The original LittleBigPlanet is considered one of the benchmark titles when it comes to the recent trend of user-generated content in certain games. While the platformer did feature a story with numerous built-in levels to play through, the main emphasis was allowing players to make use of a powerful level editor and share their creations via an online level database. The game was successful enough to spawn a numbered sequel that added numerous new gameplay features and items for players to use, as well as spinoff titles on both the PSP and the Vita. Now, the latest LittleBigPlanet game marks a sizable departure from previous entries in the series. No longer restricted to a 2D plane and with a focus on racing instead of platforming, LittleBigPlanet Karting is quite a departure for the series in several ways. The question here is how well it pulls it off.
As always, a Story mode is included. Here, Sackboy, the cute and eternally silent burlap-skinned protagonist of the series, is enjoying life on his home of Craftworld. This is interrupted when a new batch of baddies known as The Horde invade, and begin stealing everything in sight for their personal stash. At first, Sackboy is unable to catch up to the speedy vehicles they’re using, but when one baddie is ejected from their car, he jumps at the opportunity to take the driver’s seat and set things right.
From here, Sackboy will journey to numerous themed environments, such as a grassy castle garden, a land of sweets, and a neon-tinged futuristic land. As is the case with every LittleBigPlanet title before it, in each world he’ll encounter a new ally to guide him in his battle against The Hoard. While recent entries such as LittleBigPlanet 2 and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita offered uniquely modeled and fully voiced supporting characters, Karting unfortunately takes a step back in terms of presentation. The newcomers here revert back to the cardboard cutout style established in the original game, and have Banjo-Kazooie-like gibberish voice loops running over text instead of actual dialog.
Indeed, the actual plot is much thinner here than in previous games – and those were fairly simple to begin with. Every level is generally a loose excuse to race or battle The Horde, and cutscenes are generally briefer and less frequent than usual. Still, this is mostly forgivable, as the LittleBigPlanet series has, like many platformers, been more about the gameplay than the story. Factor in the customization and creation options the game offers, and it’s easy to forget the story’s shortcomings when you’re not in the middle of a cutscene.
Gameplay is generally a standard kart racer in the vein of Mario Kart, but a few unique twists have been added. The grappling hook powerup that was introduced in LittleBigPlanet 2 also makes an appearance here, allowing Sackboy to grab onto various structures above him and swing about with a press of the L1 button. Boosting is based on drifting around corners for a specific amount of time, with your wheels increasingly burning with flames as the boost’s power grows.
In addition, a second type of level, the battle arena, is also supported. Essentially a deathmatch on wheels, these levels forego racing to a specific point in favor of scattering weapons throughout an open environment and letting players go at it. The built-in levels for both types vary in complexity and creativity, but the best of them do a great job of showing off the versatility of the creation tool, adding various gameplay factors that you might not expect in a traditional kart racer.
Also being carried over from the earlier platforming games is the points system. Players can earn points by successfully drifting, attacking other players, pulling stunts when in the air, and picking up colored bubbles strewn across the track. Both every Story track and every user-made track are given an online leaderboard. It’s quite fun to go for not only first place, but a high score as well, and it was smart to keep this mechanic.
What stands out here the most is the weapons system – or rather, a specific element of it. The types of weapons vary from standard (Missiles, shockwaves) to a bit more unique (One-shot lasers, paintball guns), but there’s an added element of strategy in the fact that if you have a weapon available and someone fires something such as a missile in your direction, you can press the left stick behind you and throw your weapon at a specific point to take the hit for you. This adds a nice element of strategy to weapon management, and though I would have also liked an upgrade system in the vein of such games as Diddy Kong Racing or ModNation Racers, this mechanic can help you avoid some cheap deaths if you play things right.
Getting and using weapons at the right time is a big factor in winning a race. In fact, there are points where it can get downright frustrating. It’s easy to get hit by a single weapon and go down anywhere from 4th to 6th place in a matter of seconds. The Story mode in particular has some very aggressive opponents. Thankfully, there is a difficulty setting if you start to feel aggravated.
The hook behind Sackboy as a character has always been that every part of him is customizable. From his eyes to his skin to his wardrobe, the game offers numerous outfits and materials that are unlocked by driving through item bubbles in each course, as well as placing in the top 3 for each race. Other unlockables allow customization of your vehicle. Various default bodies, wheel types, and wheel sizes and positions are available. You can turn a vehicle into a tank, complete with treads, give it jet boosters so that it hovers, and even pick the horn and engine sounds. Running into other players and seeing their custom Sackboy or Sackgirl has always been one of the fun elements of the series, and now this extends to vehicles as well. As an added bonus, the vast majority of downloadable Sackboy costumes from the main games will be available for Karting in the near future via patches.
The other types of unlockables found in the Story mode are for the level creator. You can unlock numerous types of material textures, stickers and premade objects to decorate your character, kart and level with, and various types of sound effects and background music. Various background templates can be chosen, the time of day can be changed, and you can make custom 3D objects out of the material of your choice and make them move about via hinges and bolts. Even custom AI racers and weapons can be made. The amount of content available for tweaking and creating is very impressive.
It takes some practice to figure everything out, and even then, creators with more ambitious ideas may need to further experiment to get what they want. Thankfully, over an hour’s worth of tutorials are included, narrated humorously once again by Stephen Fry. The downside this time around is that all the tutorials are prerecorded FMVs instead of being interactive like before. They’re still generally clear about how to perform each action, but it’s not quite as good.
Having spent some time in the editors for both LittleBigPlanet 2 and this game, I must say that the transition to 3D has generally been quite good, but there are still some issues. Building a basic track is a snap, thanks to a paving tool where you essentially drive a roller around to carve it out. It’s everything else that takes time. Tweaking the size and elevation of the roads, adding scenery, and even building hidden shortcuts are all elements that make up a great track. After about a half-hour in the editor, I had a functioning level, but there was still plenty left to do. The impressively-designed Story levels were made using the same tools given to the players, and I’ve already seen some good user-made levels a day or two after the game’s launch. It’s exciting to think about what others will make given some more time, and it’s fun to mess around in the editor. Just be prepared for a serious time sink if you want to make something truly special.
As per series tradition, both local and online multiplayer is available. The splitscreen local play runs perfectly fine with no performance issues, and so long as everyone has a decent connection, the online mode runs perfectly as well. This definitely has the potential to become a fun social game once more quality levels start coming out, whether your opponent is in a different part of the world or next to the couch with you.
Developer United Front Games already had a crack at customizable kart racers with 2010′s ModNation Racers, but LittleBigPlanet Karting definitely offers more options for level design and gameplay. Other elements such as the weapon system aren’t quite as good, but the game as a whole is definitely quality. Those who are willing to put down Forza or Need for Speed and do a little lighthearted go-karting will find a lot to like regardless of whether or not they want to build a level, thanks to the fun levels in the Story mode and user-generated database. LittleBigPlanet Karting is not the best game in the series, but it’s still a lot of fun, and I’m excited to see how the series evolves from here.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.