ModNation Racers: Roadtrip review

ModNation Racers: Roadtrip is really hung up on appearances.

“Customize everything!” it cries. Choose a custom vehicle shell! Slap a sticker on your buggy! Dress up your little “Mod” person as a fursuiting cowboy! This is all you! You are expressing yourself and being creative! Isn’t that rad? To be sure, ModNation Racers: Roadtrip is packed to bursting with potential tweaks, mods, and makeover options. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to care quite as much about the actual racing, which is about as sloppy and bland as the customization is comprehensive. That is a problem.

Consider: You can navigate just about any of the few dozen included courses by simply steering left and right. There’s a drift feature, sure, but that exists solely to charge your special meter, which powers a turbo-boost and shield. The controls feel mushy, botching any chance of capturing some much-needed traction. This is racing by the strictest definition of the word, but it’s not exciting or invigorating. Despite the drifting’s somewhat superfluous nature, we actually liked to drift as much as possible, since sliding around the tracks at odd angles while counter-steering felt a little more engaging than just pressing left and right while holding down the gas.

Alas, that’s about as interesting as the action gets. Weapons seem an afterthought; we usually launched them at the first opportunity. Various themed courses introduce level-design gimmicks like smashing traps and fire-breathing statues, but it’s all just so much static when the core racing action feels so lifeless. The only reason you might want to replay a given race is that each Career Mode event lets you unlock new customization parts by completing two special objectives, such as going one lap without touching a wall, or drifting a certain amount.

So, you’re thinking, if the racing’s a bust, the customization had better deliver. It certainly gives you a lot of choices. We spent about 20 minutes going through options and modding the default Mod avatar into something resembling a bandanna-clad tiger lady, all by choosing textures and accessories off of simple palettes. Car customization went similarly.

The real challenge comes in designing custom tracks, which requires the use of a considerably more complicated level editor. While the performance and input limitations of the Vita make the process feel somewhat cumbersome, the level editor manages to be both relatively powerful and easy to figure out. Shortcuts like automatic scenery placement will let you get up and running in just minutes. Your first track won’t be very good, but playing around with these beginner features intuitively points the way toward more complex creations. It’s nicely done.

Just one problem: There’s not much point to messing with any of this. Content-sharing options are limited, and none of the customizations affect your in-race performance. While you can upload your own maps and download others’ creations, that’s about the extent of it – this is no LittleBigPlanet. Worse, Roadtrip is the first ModNation Racers title to omit true online play, so you’re stuck in the limited land of ad-hoc. This alone means that most folks will never touch the multiplayer, which really takes the wind out of all that customization stuff. If a Mod dons a zoot suit but no one’s around to appreciate it, maybe they should have just stayed in their pajamas.

The game isn’t a good demonstration of the Vita’s capabilities, either. Framerates are generally shaky, with busy areas of complicated courses skirting near the single digits. The voiceover and presentation flourishes of the PS3 version are gone. The interface is annoying, relegating most of the important options to fiddly corner touch-wheels and mostly omitting obvious and sensible physical button alternatives. Then there are the load times, which are upwards of 45 seconds in Career Mode. Roadtrip clearly could’ve used a few more months of TLC.

ModNation Racers had a pretty good debut (opens in new tab) on the PS3, but the series has been on a downward trajectory since. Sadly, ModNation Racers: Roadtrip only continues that trend. It’s a complete misfire, and no amount of goofy skins or nifty track editors can make up for the seriously busted fundamentals.

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