[E3 2011] ModNation Mobile Once More

A second take on a portable ModNation Racers is underway, and this time things seem far more PS3-like than before.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: June 15, 2011
We were big fans of Vancouver-based United Front Games' hyper-customizable kart racer, but the PSP version of ModNation Racers wasn't quite what we'd hoped for. Sure, all the basic checkboxes had been ticked; there was racing, there was creation and there was sharing just like in the console version, but the controls just felt... off, and the whole experience just didn't have the same impact as the PS3 release.

There's a good reason for that: United Front didn't work on the PSP version, Sony's San Diego Studio did, and the two are partnering up again, this time lead by the UFG crew that designed the PS3 game, in an effort to make ModNation Racers Vita (or whatever the final title will be) a more complete experience -- or at least that's the general idea.

Above and beyond anything else, though, we can happily report that the feel of the controls -- thanks in no small part to the actual analog sticks that the Vita sports rather than the PSP's funky textured nub -- felt much closer to the PS3 take on ModNation Racers. That's not an accident; this is a primarily PS3-led codebase, which not only elevates the small-screen version of the game much closer to its HD counterpart, but actually allows for those PS3 creations to be carried over to MNR Vita. In fact, as UFG announced at Sony's E3 press conference before the start of the show, all of the user-generated content developed for ModNation Racers thus far will be available to download on day one of the Vita version's release.

But this isn't a port, oh no. It's a complete redo of the game that just happens to marry rather nicely to the user-generated mods (those are the little urban vinyl-style racers), their cars and custom tracks. Millions of different user-designed bits and bobs, all already rated and populated with thousands of votes and comments. And then of course there's all the stuff you can make -- or rather we tried out.

Like MNR previous, the track design system is insanely, ridiculously deep, yet never seems so unwieldy that experimentation and iteration are sacrificed. And, thanks to the Vita's multitouch screen and back touchpad, much of the actual sculpting and interaction can be done not with a cursor or analog sticks, but with your fingers directly. We give this a go by simply pressing on the screen to lower elevation and pushing into the back touchpad to raise it. Mountains sprang -- literally -- from our fingertips, and little valleys were hewn from just a bit of tapping, creating trackside lakes.

That track itself was actually sculpted by just dragging a finger around. It was here that we came upon something that will need to be addressed before any games ship: with a touch screen, framerate equals responsiveness, and though MNR Vita was obviously early, unoptimized code, it still became a bit fussy when trying to draw that track. Simply, put, the game couldn't keep up with the speed at which we were dragging out the track, causing a bit of backtracking and re-running of our course (which eventually became so unwieldy that we ran out of track and had to back up to let the game auto-finish the course. Though there was a bit of dabbling in doing stuff like drawing trackside objects (you literally finger paint them into existence by just dragging a line of houses or trees or animals), the slightly laggy feel to everything just led us to let the game populate the track itself automatically. Those that played MNR before will know how cool this looks as the camera zips around the track as sideline details spring into existence.

The track creation took seconds, and, framerate/touch response aside, could easily be tweaked to add huge jumps or multiple road materials with just a few presses and swipes. It really will change how quickly people can start creating things to share with the rest of the community.

And then there's the question of how the game feels during an actual race. After our track had been auto-populated with bits of shrubbery and houses, we dove in and took it for a spin. The track design itself left plenty to be desired, but the controls, sense of speed and framerate while actually on the track did not. Within moments, muscle memory had brought back all the little tricks: double-tapping X to get extra height off a jump, pressing and holding it to start a lengthy, easily-controlled powerslide, stocking turbo to be unleashed in the straights (or corners). In short, it felt just like it did on the PS3, and that's a ringing endorsement if we can think of one.

Obviously plenty of work still needs to be done to bring ModNation Racers on the Vita up to the lofty visual standards of the PS3 version (while hopefully nipping that whole load time issue in the bud for good), but it's sure as hell on its way. Whatever gripes we had with the touch screen's response will be automatically ironed out as the game is optimized, but the core, the soul of the game, is already right, and that's something that can't be easily thrown in.

One of the hardest things about covering so many games is that often ones with user-generated content simply can't be covered much post-release; we have to move on to whatever's coming out next. With the release of ModNation Racers' Vita version, we'll be able to easily experience more than a year's worth of user-created masterpieces, all sorted and voted on by the community, and all on day one. If that's not a hell of a way to pack a launch window with content, we don't know what is.

And lest you think we're just blowing smoke, note that we did actually play one of the user-designed tracks near (though not at) the top of the ratings on the PS3 right now. It was, to put it mildly, nearly indistinguishable from the tracks United Front Games and San Diego Studios from their games. It was that solid, from the huge jumps and trick opportunities to the challenging chicanes and loopback segments to the changes in elevation. It was awesome, and there'll be dozens -- hundreds, even -- of more examples just like it available on day one. Hooray for user-generated content!