Developer: United Front Games / Publisher: Sony / Played on: PS3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone [Cartoon Violence, Comic Mischief]
A platforming mascot getting a kart-racing spin-off is `been there, done that' in games, but handing development duties to United Front Games and having them combine LittleBigPlanet with the already established framework of ModNation Racers was a smart move by Sony and Media Molecule.
ModNation Racers was a surprisingly good entry into the kart-racing arena so dominated by Nintendo's happy-clappy mascot, and yet sadly it's also utterly forgettable. That said swapping those faceless and slightly maniacal-looking critters out with Sackboys worked out great for both parties.
Not only has it guaranteed a solid racing model for a Sackboy racer, it's also given United Front's already-solid karting game a more recognizable and much-loved universe in which to exist, and has allowed the developer to massively expand on its promising groundwork, with all the charm and endless creativity from Media Molecule's incredible platformers.
LBPK, I can safely say, is no cheaply made cash-in. Like the platformers on which it's based, this is an insanely feature-filled bag of creative, imaginative chaos. The best type of chaos.
LittleBigPlanet Karting drives exactly how you'd expect from a cartoony racer; it's simple handling and forgivable physics are welcoming to the greenest of players, while more complex techniques such as power sliding, weapon tactics and increasingly tricky shortcuts allow more advanced players something to sink their teeth into.
LBPK doesn't mess with the standard kart game formula: you tap R1 (or a button of your choice thanks to customizable controls) to hop, and to initiate a slide as you enter a turn. If you hold the slide long enough you get a boost upon exit. The longer you hold the slide, the greater the boost. There are weapons to grab and shoot, and there are shortcuts to find and explore.
If you've played ModNation Racers you'll be even more familiar with the wheel spinning at the start line, the general weight and feel of the power slides. LBPK is slower-paced in terms of raw kart speed, but the ModNation DNA is clearly evident.
As usual, you grab items (Weaponators) on course to get a random weapon to fire at enemies, including speed-boosting goodies, homing and non-homing rockets, mines and suchlike. A further strategy element is added by the ability to shoot incoming missiles down by shooting weapons backwards at the right time - sacrificing the opportunity to attack others but saving your bleep in the process.
The biggest difference, however, is in the addition of the grappling mechanic lifted from LittleBigPlanet 2. Sponges dangling over courses provide grappling hooks for you to swing from by holding L1.
This opens up opportunities for some bonkers course design and United Front doesn't pass up the chance to throw in fiery pits, deep chasms and even more creative obstacles. On one course you swing over a train track as a locomotive - with only small gaps in its trailing carriages - steams by. You can still steer slightly as you swing, and its up to you to release your hook at the right time, meaning there's a level of skill required in every swing. Well-placed grapples are also means of reaching some of the trickier shortcuts, and nailing them is immensely satisfying.
Also lifted from the LBP formula is score bubbles, both small and large, with the larger ones packing prizes which you collect to expand your customization options to hundreds of items. These bubbles are spread around all the courses, adding an element of exploration to the already hectic chaos as you play.
This element fit perfectly with platforming because it required just a little extra effort to explore and grab a few off-the-path bubbles. Unlike the platform games, however, bubble hunting during a race is detrimental to your racing prospects. You either compete to win or you hunt for bubbles, you can't really do both properly. This almost seems to have been done by design: those alluring prize bubbles seemingly always placed off the ideal racing line or in hard-to-reach spots that will almost certainly spell bad news for those who dare to get them. They can therefore be an annoyance; a distraction. But they also add replayability, because you'll need to run races more than once to get them all.
Winning races, however, isn't just a case of reaching the finish line. LittleBigPlanet is known for its creativity and LBPK takes this reputation to heart. There are battle modes, and numerous alterations on the kill-everyone rules. One battle stage is set in a laboratory with a giant red switch in the middle which, when glowing, gives the player who presses it momentary electrical power, destroying all who come near. Another stage places an egg in the map, which grants its possessor a giant kart, but renders them unable to shoot weapons. Battles take place in castles, wide-open fields or on top of two flying ships with launch pads flicking players through the air between them.
The variety is incredible.
And that's before you start toying with the mini games. Just like the platformers, as you work your way through the main levels - displayed as patches on planets just like you're used to - you unlock smaller patches which take you to mini games. In true LBP fashion, some of these are simple scenario challenges, while others offer vastly different gameplay types.
There's top-down RC racing, there's a side-scrolling hopping game, there's a race in a high-speed electric-powered F1 car that needs to be stopped in the pits every couple of laps for a quick recharge.
Sometimes you don't even control a kart at all. One stage puts you in control of a giant lizard that you stomp around a simple urban environment in a top-down view, smashing trucks with your feet and fire breath. These games are all fairly simple, but with so many in a single package the variety and creativity on display here is astounding.
The only major gripe with the game's single-player offering is playing against the CPU characters, who can often be ruthless with their weapon use and not entirely fair with their pace. I'm talking about going from 1st to 8th within seconds through no fault of your own and seemingly no way to avoid it. In the latter races there's very little order to the chaos; even as a seasoned kart game player I found myself having to play races multiple times hoping for that one lucky occasion when the CPU doesn't completely obliterate me on the final straight. In these CPU races it's as if skill counts for nothing.
As expected from a LBP title, multiplayer is woven into every corner of the game. A second player can grab a controller and leap into any of the main story levels with you. Add a third and fourth player and you'll be restricted to the `VS mode' alternatives provided for every stage, which eliminates the CPU players and leaves you with friends.
Local multiplayer with friends is as amusing as ever. There's a noticeable loss off visual detail in four-player split-screen, but it's still suitably smooth and fast, and loads of fun.
Online play is what will keep the game in your PS3 disc slot for months after you blast through the campaign on your own. Sticking to the same formula as the LBP games, you're able to seamlessly jump into lobbies or public matchmaking games on developer-made courses or originals created by players. Although I wasn't able to sample the delights of public online play, as this portion of the game wasn't available at the time of reviewing, it's easy to imagine how replacing those infuriating CPU karts with real human competitors on an inevitably endless supply of custom-made courses will be a triumph in kart racing.
If there was any part of LBPK you'd expect to be lacking, you'd think it would be in the game's course-editing tools. I mean, LBP2 was so flexible it let you make entirely different games. How creative can you be with a course editor? Incredibly creative is the simple answer.
The customization options available are simply immense. The cool thing is that if you just want to lay down a simple track and hit the tarmac you can do that within minutes of spawning a bare canvas. Making a worthwhile level in LBP2 was never this simple. Laying out a basic circuit is as easy as steering a rolling pin around, painting your course with left and right turns as well as vertical undulations on the fly with the analogue sticks. Connect a full loop and you're ready to go.
Creating hills and lakes, and slapping in some scenery is also a cinch. But if you want to get deep, there's no end to the ocean of customization available. There are a whopping 57 tutorial videos. Seriously. It's like a programming course. CPUs, logic editors, sequencers, custom AI, switches (several kinds), motors... everything you could imagine. These options not only let you make courses and battle arenas, but entire mini games, custom weapons, plots, cutscenes, and even alternative gameplay modes altogether.
And all of the sharing, downloading, and ratings systems pioneered by LBP are present here. It's brilliant stuff.
LittleBigPlanet Karting is a huge achievement. Even as a devout Mario Kart fan since the very beginning, I can't help but yearn for Nintendo to stop playing it so safe with the franchise. They need to surprise me. I want more shocking courses. I want exciting new modes. I want a new game structure grander than the basic `cups'. It's the year 2012; for the love of Peach I want a bleeping course editor.
LBPK serves up all these goods and more. And yet, just as LittleBigPlanet never once felt like a Super Mario Bros. clone, LBPK accomplishes not feeling like a Mario Kart clone. It's not a re-skinned ModNation Racers either - it's suitably expanded to deserve recognition as a game all on its own.
It's got its quirks; playing against the CPU can be a frustrating ordeal, and some of the autopilot weapons too often release you into tricky positions, sometimes even dropping you off the course completely. But the solid racing core laid out by ModNation Racers combined with the universe of creativity, variety and charm that the LBP franchise in known for makes for a karting game with near limitless potential and unrivaled multiplayer racing fun.
+ Incredible customization
+ Full of LBP charm
+ A multiplayer marvel