Nintendo released Super Mario Kart in 1992, and it single-handedly defined what we expect from silly weapon-based kart racers. Since then similar games have come and gone; we’ve seen the genre transition to 3D and jump online, but kart racers have all been drafting behind a series that has barely changed in almost two decades. This is where United Front Games rolls onto the track. Like a rookie hotshot, it’s fast, flashy, and has an unorthodox style. We’ve seen elements of player-created content and online community building in games before, but not yet in a kart racing game like this. Finally, it feels like the genre is evolving.
The aspect of this racing game that drew me in the most wasn’t the racing – it was the customization. I got a kick out of turning my racer into a top hat-wearing dinosaur, and then a bubble wrap monster with tufts of grass for hair. While my car might have started out looking like a muscle car beauty fresh from the paint shop, it slowly morphed into the most dangerous steam-powered cardboard box ever to finish a race. ModNation’s customization tools allow you to control the color and texture of your skin, the style of your kart’s seats and mirrors, and the stickers covering every inch of your character and car. I felt like I was only limited by my creativity and imagination. If you’ve ever thought about painting your own vinyl figure, you’ll likely spend a lot of time tinkering in ModNation’s Modcenter.
When I first brought my souped-up shoebox onto the circuit, I was impressed with the originality United Front Games brought to the racing formula. The pre-made tracks are fun obstacle courses, but there are plenty of shortcuts to hunt out as you do your laps. It didn’t take long before I was power sliding around, building up my boost meter, and ramming opponents off the road. You’ll even encounter a bit of a strategy when deciding how to use the weapon pods. If you pick one up, you can use it right away and release a small lightning attack or EMP burst that will screw with the person in front of you. However, if you wait until you’ve picked up three weapon pods, you can unleash a more powerful attack that could disable every racer on the field, or warp you ahead of the pack. Of course, if you hold on to your weapon for too long you risk losing it when the racers behind you slap you with their’s.
Anyone who enjoys the insanity of kart racers will have a ball here. Unfortunately, ModNation still manages to run over the same pothole that plagues most kart racing titles. The chaotic nature of the game’s weaponized karting constantly makes you feel cheated. Even an experienced racer might run three perfect laps and then get knocked out of first place five seconds from the finish when a rainbow of lightning disables the engines. Your boost meter can be used to project a temporary shield, but a full meter will only give you a few seconds of safety. Since the last half-laps of the later courses tend to turn into an invasion scene from Mars Attacks with all the cannon fire flying through the air, it becomes impossible to avoid every attack. Playing against online opponents doesn’t make the races feel any less ruthless, but at least you’ll know that the people in front of you will be just as upset about the blue fire you shove up their tailpipe as you were when they did it to you 20 seconds earlier.
Even with the craziness on the course, the pre-made tracks are only a taste of what you’ll be able to build yourself with ModNation’s track editor. I can’t remember how many times I said, “I gotta try something like that,” after seeing what the developers had made while racing through the career. Unfortunately, you will have to complete some particularly difficult challenges during the single-player races if you want to unlock the coolest track parts. If you don’t have the patience for that (or don’t feel like getting your hands dirty building the track yourself), the ModNation community will likely start producing a wealth of original content once it becomes familiar with the tools. With this much satisfying content, Mario will find some tough competition the next time he hits the track.