Thursday, May 27, 2010

ModNation Racers: Less a review, more a rant.


As has been written in every article about ModNation Racers since its announcement, it brings the Play, Create, Share philosophy of LittleBigPlanet to the mechanics of Mario Kart. Overall, ModNation achieves this quite well: throwing together a basic-but-practical track is simple while the tools exist to craft some amazing spectacles; driving is tight, enjoyable, and familiar to anyone who has played Mario Kart, Crash Team Racing, Speed Freaks, etc. while several unique abilities are introduced to add an extra layer of split-second tactics; and all of it is held together with delightful, adorable characters no less tactile than LittleBigPlanet’s Sackboy, if just a bit less remarkable. The thought of being able to cross the finish line on a practically infinite number of tracks is giddying. It is a pity, then, that the games seems adamant to do whatever it takes to prevent you from ever actually rolling up to the starting grid.



Firstly, the loading times are horrendous—horrendously long and no less frequent. I picked up ModNation Racers the same day as Red Dead Redemption, and it is beyond my understanding that my 360 can load the entire Wild West in the time my PS3 takes to load a cutscene—after an half-hour installation. Worse, the painstakingly slow loads are drawn out by the dullest loading screens this side of the original PlayStation; one of five-or-so tips that you have probably read a dozen times already sits in the corner as the number ticks towards 100% with all the speed of Windows troubleshooting why Firefox just crashed. Worse still, that loading screen just loaded a cutscene—an admittedly adorable cutscene with some very dry humour, but a cutscene nonetheless—and now you are stuck on yet another load screen before you finally begin the race. Surely it would not have been too hard to figure out some way of having the race load while the cutscene was taking place? I don’t mind waiting through long loading times if I am about to enter, say, Liberty City, Tamriel, or The Capital Wasteland; but a single track in a kart racing game? Really?

The problem is further complicated by the game’s menu navigation, or lack thereof. Working similarly to a public version of LittleBigPlanet’s pod, ModNation’s central hub lets the player enter races; create new racers, karts, or tracks; browse high scores and popular downloads; etc. This is all very pretty, but considering it takes as long to load as a whole race, I wonder if a simple menu would have sufficed. After every race, the game kicks you back to this hub, complete with loading times. So, for example, let’s say you just want a play a couple of ‘quick’ races. This will be your process:

1. Load hub (slowly).
2. Drive across hub to the “Quick Race” section.

3. Load “Quick Race menu (slowly).

4. Choose map.

5. Load map (so slowly).

6. Boring pre-race banter.

7. The actual race!

8. Kicked back to the hub, which needs to load again (slowly).

9. Drive across hub to the “Quick Race” section (again).

10. Load “Quick Race" menu (slowly, again).

11. Choose map (again).

12. Load map (so slowly, yet again).

13. Boring pre-race banter (yawn).

14. The actual race!

15. Kicked back to the hub, which needs to load yet again (slowly).

After all this time, you have only played two races, and are ready to give-up and pull out Mario Kart DS. It boggles me that any designer would think that after a quick race, I would want to be thrown back to what is essentially a main menu. These people have obviously played a lot of Mario Kart in their time, so how did they fail to implement even the most basic fundamentals of menu navigation? At worst, I would expect to be thrown back to the map selection screen to choose a new map and go again. At best, I would want the option to jump straight from the finish line of one track to the start of the next.

So much is potentially lost here. There will be (if there isn’t already) hundreds of thousands of tracks out there. Why not allow me to press “random” and just throw me new track after new track? Between the glacial loading times and constantly being kicked back to the hub, you spend a stupefyingly small amount of time actually racing.

This only frustrates me as much as it does because the actual races are so fun. ModNation obviously understands the fundamentals that make kart games so fun, just as LittleBigPlanet understands the 2D platformer. It gets the feel and controls just right so that anyone who has spent time with any kart cam easily skip the tutorials, yet it adds enough interesting new features to keep things from going stale.

Among these, my favourite is certainly the shield. Pressing O briefly activates a bubble-shield that deflects incoming attacks; however, it chews through your turbo bar (which you fill much like in Burnout by drifting, jumping, spinning, attacking, etc.). This leaves you with a difficult choice: boost to the front, or consume the turbo for that inevitable swarm of rockets on the last corner of the last lap.

“Swarm” is not an understatement, either. The weapons are fun to use and can pack quite a punch, even if they all do pretty much the same thing. ModNation adds more of its unique flare here by giving each weapon three tiers. If, instead of shooting straight away, you hang on to your power-up, you upgrade it by picking up more power-ups. Kind of like upgrading your green shell to a red shell, and your red shell to a blue shell. This leaves you with another tactical choice: try to take out the next racer with your lower-tier attack, or hold out until you power it up, by which time it might be too late. This is all well and good, but ModNation lacks the diversity of other kart games with ranges of defensive, offensive, and support power-ups. Each weapon in ModNation works the same way: tier one will hit one opponent if your aim is good (green shell); tier two will seek the person in front of you (red shell); and tier three will obliterate everyone in front of you who doesn’t get their shields up (blue shell). This is a minor complaint as each weapon is still so fun to use—a tier three rocket swarm really has to be seen to be believed—and even sans weapons, racing is a blast.

But it all comes back to the near game-breaking menus and loading screens. You cannot just play a quick round of races before work; by the time you have started your first race, you have already been playing for ten minutes. Frustrating, as this is exactly the game that you just want to play. Imagine if Geometry Wars forced you through a one-minute loading screen between every game. I for one would not have put nearly as many hours into it as I did, and I am afraid that is the fate ModNation Racers will ultimately be burdened with once my “new game” eagerness wears off. My eyes will drift over it, consider pulling it out for a quick spin before, sadly, realising that a quick spin just isn’t possible. Sad, as the loading screens hide such a magnificently enjoyable game.

9 comments:

Barantas said...

There is an easier way to do multiple quick races but yea. After playing this for a while I totally agree. It is worth it though. Almost.

Brendan said...

How? Do Tell.

Glynn said...

Huh, this multiple quick race thing is new to me, which is scary since it's my copy of the game he's playing.

I agree with you on most all points here, but as much of a shame as the loading times and menus are, I can't stress how much fun I think the game actually is. I really love it. And I read somewhere (can't remember where, so may not be 100% reliable), but apparently they're working on a patch that will drastically reduce loading times, which will be fantastic.

Fraser said...

I've heard some interesting comments recently about peripheral things like game menus becoming slower and jankier as games are built in more and more sophisticated editing programs. The idea is that when you have to program the machine code by hand, Like Back Then, there's only a tiny bit of latency in the computer's processing; when you build it all in something like Unity or UnrealEd, it has to translate through multiple layers of decreasing complexity to process any action. It also leads to situations like making the game wait for one animation to end before it starts to load the next one.

The Idle Thumbs Podcast guys talked about the Xbox 360 interface as a prominent example of a menu that's graphically slick but slow and kind stuttery.

And now I've ruined the 360 for you by pointing this out. You were already down on the PS3, so let's call this balance.

Anyway, it's surprising what a difference it can make to your impression of a game. Imagine Canabalt with a ten-second loading time - would it have become half as famous?

Brendan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brendan said...

Absolutely. A good menu (and loading) system is most distinguished by how it isn't at all distinguished. That is, it should impede on your playing of the game as little as possible. Canabalt and Geometry Wars are great examples of games that foster the whole "Just one more game" mentality by making jumping from one session to the next so simple.

I think GTAIII onwards also do something great by having the menu within the game, not the game within the menu. By that I mean when you start the game, you start the GAME and must navigate to the menu--as opposed to starting at the menu and having to navigate to the game. I wish it is something more games would implement.

As for slower, jankier menus, that sounds about right. I think one of the greater villians in that regard is Fable II. A decent game with simplistic RPG elements hidden behind an entaglement of horrible, lagging menus that take forever to load. The 360 Dashboard does get frustrating, but it still loads faster and is easier to navigate than the PS3 dashboard, in my opinion. I have never heard of Idle Thumbs; I will have to check them out, thanks :).

Pretty much, I just don't want pretty, flashy, or 3D-spatial menus; I want efficient menus that don't stand between me and the game.

Fraser said...

Yeah, the best games cut the hurdles between you and the actual game to the bare minimum. I knew I liked Braid the moment I realised the opening screen was the opening level.

Idle Thumbs is a great podcast - very funny and very smart at the same time. By coincidence, I'll have a post up on RedKingsDream in the morning about good game podcasts, so keep an eye out for that if you're interested! ;)

Car Games said...

I just got this game and it is a ton of fun, but I couldn't agree with you more. The load times are out of this world. I'd say I spend more time waiting then racing. They just packed too much into this game. I can only imagine times getting longer as you save more customized racers and tracks.
My other major concern with this game is the lack of customizing for controllers. I hate the control layout and find it strange that you can customize everything else in the game but the controllers!

Maggie said...

I totally agree! Recently purchased this game after going through Mario kart and pure on ps3 and the load times this one is enough to wanna quit playing. After just a few races I am ready to snap. I honestly spend more time waiting than playing.

The controls that can't be customized is also such a pain. I get cramps just trying to press the right combos at once, Ridiculous.