I liked Modnation Racers on the PS3. I didn't love it, but I liked it. I was a game that had its problems, a bouncy Kart Racer that boasted a "build-your-own" philosophy in the style of Little Big Planet and had a story mode with cutscenes worth a few chuckles along the way. Its weakness was that it felt a touch cynical, with a lot of the build-your-own pieces tucked away as paid DLC. The make matters worse, it lacked the tight controls and balanced powerups needed to make a Kart racer really work. Overall, however, the bad outweighed the good and it was a lot of fun. As such, Modnation Racers: Road Trip was on my list of wanted launch titles for the PS Vita. A new revision of the gameplay to work out the bugs and some of the touch screen controls to clear up the interface sounded to be just what the series needed. Unfortunately, Modnation Racers: Road Trip is a hurried mess that feels like a shoddy cash grab.
For those new to the series, the game is an arcadey Kart Racer in which you can come first by finding short cuts, unleashing weapons on enemies or just being the best racer... like Mario Kart. Where the series differentiates itself is in the "Mod" of "Modnation Racers." Using combinations of pre-designed parts that are unlocked as you progress, you can make your own Characters, Karts and Tracks. You're somewhat restricted to the base materials. The characters are all the same shape, pick a Kart chassis that looks like a Ferrari and it will always look like a Ferrari, but within that there are a lot of options. A little practice and you can make a decent Spider-Man or Batmobile. The downside is that this has no effect on gameplay, no engine parts make your Kart faster or tackle corners better. The only influence you can have is on track design.
Designing a course is little more than driving through it. You control the track layer much as you would a kart, picking height and angle to make bends and curves that will test the most skilled drivers. Once you've made a complete loop, you can auto-populate the track which fills it with scenery, powerups and traps or laboriously go through the course one section of a time crafting your masterpiece. This is where most of the depth in the game comes from, and it's remarkable just how much you can achieve if you really have the patience.
At the same time however, it feels strange that a racing game has adopted Little Big Planet's approach. It should feel like the only limit is your imagination, and yet the experience is a bit more controlled than that. You can't really design your own accessories or traps as Little Big Planet would let you, and at the end of the day you can only create one kind of level. A race track. Still, the tools work well within their limitations and it's really quite fun to skid around corners as Barack Obama, driving a shuttle from the Starship Enterprise.
So, that's the basic game and when it works out right, it's a lot of fun. Unfortunately it's an experience that's forever hampered by cutbacks to the Vita version. Firstly, something that will affect players who enjoyed the career mode on the PS3. Before release, it was promised that Road Trip would not be a mere port but a true sequel to the first game. This is a half truth, there are new course, though given the nature of the game it would have been a crime if it were otherwise. However, these is no real story mode as there was before. The cartoony cutscenes are gone, with no drive to keep going from track to track. This creates a real disconnect from the career mode as there is no real reason to progress. New abilities are not unlocked as you proceed, just new parts for modding. It's a real shame and makes the game feel like a cheap side release rather than a totally new instalment.
This wouldn't be so bad if there were much else to do, but the ModSpot from the PS3 version has gone also. This area was a social space where you could drive around, meet people, see the highscores and the best creations of other people out there and generally interact with the community. At first I couldn't understand why this had been cut, and then I realised that there is no real community interaction in this game. Creation leaderboards? axed. Weekly Time Challenges and events? Axed. Basic online multiplayer? Axed. In fact about all you can do is upload and download Karts and Tracks from the database. This creates a sort of pathetically lonely vacuum in which you can create the perfect Captain Kirk racer but nobody can see it unless they happen to find it in the slush pile of everyone else's creations. It just feels so pointless. Games like these are about being creative and about showing off. It's fun to see just what people have been able to create and to enjoy them together, they is lost in Road Trip. Downloading new Karts is about as fun as catalogue shopping.
If only that were the end of this game's problems. Unfortunately, the interface is the cherry on the cake. This game makes you use the Vita's touch screen for nearly everything in the menus and creation modes. That wouldn't be so bad, but I had never had a touch screen interface control so badly. It leaves me scratching my head wonder what they did to it. Touching what should be the right place often does nothing, it's slow and unresponsive and often you'll find yourself wondering if you actually touched the screen at all. It's so bad it should never have made it past quality control.
I don't like releases like Modnation Racers: Road Trip. The core game, as it was released on the PS3, is a lot of fun and there are glimpses of it here and there. But on the Vita it is rushed and of an exceptionally low quality. Considering it was released at the same price as Uncharted or Virtua Tennis, some of the finest Vita titles, it's a downright insult. I hate feeling ripped off by developers who think they can just push releases out like this and get away with it because trading standards doesn't yet accept the view that buggy software constitutes a faulty product. Unfortunately, I do. But, what bothers me most about Road Trip is the outright lies that were told to get people buying it at launch. Developers told every games journalist reviewing the game that online multiplayer would be patched in shortly after release (no sign of it yet, and in the gaming world I'm afraid 3 months later does not constitute "soon." Particularly when the developer seems to have stopped answering any questions about it.) Or being told it has a whole new story mode when it clearly does not. I can live with buying a crap product because I didn't do my research or make a misunderstanding, but I have no tolerance for products that I feel are benefiting from misleading PR.
Do I recommend Modnation Racers: Road Trip? No. Even if you love Mario Kart, no. The truth is, there will be another Kart Racer on the Vita someday and it will probably be much better. The good you can find here isn't worth the hassle of a lousy interface and cheap, cut-corners development.