I love ModNation Racers on the PlayStation 3. It's a game I still buy every downloadable track pack for and find myself playing when the mood strikes. That's why I've been so crazy about getting my copy of ModNation Racers: Road Trip. But now that I have it, I'm not ecstatic over the final product. The game isn't a train wreck, but it is a title that doesn't seem to have learned from the franchise's previous mistakes or embraced what the Vita is all about.
ModNation Racers: Road Trip is the portable kart racer with a LittleBigPlanet vibe. You can tackle the brand new 30-race career mode or spend your time creating racers, karts and tracks that you can then share online. This was the case with the PS3, and it's the case here.
That's impressive. As a seasoned ModNation player, it was awesome to boot up my first race and find that the in-game controls have been perfectly ported to the PlayStation Vita. Leaning into drifts, spinning with the right stick to fill a special meter, and boosting through straightaways all feels like second nature on the Vita because it's so faithful to the original. Developer San Diego Studio even improved the MNR formula in a few ways.
Now, item pickups on the track are color-coded so you know what you're grabbing. You can steer clear of the rockslide power-up and grab a fireball if that's more your speed. Those same power-ups can be traded in for more boost if you don't need to attack, and incoming missiles have a lock-on indicator as well as an audio cue to help you know when to use your shield. There's more strategy, although you can no longer drop every weapon behind you, which sucks.
San Diego Studios also outdid the original game when it comes to track design. Challenging doesn't even begin to describe some of the stuff the developers have whipped up in ModNation Racers: Road Trip. There are swinging obstructions mid-air, fire-breathing dinosaur heads and turns peppered with medians and debris to avoid. I consider myself a good karter, but Tour No. 4 definitely made me look like a chump. I like that -- and how detailed and colorful the racetracks are.
So, the core of the ModNation franchise is present and well done, but it's the stuff surrounding the gameplay that I have issues with. Yes, the courses are tougher and as beautiful as ever, but the game stumbles at showcasing that. The framerate drops regularly when the action is intense. It doesn't become unplayable, but it certainly doesn't look silky smooth.
And getting into those races presents a problem every ModNation game seems to suffer from -- load times. To queue up a track, the game needs 35 to 40 seconds. That's not the worst thing in the world, but ModNation Racers: Road Trip is running off of a cartridge; Mario Kart 7 certainly doesn't need this much time to get into a race.
There's more good and bad news in the way of the ModNation creation suite. You'll now use the Vita's front touchscreen and rear touchpad to whip up tracks, karts and racers. The touch controls are the only option, and they're foreign in the beginning, but I got the hang of it and actually came to prefer some of these methods. Drawing a track with my finger and then letting the game auto-populate it is a breeze and an easy way to make sure there's always a new course to test my skills on. It's also nice to drag, drop and resize kart stickers and character eyes with my fingertips.
You can upload your creations and download other people's with a tap of the screen, but even cooler is the fact that you can download every creation on the PlayStation 3 ModNation Racers server as soon as you pop Road Trip in your Vita.
But out of all the Vita games I've played -- and I've played a lot -- I've never seen touch controls as finicky as ModNation Racers: Road Trip. When trying to perfect a created character's eyes, I found that I needed to tap the option tabs in a very specific way to hop between the pages. Similarly, the main menu is displayed through these tiny half circles in the corner of the Vita's touch screen, and there were plenty of double taps needed to get where I was going.
The menu system is actually indicative of one of the biggest things holding ModNation Racers: Road Trip back -- the game is cumbersome. You need to swipe between screens and then dig through the half circle to find what you're looking for. Besides the unimpressive half-second pause between each main menu screen as the game loads, the menu doesn't bring any of the cool stuff to the top.
Whereas Lumines: Electronic Symphony embraces the Vita's connectivity and shows you what your friends have been up to as soon as you start the game, ModNation Racers: Road Trip makes you scroll to the "Share Station" and scroll down to a series of buried leaderboards for Time Trial laps times and creations. Mod Explorer is this new feature where you can check in with your Vita at specific landmarks around the world and earn new content, but you'd never know about the mode as it's shoved beneath uploading and downloading creations.
ModNation Racers: Road Trip doesn't support online play -- just local multiplayer races. The Internet freaked out a bit over this, but Sony's response was that the game supports "asynchronous multiplayer" via Time Trials. You play, upload your time, and the world tries to beat you. The thing is, even this doesn't work perfectly. If you play Road Trip and you're not connected to the Internet, the game doesn't save your lap time. You can't play on the train, get to your house, and upload the time. So even though ModNation Racers: Road Trip doesn't support online play, its asynchronous solution requires you to be online all the time to use it. Seems backwards to me.
I love the racing here and I love the variety and detail of each track, but when we look back at ModNation Racers: Road Trip, I think it's going to be clear we were dealing with a launch title. The menus bury the coolest stuff, the touch controls are peculiarly particular, and even though the Vita is a connected device, I feel alone when I play this. If you're looking for a bright and colorful kart racer with good mechanics, ModNation Racers: Road Trip fits the bill, but it doesn't excel anywhere else.