“Let’s go on a road trip!” The thoughts of the adventures just waiting to be explored sends you rapidly packing and out onto the open roads. But once the adventure starts you soon realise that even though you're having fun, in the rush you’ve left home a bit under-packed and you'd have enjoyed the trip far more if you'd spent a little more time preparing. ModNation Racers: Road Trip races to the new PlayStation Vita as a launch day title, and in the rush it earns its subtitle.
ModNation Racers brought the beloved combat kart-racing action of Nintendo’s Mario Kart to the PS3 and mixed it up with the a healthy portion of the Play, Create, Share features of LittleBigPlanet, creating nothing short of an outstanding entry in the PS3’s catalogue of exclusive titles. The PSP iteration of ModNation Racers brought everything we loved about the console version to the handheld for on-the-go karting action and should’ve been a runaway success, but sadly it was plagued with a frustrating drift mechanic that crippled the core racing mechanics. Thankfully, this nuisance has been rectified with Road Trip: Vita’s analogue sticks were just the tool needed to send the Mods smoothly sliding around corners.
By the time the first lap's finished you’ll likely have forgotten that you’re playing a handheld game. Using the L and R buttons for acceleration and braking and the X button to drift feels just as natural to play as if you’re holding a DualShock 3 controller. Road Trip not only controls as well as its HD brethren, but it looks and sounds the part as well: the bright cartoony graphics have an HD-like shine to them and radiate from Vita’s big OLED screen beautifully, making it simply charming to play. San Diego Studios has also masterfully created some of its best tracks to date and when coupled with the great control scheme and presentation, Vita proves that it can undoubtedly place a home console experience in the palms of your hands.
Not only can it play as well as a home console title, but thanks to Vita’s touch screen the creation aspects of the game are more accessible and intuitive than ever before. With simple gestures, you’re able to craft Mods and karts to your heart’s desire in a cinch, though there are a few touch screen nuisances with the editors that should’ve been ironed out before release, but they're by no means real problems. While you can quickly touch and edit the size, shape and positioning of the different parts of your creations, small tabs are used to move over to the colour palettes page and these small tabs can be quite hard to press correctly. Also, background loading can make these tabs seemingly unresponsive at times, requiring a few seconds of extra time to load.
Creating tracks via the touch screen is nothing short of genius though. You can simply draw the track with the tip of your finger and let the game magically auto-populate the scenery, or zoom into a first person mode after drawing up your blueprint and swipe the rear touch pad to move forward and backwards down the track, using the front screen to further manipulate the track and surround environment. It’s a system that’s easy to use and impressively deep at the same time, allowing everyone to custom create tracks, regardless of experience level.
Once you’ve crafted all your prized creations there’s nothing better than showing them off, and the Share Station allows you to do just that. Uploading and downloading tracks is quick and easy, and there’s a useful search system built-in to help you find exactly what you desire from the millions of creations available on both the PS3 and Vita servers. Trying to beat the top lap times on other modders’ tracks is good fun, but if it’s online head-to-head competition you’re after, then you’ll need to look elsewhere — online multiplayer was left out in the rush to get MDN: RT on the market for Vita’s launch. There have been rumours that it could be patched in at a later date, but nothing’s confirmed so far. While Vita itself is constantly online, it never feels as if it is so here: no pop-up menus notifying when lap times are broken, no player challenges, etc. and the only form of multiplayer available here is couch co-op. It’s a sorely missed batch of opportunities to say the least and, with the previous PSP version in the series offering online multiplayer, there’s no excuse for it being cut from Vita.
Getting back to the track, the single player mode comes with its fair share of skid marks too. In all the rush to hit the road as soon as possible, any semblance of a storyline has been omitted, a shame as we’d have loved the hysterical announcers from the original game to make their return here. Instead, multiple sets of race series are easily accessed via a simple menu system. Even though it’s a cartridge based game, long load times for races make their return and there’s a bit of a frame rate drop on the track when things get overly hectic. The latter of these becomes quite problematic in the later stages, when the difficulty spikes to seemingly impossible heights at times. While the track designs are ingenious, someone at San Diego Studios decided it’d be a good idea to litter these already difficult tracks with obstacles and moving bots. It becomes tedious and frustrating when the frame rate drops at the worst possible moment, causing unnecessary crashes, and with the game’s rubber band AI winning these latter races feels more like a stroke of good luck than any semblance of skill.
Despite its frustrations, MNR: RT still keeps you coming back for more with its staggering amount of unlockable content to spice up your next creations. Items can be unlocked by competing challenges during the campaign, collecting and spending coins that are scattered about the tracks, Vita’s Near functionality or ModExplorer, which allows you to check in at different cities around the world for extremely rare prizes. Don’t worry though: checking in multiple times daily during your everyday travels also accumulates to a worldwide total value that will eventually meet the parameters to unlock this content for everyone, so expensive trips to far off cities won’t be necessary to collect all of the game’s items.
ModNation Racers: Road Trip is just that: a rushed packing job to hit the road and enjoy the adventurous escape of Vita’s launch. It’s got a lot to offer and has a wealth of good times in store, but with a little more time spent on getting things together this could’ve been the trip of a lifetime. The addictive play-to-create features keep this trip racing forward though and prove that Vita can indeed put a home console gaming experience in the palm of your hands, but the storm clouds of missed potentials also keep this trip from crossing the finish line in the lead position like it should’ve.