Featuring an excellent creation engine supported by a staggering amount of tools and content, ModNation Racers serves as a stellar sandbox, even if the actual racing isn’t quite as inspired.

There’s a reason why ‘mod’ is the first thing you say when you talk about ModNation Racers: the focus of the game is so clearly on the creation aspect that it’s less a racing title and more a Lego-like toolset. The kart racing is fun, but the game’s appeal lies in the off-track activities. This means gamers looking for an experience reminiscent of Mario Kart may end up disappointed, but anyone who likes to tinker and see their creations actually serve a purpose other than eye candy is in for a good time.

In fact, for the last week, ModNation has kept me and my friends pretty busy doing things other than zipping around a race course. We spent the majority of our time recreating popular characters from other games to add to our racing roster: Lara Croft, Cloud Strife, the cast of Grandia, Ryu, Ken, and Blanka — not to mention my personal favorite — Xena, the Warrior Princess. That was the one thing that kept us coming back to ModNation: the robust and intuitive creation engine.

When you look at the vast array of parts and pieces that you can append to your Mod and his/her/its racing vehicle, it opens up a wide world of possibilities. United Front Games really hit the mark with the in-game hub for ModNation’s community content, called the “ModSpot,” where you can go online with other racers and see the best custom-made content like karts and tracks. It gives you a good sense of immersion in the game’s world, where you can see that other players are actively competing and contributing to the overall experience. It has the feel of a real-life racing rally, especially when the game doles out honors for the top karts and tracks that have been making waves on the PlayStation Network.

There are few other games that have this kind of creative freedom, save LittleBigPlanet or the latest WWE Smackdown vs. Raw’s “Create a Superstar” feature. My only gripe with the creation engine is that nothing you do with your kart affects your speed or handling, which really takes away from the fun of building your own ride. It would be much more valuable if some rare parts gave you a distinct edge against other racers online, or at the very least, those cheap computer A.I. opponents.

But it’s clear that the developers went for a more simplified approach; rather than bog you down with stats and micro-management tools, they put a premium on instant gratification. This is why the overly daunting track builder includes an “auto-populate” feature that fleshes out your tracks for you; if you’re inclined, you can tweak every last inch of your custom track, but you don’t have to unless you really want to. Learning the nuances to track creation can take a lot of time, but thankfully, it doesn’t lessen the experience much if you take some shortcuts. Along with being able to download content posted by other players, it’ll be a relief to some gamers that ModNation comes with training wheels.

Unfortunately, the sense of freedom that the game excels at comes with a heavy price in the form of ModNation Racers’ Career Mode, which just happened to be my least favorite aspect of the game. In the interest of full disclosure, I played the PSP port of ModNation Racers before the PlayStation 3 version, and I wasn’t exactly blown away by the portable offshoot. Not only were the graphics and gameplay fairly unimpressive, but the control scheme was awkward, no doubt a by-product of the PSP’s irritating single-analog-stick design. Now that I’ve played ModNation on the PS3, a lot of my gripes have been thankfully resolved. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that the computer A.I. is notoriously cheap, especially with power-ups. You will get dragged out of first place, no matter how hard you fight to stay there.

I also noticed that the framerate takes a nosedive whenever the action on-screen gets really crazy, and many of the user-created tracks I’ve seen so far look pretty generic. There’s nothing about any of the tracks that particularly make them stand out, like landmarks or unique design. When you reference the Rainbow Road tracks from the Mario Kart series, everyone knows what you’re talking about. In ModNation, no course is that memorable. Also, I spent a lot of time wishing that the racing announcers would just shut up, particularly when they would note for the umpteenth time that I’d been nuke-blasted out of first place in the final lap.

At first, I found ModNation’s uneven racing to be a letdown, but what I’ve realized is that the game is more interesting as an open-ended content creation game; it’s more LittleBigPlanet than it is Mario Kart, and if you put some effort and time into the game, you’ll be rewarded with a garage full of interesting creations that will invariably bring you back to the track. It’s sad that the single-player experience is so lackluster, but like Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet, ModNation Racers is a game that’s best enjoyed online, where you can take full advantage of the bizarre and interesting creations that will hopefully spring from the imaginations of the PlayStation community.

PROS: Excellent creation engine supported by a staggering amount of tools, wide range of content to unlock and download; Online community only stands to add more and more memorable content as time goes on.

CONS: Racing mechanics are far too unbalanced, especially in single-player mode; Framerate drops frequently enough to be annoying; Lots of loading screens.

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