Sony San Diego’s frantic Vita launch title is a bit of a technical mess on the handheld, yet provides enough karting fun to be an enjoyably cheerful experience regardless.
World-building & Story
Unlike its PS3 and PSP predecessors, Modnation Racers: Road Trip features absolutely no story at all. No cutscenes are played and no characters are introduced, something which is both a good and bad thing.
On the one hand, it was one of the more charismatic things about the series and smacks of the game being rushed for launch. Yet at the same time the plot of the previous games was disposable at best and as such it feels like nothing major was lost – this is a mascot karting game after all, Mario Kart never suffered from lack of plot. If anything, a minor improvement comes from the obnoxious commentators being removed so they’re no longer babbling over every turn you make.
World-building is also fairly absent – you’ll race across a series of disjointed tracks, but the game’s hub studio (in replacement of the PS3 title’s driveable hub) is a decent replacement to provide a home base while you navigate through all the features of the franchise.
Presentation & Sound
Road Trip on Vita is an incredibly mixed bag – there are moments when the colours pop, the animation is impressive and it all takes place on a gorgeous backdrop to come together to make a fantastic scene, but technical issues and a lack of polish are more common to make the experience underwhelming.
Take for example the user interface. It’s actually very slick and visually impressive, mostly anchored in the corners of the screen so it’s not intrusive and featuring little easily-identifiable logos. Yet it’s pretty difficult to navigate around relying only on touch inputs which aren’t always the most responsive (in fact, nearly all of the game’s menus are touch based which I find a baffling decision).
Character models are decent – much like LittleBigPlanet‘s Sackboy, they’re customisable dolls which provide a blank slate to make wacky creations. What’s most impressive about them is their level of animation – whether it be reacting to you putting stickers on them in the creator to peering behind them in a race when a competitor is nearby, they’re lively and cartoon-ish which helps bring them to life. Karts allow a similar level of customisation and can end up looking pretty good with a decent amount of effort.
In races, things remain uneven. Environments and tracks tend to be pretty impressive – draw distance is decent and a cartoon-y pop-up happens when new objects come in. They often feature lots of detail from lush jungles to frozen tundras, although upon close inspection some of the textures up close are a little disappointing. Given how much can be happening on screen at any one time though, it’s somewhat understandable.
Speaking of things happening on screen, Road Trip‘s special attacks are a sight to behold. Weapon pickups from the track can be held and combined to make stronger versions – for example, a straight shot of lightning might upgrade to a homing bolt and then a lightning storm. The latter is particularly impressive as the sky turns cloudy after which you’ll witness every racer in front of you struck by a bolt of lightning. All of the level 3’s are impressive – landslides; phoenixes and high-frequency barriers all feature and make tracks feel like a warzone.
The problem with this, and a problem with the game in general, is that performance suffers. The title suffers from an incredibly shaky framerate in general, but when particularly rowdy effects are happening on screen things notably slow which is definitely not what you want in a racing game. And it’s not like the game is a looker in the first place – while individual elements can be okay, resolution is clearly sub-native and some things can get incredibly pixelated at times.
Compared to some of the bullshots I saw before release, Road Trip is a disappointing – image quality suffers when a lot is going on. And put next to the PS3 entry in the franchise it’s not even a contest – the console version retains a crisp presentation that’s leagues apart than what’s on Vita. But really, it’s not this comparison that should be made – it’s a massive step up from the PSP prequel featuring character models that actually look like they’re part of the environment and a tonne of impressive effects on screen. It’s a shame that some of the more glaring technical issues are here, but I suspect that’s a product of things being rushed to be ready for Vita’s launch.
Conversely, sound is actually pretty good – there’s no VA, while weapon and driving effects are all fitting. The soundtrack I actually found to be pretty ace – its upbeat and very cheery, but perfectly fitting for the source material. At times it reminded me of LittleBigPlanet while at other times reminded me of The Sims, both of which are huge compliments in my book.
Gameplay & Content
A kart-racer with a heavy emphasis on user-generated content, Modnation Racers has always been an overlooked IP in Sony’s stable. Road Trip provides arguably the most complete vision in terms of single-player content, but performance issues and some baffling omissions drag the package down.
I’ll start with the creation suite – there are three different things that can be made which are mods (characters), karts and tracks. The latter two are as you’d expect, allowing you to customise everything from colours to the placement of features and you can make some fantastic things if you out your mind to it. I’ve already seen everything from Spyro to the batmobile and all sorts in betwen, the tools really don’t limit anything.
The track creator is arguably the best tool of all. You start by driving a steamroller to plan the route of your track, however with the Vita version you can also do this with the touchscreen which is a fantastic addition. You can then mess with the elevation and pitch of the track before populating it with the things to make it unique – speed boosts, weapon pickups and environmental objects to set the tone. Alternatively, you can have the game populate all this for you then tweak it yourself. It’s easy to use yet as in-depth as you’d like and is a fantastic thing to get to grips with.
All of this would be useless without a way to share it with other people but thankfully Road Trip has you covered. An online interface allows you to easily browse and search other creations as well as upload your own, as well as allowing full access to PS3 tracks which is a fantastic addition. There are some truly fantastic tracks out there ranging from water parks to recreations of Mario Kart classics and everything is saved locally allowing you to keep it on your memory card forever once downloaded. The problem with all this is the recent announcement that the servers will be shut down in early July (around two months after this review), meaning all the content will be lost to time if it’s not downloaded now.
Creation and sharing are – of course – only part of the package. At its core Modnation Racers is still a kart-racing franchise and in this regard in plays things very traditionally yet has enough quirks of its own to make things interesting. In races you’ll have all the basics – acceleration; drifting and picking up weapons and it all feels very natural, although drifting can take a while to get used to as your kart will jerk rather dramatically when turning. Interestingly, the game takes a few ideas from street racers like Ridge Racer – you can fill a boost bar while drifting; pulling tricks in air or attacking opponents and this can be used to increase your speed or shield against enemy attacks. This adds a nice layer of strategy, as you’re constantly weighing up whether to boost away or save it in case of an attack.
Road Trip‘s races are also surprisingly interactive. Aside from the usual shortcuts and boost pads which are commonplace in the genre, the game also features a number of items littering the tracks which can be activated by spending some boost. These range from blockers that will pop out of the ground to snag your opponents to barriers which can be temporarily lowered allowing you safe passage through them. There’s also a real emphasis on aerial jumps which allow you to pull off tricks, but these will also be scattered with obstacles you’ll need to avoid to land safely. As such, races always feel dynamic – there’s a great deal going on at any one time, something which makes them incredibly enjoyable.
This is compounded by the game’s career mode which poses various challenges for you on each track – ranging from collecting five tokens hidden on each map to completing specific feats such as not hitting any boost pads for three laps. While you can just ignore these things and progress normally in the racing leagues, I found it very addictive to try and find the hidden tokens or to retry until I finally got 100k drift points, again allowing for more dynamic races.
Problems come in thanks to performance and the game’s AI. As previously mentioned, races can feel sluggish sometimes when there’s a lot happening on screen, which is particular noticeable in the first 20 seconds when all racers are on screen or when a level 3 attack happens. This is one of those areas where I just have to say your tolerance for it will be personal – it’s something that irritated me at first but I quickly got used to it, but I’m used to such issues with Vita games. If you’re more sensitive to this stuff, then it’ll be an annoyance throughout a playthrough.
Something I feel is less objective is the AI. It’s rubber-banded to the extreme – no matter how well or poorly you’re playing, you’ll always have at least a couple of competitors within earshot. This allows the game to be more user-friendly, as well as providing some stiff competition, but sometimes this gets a little overwhelming. When you’re trying to do a specific challenge and there’s always someone nearby who will either knock you off course or hit you with a weapon, things become frustrating. With that said, I managed to best all the challenges in the campaign without too many outbursts and looking back, I did still have a lot of fun with it.
In terms of content, Road Trip boasts 30 developer-made tracks which is impressive in itself and these are honestly among the best the franchise has had to offer – full of sharp turns, hazards and plenty of shortcuts. I’d honestly say that it’s worth the price of admission for this alone but combined with the UGC which provides a near-endless stream of tracks, it’s a very impressive package (just make sure you download some extra tracks while you can!) It’s a shame then that there’s absolutely no way to race with other people online (especially since this feature was present in the PSP prequel) and that some of the more glaring technical issues are present as otherwise I would have no issues calling this one of my favourite combat racers in recent years.
A game full of thrilling action-packed races, Modnation Racers: Road Trip is a very fun kart-racer on Vita whether you’re a newcomer to the genre or a seasoned veteran. A wealth of content and plenty of customisation options means there’s enough content here to last you some time (while the servers are up), but some frustrating omissions and performance problems mean this isn’t quite the full package it should be. Still, it’s well worth your time if you’re looking for something cheerful and challenging on the handheld.