REVIEW: Things begin as expected. That achingly familiar LittleBigPlanet aesthetic greets players as the game opens. Stephen Fry's warm, treacly narration oozes from the speakers atop some truly cloying tunes, and our crocheted hero sits in a dinky wee kart and beams his way through the tutorial levels. Media Molecule's celebrated fabric franchise has its own particular presentation, and that has been admirably recreated by United Front for LittleBigPlanet Karting.
The expected levels of whimsy are present, and a suitably avant-garde approach has been taken with the game's assets. Tracks are lined with gigantic treble clefs, cakes, and tuxedoed aliens striking poses from Saturday Night Fever. Forests constructed from cardboard give way to levels of gleaming neon glass, by way of tropical isles filled with monsters and wastelands dotted with volcanos. It's glorious.
LBP Karting's settings may be colourful and inspired takes on old standards, but the gameplay is very much typical of the genre. Karts that handle in an identical fashion accelerate quickly to a top speed that never really feels fast enough, all while avoiding various pitfalls, taking advantage of conveyors, shortcuts, and jump pads, and collecting ordinance with which to destroy competitors. Drifting around corners gives a small speed boost, as do multiples of a 360 spin while airborne. The solitary new feature, a grappling hook, promises a new mechanic, but karts detach automatically with perfect trajectory, rendering what might have been a great minigame somewhat pointless.
Elsewhere, enjoyment is lowered considerably by one peculiar design decision concerning defence. Weapons - sorry, "weaponators" - such as guided missiles, lasers, and area of effect lightning strikes may be levelled at competing racers, and may be warded off using weapons as well. The trouble is that an equivalent of ModNation's shield gauge is missing, so a total of one attack may be thwarted before another weaponator must be hastily collected to ensure protection. The result is teeth-grindingly frustrating in singleplayer mode, where AI competitors spam the player with attack after attack, any one of which has the potential to send him or her from pole position to the back of the pack. Too often an unavoidable missile will be warded off only to be replaced by another of its ilk seconds later. Multiplayer fares better in this regard as it's an even playing field, but even so, handing the controller to competitive types is a good way to send them thermonuclear in short order.
Race progress is also undone too easily by instakill obstacles, some of which are only avoided out of luck. One such example is a jump into the distance, and subsequently a pair of opening and closing jaws. Unable to be seen from the ramp and thus impossible to time correctly, they throw an additional and most unwelcome random element into the game. Such designs may fleetingly amuse when playing with others, but while unlocking multiplayer tracks in singleplayer, they are only a headache. This requirement to jam solo before friends can jump in is a curious design choice to say the least, and unfortunately it emphasises the game's weaknesses. The story - although hardly essential in a kart game - is undercooked and wildly disjointed. Bereft of LittleBigPlanet's loveably kooky characters, it only gets in the way.
Actual racing levels in singleplayer number just shy of 30 - the rest are minigames demonstrating the flexibility of the game's creation engine. One level resembles a vehicular version of Pac-Man while others lean heavily on shooting, but as a rule they are not worth the effort. Back in the main campaign, battle arena stages that reward kills rather than race position are probably the most fun of everything on offer, and play like a very simple, very kid-friendly stripped back riff on Twisted Metal.
It's no surprise that the offspring of ModNation and LittleBigPlanet gets customisation right though. There are many ways to modify both karts and Sackpeople, and even more options when it comes to building a track. Despite the 57 tutorials and the volume of tools available, the latter is quite a simple process, and tracks that twist and turn, rise and fall are easy to roll out and connect up using a handy auto complete feature. The LittleBigPlanet creation engine has always been impressively deep and flexible and that holds true here, with some ingenious user-created levels already available online. A battle arena placed inside a submarine that periodically dives, flooding certain sections, is but one example.
However, while LittleBigPlanet Karting's polish makes it a solid racer, it is nonetheless flawed and inessential. Despite heavy handling, few corners require anything close to deceleration let alone braking to negotiate, and it's the weapons rather than crashes that significantly alter a final placing anyway. That makes it perfect as a party game as experienced players aren't hugely advantaged, but it also sucks the drama from even the closest finishes, and those seeking a balanced, competitive racer should look elsewhere.
For: PlayStation 3
Ups: Very impressive customisation options. Great editor. Battle arenas.
Downs: Huge balance issues, particularly in singleplayer. Feels like a diluted repackaging of ideas.