LittleBigPlanet Karting isn't the game you might expect. While Karting comes from ModNation Racers developer United Front Games, it isn't just a rehash with Sackboy thrown in. In fact, it has the potential to improve upon its predecessor in nearly every way, making for a wholly authentic LittleBigPlanet experience.
It's easy to compare LittleBigPlanet Karting to United Front's previous efforts at first glance. The ModSpot (ModNation's customization hub) has been replaced by LBP's trademark Pod, now transformed into a gigantic cardboard spaceship that allows up to four players to customize their karts and characters at the same time. And while building tracks, dressing up characters and toying with basic racing mechanics like weapons and drifting feel familiar, what sets Karting apart is the world in which it's immersed. This game feels like LittleBigPlanet.
United Front collaborated closely with LBP developer Media Molecule to create a faithful iteration of Craftworld that looks completely at home next to LittleBigPlanet and its sequel. While playing the game, you'll find yourself comparing it more to LBP than to other racing games, and exploring each map is almost like playing a platformer rather than a kart racer. Score bubbles even pepper the track to lead players forward, just like in LBP.
Many maps exist as a homage to classic LittleBigPlanet environments, recreating settings like The Gardens with meticulous attention to detail. Driving past the castle or the king and queen makes you feel like you're right at home in LBP's universe, and even the game's karts are inspired by LBP2 themes like The Wedding or Victoria's Lab. The team at United Front describes the game as a "karting adventure" rather than a racer as levels are built around the platforming mechanics LittleBigPlanet is famous for.
On a track inspired by the World's Fair called Future Perfect, players encounter the Grappling Sponge that's traditionally used to traverse the world of LittleBigPlanet. At several key points during the race, players are required to grapple across large expanses, climbing through the environment to progress and occasionally even finding elevated shortcuts. Mechanics like this help the gameplay feel more like exploration than simple racing, recreating the sense of wonder that made LBP so fun to play in the first place.
More importantly, the game's controls feel natural, comfortable and less 'loose' than those of ModNation. Drivers are easy to keep centered on the track, even while drifting. In Karting's default control scheme, ModNation's controls have also been reversed -- pressing X now controls the gas and drifting is controlled by R2. (You can swap this from the pause menu.)
Like any good LittleBigPlanet game, Karting features a wide array of customization options, allowing players to create tracks, characters and even weapons from scratch. Customization is controlled through the same Popit menu found in LittleBigPlanet, and everything from steering wheels to horn sounds to chassis can be replaced while customizing karts within the Pod.
This is one example of what makes Karting unique. While plenty of games feature a track creator or allow characters to be dressed up, LittleBigPlanet Karting gives players access to the same level editor as the game's designers. Nearly every element of a course can be controlled, from the frequency of weapon spawns to the appearance of the track itself. This fits perfectly in a franchise famous for letting players build things from scratch.
LittleBigPlanet Karting also boasts new weapons, with projectiles including straight shots, seekers and multi-missiles, plus EMPs and grenades. Weapons can be fired both forwards and backwards and can even cancel out seeker missiles when fired in reverse. During races, players can pick up new boost items such as Autopilot, which turns your kart into a rocket-propelled boxing glove that pushes other racers out of the way, and Fast Forward, which skips you ahead to a later portion of the track.
These weapons are a big part of multiplayer. According to United Front, Karting's suite will include Battle Mode, waypoint races, treasure hunts, score attacks and more. We tried out Battle Mode, an eight-man deathmatch that can be played either locally or online. The goal of battle is to use weapons like seeker missiles and straight shots to hit other players and earn points, and the result is one of my favorite parts of LBP Karting.
In a map called King's Castle, play was isolated to an enclosed, circular course with a few items in the middle. Attacks could come from any angle, leaving every racer to fend for him or herself while dodging the onslaught of projectiles suddenly coming his or her way. While Sony was only allowing battles against AI opponents, matches were still frantic and insane, with all racers scrambling to get to the items in the middle of the map in order to unleash damage. Additional courses haven't been shown off yet, but Battle Mode could easily be the highlight of Karting's multiplayer if our demo was any indication.
Karting did have a few noticeable technical issues. Like ModNation Racers, the game features long load times when loading a new track, though ModNation's percentage wheel has mercifully been replaced by a fly-through of each course. There were occasional framerate dips and clipping issues as well, though it's worth noting that this was an early build of the game specifically marked as a "work in progress."
ModNation Racers was a great game that was held back from its full potential by a few flaws. While LittleBigPlanet Karting still has a long way to go, it's already an incredibly promising step up for United Front and a great new direction for the LittleBigPlanet franchise. Plenty of new details have yet to be revealed, so it's probably a safe bet to expect more info at E3 in June.