Review: ModNation Racers: Road Trip (PSV)

Title: ModNation Racers: Road Trip
Format: PlayStation Network Download (1.5 GB) / Game Card
Release Date: February 15, 2012
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: SCEA San Diego Studios
Original MSRP: $26.99 (PSN) / $29.99 (Game Card)
ESRB Rating: E
ModNation Racers: Road Trip is exclusive to PlayStation Vita.
The Game Card version was used for this review.

I’m a sucker for a good Kart racer, and ever since I saw the reveal for ModNation Racers at E3 a couple of years ago, I was smitten with the style and endless ways that everything could be customized and built. The game was always an online staple for our 24 hour marathons for Extra Life, and even though the Single Player was at some times unbearably difficult, it has always held a place in my heart. When Road Trip was announced as a Vita launch title, I was extremely excited, but then the news hit that it wouldn’t include full online races. Honestly, that bothered me a lot, and it spurred more than a couple of discussions when I was at the studio in January.

Something I learned very quickly though, was that many developers, SCEA especially, were taking a different approach to multiplayer on the portable platform, and after ‘Words With Friends’ and some other titles have proven, this “asynchronous” approach can work if done correctly. ModNation’s not the only Vita game to take this approach, so let’s find out if it does actually act as a suitable replacement for live online play. Oh also, there’s a huge game here, so I guess that we can talk about that too.

Gameplay:
If you’ve played ModNation Racers (MNR) before, you’ll essentially know what to expect. It’s a pretty typical Kart racer at its core, with weapon pickups, drafting, and crazy action. There have quite a few fundamental changes to the core mechanics though, and so far, I’d say that every change that I’ve encountered has been a positive one. Weapons are now based on 4 key “elements,” Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. Each weapon can be upgraded twice, with the level 3 version of each weapon being very devastating if used correctly. One great change is that now when you pick up a certain weapon, all other weapon pick-up icons change for you to the weapon that you’ve already started. So no more accidentally hitting a different weapon so you have to start the process over. Also, defensive weapons have been added to the arsenal, which helps a lot with keeping foes off your back.

Also changed is how the player accumulates boost. Everything is the same as before, but the game is a bit more liberal with how and when you can earn boost, which helps a lot with having at least something available when you need a quick shield. Drafting is also a little easier than in past games, and definitely becomes more of a factor in your racing strategy when attempting to pass your fellow racers. The AI and rubber-banding have definitely been addresses in Road Trip, and even though rubber-banding exists stills, it’s definitely a lot less prevalent than in the past. The AI, yeah, it’s still a track full of assholes, but there’s a lot more flexibility with each character. So unlike before, all 7 foes don’t have the singular goal of going after ONLY you. The action is fast, frenzied, and at times, incredibly visceral. Going back to your weapons, a good example of how crazy things can get when someone fires a Level 3 of a weapon, when you have the Snow/Ice weapon, Level 3 is actually a huge snowball that falls down in front of you and rolls forward at those ahead of you. The best part is that you can actually STEER the snowball, giving you an even better chance of passing those in front of you for a late-race win! It’ll take a couple of tries to get used to, but once you do, you’ll definitely be a feared competitor from then on.

Game modes include your Career and Time Trials. The Career mode has definitely been tweaked, with the foundation being 5 races per tour, with 5 tours available. A 6th tour can then be unlocked when certain conditions are met but it’s a long and challenging climb to do so. The best change made in the tours though, is that everything is points-based. So instead of needing to come in 1st in every race, each tour has a certain amount of points that need to be earned before the next tour becomes available. This is a huge change, especially since there is always that possible race event that you just can’t take 1st in, and is what kind-of stalled me in the PS3 MNR back in the day. This makes the career mode much more accessible to players. This doesn’t change the inherent difficulty slope though, since in later tours the AI is ruthless. I’ve lost more than a few races being essentially only 10 feet from the finish line. Because of that, I’ve had to learn how to manage my weapons better, and if I’m constantly jockeying for 1st, I’ll try to acquire defensive weapons like mines instead of forward-firing weapons. These changes are very welcome, and makes the career mode much more compelling.

Time Trials I’ll talk more about when discussing the online features, as it’s a lot more than simply setting a time in this mode.

We just can’t talk about a ModNation Racers game without mentioning the creation tools. I’ve never been shy about people knowing that I have no artistic skills whatsoever. In the PS3 version, I did create a character and kart, but after messing with the track creation, I just never felt comfortable, but not any more. The creation tools have all been adapted to the touch capabilities of the Vita, and even I have published a created track already!

Track creation is so incredibly easy now, but even in its simplicity, the power and precise customization options are all there. You start by simply picking a track genre (country, cityscape etc). Then it generates a blank slate of sorts, in which you simply place your finger on the screen, and drag the track layout like drawing on a piece of paper. The software itself fixes issues along the way, and even helps you finish the track up if you have any issues. Then you can choose to have the game auto-populate the track with objects, buildings, race items etc, or you can choose to do everything on your own. Auto-population is definitely faster than it was in the PS3 version, and the editing tools, all built around the touch controls, make it easier than ever to edit whatever you want.

The rear touchpad can be used to change the landscape itself, either by lowering or raising the landscape in areas. It’s never been more fun to create a sinkhole! You can even choose specific buildings and tilt them to make it look like they fell, which is something that had to be done via a glitch in the PS3 version. Once you figure out how to control the editor, you’ll be surprised how easy, yet powerful everything is. I gotta say, I’m impressed. Kart and Character editing has also been tweaked for touch controls, and make things easier than ever.

Publishing these is just as easy as it was on the PS3, especially since this is all ties to your existing PSN account, so everything from both games is right there. Everything feels completely familiar to any veterans of the series, but still easy enough for newcomers. Even better, everything that was published from the PS3 version is accessible immediately in the Vita game, this includes characters, karts, and tracks. The one thing to note is that user created tracks do take a couple of seconds longer to load-up, but overall, load times are much nicer across the board. Also, one thing I noticed at least in the PSN version of MNR, when you load the game up, you’ll get to the title screen that’s telling you “Touch the Screen to Start.” For some reason, the first time that I loaded the game up, it took a few seconds before it would acknowledge the tap. After that, it works perfectly fine, but that first time was a bit weird not knowing that it would happen.

Visuals:
Again, any fan of the series is going to feel right at home in this new entry in the series. Racers once again are all modeled after the recent Vinyl Doll blanks making the rounds. You can either use a pre-built racer or create one all your own. Check out the characters that have been published so far too if you’re looking for your favorite character from movies, comic books, or TV, because someone has probably created it by now. The karts are also completely customizable, and the more you race, the more objects become available for you to use in all 3 categories. You can even go back and edit any of your creations later.

Textures and a deep color palette really pop on the OLED screen, and even though in the middle of a scrum of explosions, effects, and racers the frame rate may drop a bit (it’s rare) it never detracts from the game experience. The new weapon effects especially show that this is a new game and not simply a conversion of earlier works. Road Trip retains all of the crazy and over-the-top visual flair of the PS3 game, but adds even more visual candy all over the screen. The first time I saw this game in action, I honestly believed that the textures were actually more detailed then what they are in the PS3 games, which is possible, but it also could be how sweet that screen is. Everything on the screen is easy to read and never gets overly jammed-up with too much info, which is very welcome. Some developers obviously haven’t made a portable game before, and it’s very easy to make that mistake.

Audio:
The audio design in MNR has always been one of huge crashes mixed with incoming weapons, with just a hint of creepy laughs from the racers. Road Trip does not disappoint in this category. Music though, can get a bit bland after a while, but never fear because using custom soundtracks is a breeze on the Vita. There’s nothing like a little Pantera and AC/DC while blowing your opponents karts up while making that move to get into first place. Overall, the audio design really fills your headphones at all times, and definitely helps when someone is sneaking-up on you from the left or right. There’s also an option right in the game to adjust music, kart sounds, and racing sounds separately, and you can choose to turn the music on and off.

Online/Multiplayer:
As I mentioned up above, full functionality for publishing and retrieving created content is all here, and extremely easy to use. Also available is the ability to check-in to a bunch of locations across the globe via the “Mod Explorer”, FourSquare-style, which not only unlocks specific items for the check-in, but also after so many at each location, that object opens for everyone. This requires the whole of the ModNation community to work together, which is something that I wish more games had. I’m actually considering taking a trip down to Chicago to check this out, and hoping that I can wrangle Joel for that trip as well. Additionally, you’ll want to setup your own points, like your home or friends house, and check-in at those locations as well. When you do so, you build-up travel points. These travel points, based on distances traveled, will accumulate globally for unlocks as well.

In terms of head-to-head play, this can only be done in Ad-Hoc mode. Up to 4 players can play in this manner, but until MGC I doubt that I’ll have the opportunity. The options for setting a race up do look pretty nice though.

The substitution for the lack of full online play is the combination of localized, zone-based leaderboards and the ability to race time trials against either similarly ranked global ghosts, or you can choose to compete directly with your friends that have set best times on each track in the mode. One difference is that it’s continually matchmaking you with different players depending on how you perform in each lap. I’ll admit that this has become a bit addictive to me, as I’ve been battling a couple of the folks from the studio. It’s become extremely competitive, and the fact that the push notifications tell me exactly when someone has beaten my time isn’t helping. I do wish that there was something like this for full races though, since I personally can only take so much racing in time trials. I’m not sure if anything would have been possible, but if it is, it’s be cool to have.

I will say though, that no matter what else they’ve included, the lack of online head-to-head racing is something that disappoints me. I understand the philosophy that this is a portable game, and traditionally gamers use portables in smaller, impulsive sessions. I also understand that, because I experienced this myself, essentially NO one played the PSP version online. This is a launch title, and based on the data they had, I could easily see why this decision was made. My issue is the fact that Online play is my favorite feature of the PS3 version. You have an insanely awesome infrastructure in-place for online play on the Vita, and I know that at least I would have online heavily. Again, I get why it wasn’t included, but that doesn’t reduce my desire for it.

Conclusion:
Let me be clear though, in my opinion, this is the best ModNation Racers available. My only complaint is the lack of full online play. Once you get past that though, you’ll experience the deepest kart racer ever released. The changes to the career are great, and definitely open this game up to more casual gamers. The community-based options are inventive and refreshing, and the amount of content is second to none. The fact that all of the user created content from the PS3 version is available as soon as you boot the game up is huge, and the refined creation tools are so good that even I, who never creates anything, built and published a track. The game itself is a blast to play, with all-new weapons that I’m really enjoying. The controls have been tweaked a lot, making the gameplay the best in the series. I can’t wait to play in Ad-Hoc at MGC, so if you have a Vita, get ModNation Racers: Road Trip so that you can join-in!

Score:
8.5

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  • eric tingler

    I just can’t get over no online. 8(

    • Nor can I. To me there is no point in this game without online multiplayer. Huge oversight by the folks at Sony and then the complete BS reason they gave for it just makes it even more infuriating: 

      “But we really wanted to evolve online functionality and take advantage of the PlayStation Vita’s unique feature set in new ways,” Waas wrote. “If all we ever did as developers is rehash features that have been done in previous games, we’d still be entering passwords instead of using save files and you’d have to start the entire game over after you lost your three lives”

      What a load of crap. It’s like when Sony said gamers didn’t want rumble. I’ll be sticking to the PS3 version and I guess I’ll have to turn to Mario Kart for my portable Kart racing. Man just the fact that I have to turn to a Nintendo platform for online gaming just baffles my mind. Just a huge oversight by the guys at Sony and San Diego studios.

      •  There is one thing to consider, though I am not 100% sure this will work.  Back when Monster Hunter came out on the PSP, my friends and I really wanted to play it, but the game only supported Ad Hoc mode, thus no online, and no voice chat.  We used the PS3’s Ad Hoc party to play online for this and Gran Turismo PSP.  It worked amazingly-well.  I haven’t known anyone to test if Ad Hoc party will work on the Vita, but if it does, and people have a PS3, it will definitely ease some of the online woes on some of these games.

        • Thats a quasi solution, if it even works, but i doubt many people will jump through hoops to try to play it online so that stuff would have to be prearranged matches. Nothing quick. Not to mention people shouldn’t have to jump through those hoops.  When even Nintendo realizes that a genre needs online, there is no excuse for a Sony developed game not to have it.

  • I agree with Eric.  The lack of multiplayer here broke my chances of picking it up on launch day.  I might wait out for a discount to get it later down the line, but we’ll see. Thanks Glenn for the review.

  • CaptHowdy666

    Once I heard online play was not available on launch… I switched to WipeOut.  I’m only  a fan of the racing, not all the creation stuff anyhow.

  • I tend to be away from wifi hotspots so having online multiplayer wasn’t really key for me. The ability to make my own tracks by tracing them on my screen, and the ability to download custom tracks and costumes online were big factors when I decided to get this over Wipeout. That and the fact I’ve picked up Wipeout so many times and each time I tend to end up not playing it very long. 

    There is rumor/talk on multiple sites of a patch for online play but I’ll believe it when I see it.

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