Here’s the thing: despite LittleBigPlanet Karting’s kitchen sink approach, ensuring that the single player game is as packed as it can be and ticking all the boxes with regards to user generated content, United Front’s IP switch still feels very much like ModNation Racers. And yet, crucially, it doesn’t actually feel as tight or as focused, with Sackboy’s trademark imprint actually watering down the experience. A little, sure, but a feeling of spreading the butter too thinly is there.
ModNation Racers wasn’t a perfect game by any stretch, but it introduced a new set of characters and placed them in a coherent, structured world that had grounding and weight. In LittleBigPlanet Karting, almost by definition, the presence of the pod, the Pop-it, Stephen Fry, it’s all very LittleBigPlanet, and there’s an element of brand fatigue bubbling up that already felt slightly tired in the recent PlayStation Vita release.
Stretched over a completely different genre, the Sackboy franchise feels a tiny bit forced, as if it’s trying to please everyone by doing everything.[drop]It shouldn’t – and this is hardly the first time a Sony platformer has found its way into a tiny motorised vehicle (hi, Crash) – but it does. It’s not offensive and it’s definitely a capable game from a capable developer, but perhaps it stays just a little too stoic to the LBP aesthetics rulebook – even the loading screens, pause screens and level select systems are a carbon copy of those found in LittleBigPlanet 2.
You want things to feel familiar in a game like this, but you don’t want them to not have a style and feel of their own. ‘Karting is LBP, in a kart – rigid, and regimental.
On the surface, that’s not really a negative. But you can’t help but wish that this had its own direction and purpose, rather than being funnelled down overly trodden paths.
Beyond the cardboard cut-out visage and Fry’s meandering, whimsical monologues is a solid, adaptable kart racing game, though. It handles well enough and the steering is nice and sharp. Drifting is a perpetual pleasure, the karts able to powerslide around pretty much everything the game throws at you and there’s an instinctive, obvious set of physics at play that are sadly missing from the likes of F1 Race Stars. Put short, if you’re used to kart racers, Sackboy’s mechanics won’t surprise you at all and you’ll dive right in – that’s a good thing.
There’s a few elements thrown into the mix though that threaten to disrupt the flow. Firstly, far too many of the obstacles result in insta-death, and require a standing start. It’s a left over from LBP’s electricity or fire blocks, but when you hit a cake and die in a puff of burlap smoke, it’s both daft and frustrating, especially when said confectionery is falling from the side of the course without much chance of the player guessing where it’s going to go. A simple bounce or even a slight, controllable spin (like Mario Kart’s bananas) would have been much more suitable.
The grapple-hook spots don’t really work that well, either. You’re charged with holding down L1 as you approach the bright yellow sponges, and thus start your swing through the air, but disconnection is automatic and there’s very little skill involved, making them somewhat redundant. The gaps they help traverse would have been better served with a boost ramp, but then this is United Front sticking to the principles and objects Media Molecule set in place for a platformer – fine in principle, but not terribly rewarding and come across as unneeded fluff.
The cut-scenes are silly, too – the plot is weak enough as it is, but trying to emphasise any exposition whilst Sackboy’s still sat in his kart looking up feels daft.
The track design is mostly solid, thankfully. The first section, a mish-mash of LittleBigPlanet stylings without a huge amount of their own identity, isn’t the best introduction. From there though the worlds become much more unique and individual, the second one (themed around monsters) is great, and a brief trip to Victoria’s chocolate-soaked bakery is a delight (aforementioned deadly buns aside). There are very few stand out tracks, though: the too-busy trackside scenery in some courses can end up feeling very similar to others, the differences between courses blurred after the console is switched off, which is a bit of a shame.
And whilst the courses are enjoyable enough (although there aren’t a lot you’ll want to replay extensively) it’s the side levels – the minigames and diversions – that are the best the game has to offer. It’s here, like it always has been with LBP titles, where the developers have been free to let loose and experiment with rather more esoteric uses of the engine, flipping the camera around to the side, for example, or tossing the rule book out of the window and throwing you into a kart in first person, weapons unavailable.
And then, naturally, there’s the Create mode, which is a beautiful, flawless blend of ModNation’s super-friendly track crafting and LittleBigPlanet’s fine-detail sculpting, and capable of some amazing user generated content. It’s really, really easy to use if you’ve sampled this aspect of LittleBigPlanet before, but now it’s all in 3D and thus massively more flexible. Free from the boundaries of a handful of stuck-together layers, we’re expecting some ridiculously clever uses of the engine from the community.[drop2]The visuals, too, much like they were in Sackboy’s side-on adventures, are capable of considerable bending, with the right idea behind them. In Create mode you’re basically free to build anything, as long as you can then race on it (or, indeed, have a battle on it – the game’s Battle Arena’s are a bit dull and limp in the campaign, but it’s a blank canvas in Create) and that means whatever you can think of aesthetically you can build. And that’s some achievement.
The graphics are worthy of a little discussion, though. The frame-rate’s much improved over the beta, now running at a solid 30fps (apart from a brief blip when the lights go green) but there’s still the issue with the slightly low-resolution, somewhat washed out display. It’s like the brightness and contrast levels aren’t quite right, and the touch of blurriness doesn’t help the image quality. There are moments of beauty in the single player, that’s true enough, but there are also plenty of drab, faded backdrops and less than punchy effects going on.
But, you know, as a game LittleBigPlanet Karting probably ticks just enough boxes to call itself a success, in the right hands. United Front have taken solid foundations, wrapped them around an existing (and very different) IP and just about made it work. The track editor is glorious, Sackboy’s customisation is a treat as ever, and with some friends the racing will be – hopefully – pretty popular. It’s not perfect, by any stretch, but it’s not bad either. Creative types will dig this the most, but that’s true of any LittleBigPlanet game, right?
LittleBigPlanet Karting is out at the end of this week for PS3.
Notice: we were unable to accurately review and score LittleBigPlanet Karting as the online portion – arguably the game’s biggest draw – simply wouldn’t work off our pre-release code when we tried it, the PS3 unable to create a new account on the development network. We’ve obviously tried the beta, and our comments on the online aspects are taken from that. We’ll assess LBPK’s extensive online functionality once we get our hands on a retail version of the game.