-ups scattered around tracks in ModNation Racers can be leveled up) and unleashing it on an unsuspecting gaggle of racers, then speeding through their wreckage.
No matter what happens in ModNation Racers, whether you’re euphoric over besting a pesky opponent or soul-crushed by being taken out by missiles mere feet from the finish line and certain victory, there’s a constant emotional response to what is happening onscreen. Whatever ModNation lacks in gravitas—there will always be a frisson in seeing Bowser spin out on a banana peel you left for him—it compensates for in style and customization. Thanks to the game’s superbly designed tool set, any experienced gamer can fashion a track from scratch in less than five minutes. Raising a phallic mountain up to the clouds via a series of button-presses can make you feel like a small god. It offers a complex sense of empowerment, ownership, and belonging that’s rarely ever found in games.
Unfortunately, this great power also seems to be a serious burden on the PS3’s hardware. The game’s load times are agonizingly long. And the PS3’s controller has an inherent learning curve. With its umpteen buttons, it’s a foreign object that might ultimately prevent this otherwise terrific game from finding the mainstream audience it so deserves.