Over the years, many developers have tried and failed to dethrone the Mario Kart series. This year, United Front Games has stepped up to the starting line, dishing out its very own blend of cardboard cut-out tracks and knitted karting chaos, all under the name of LittleBigPlanet Karting. However, despite high hopes, the Sackchums haven’t quite found the winning formula.
Despite United Front Games developing the “unequivocally fun” driving game ModNation Racers only two years ago, LittleBigPlanet Karting feels flat. For a game that's essentially a rehash of the studio's previous work, coated in a thick layer of paper-craft, it's surprising that the game is so underwhelming. It seems that by welding two franchises together, the developer has created the Frankenstein's monster of the karting genre, without a whiff of competitiveness or enjoyment.
On face value, LittleBigPlanet Karting's presentation looks just as immaculate as its predecessors, complete with the charming narration and tutorial expertise of series veteran, Stephen Fry. However, when it comes to actually playing the game, LittleBigPlanet Karting pulls up significantly short. Unlike most racing games, you can't simply jump straight into a race when you first boot up the game, as you must first follow the story mode. It's not until you beat these narrative-infused stages that you'll unlock versus levels, challenges and other mini-games. Frustratingly, the story mode only allows up to 2 players to race simultaneously, limiting 4 player action to the versus modes and other challenge based tracks. The title does provide an online mode (which requires an online pass, free with new copies of the game), in which players can race against one another in selected story sequences, however the lack of an online multiplayer lobby and tournament options forces the online gameplay to feel unstructured, and, quite frankly, boring.
LittleBigPlanet Karting possesses all of the components of a great racer, complete with wacky tracks, comical items, and boost pads, but the developer fails to mesh these core mechanics together, creating a disappointingly dull experience. There are many different kart designs to select from in the Pod, yet none of them have any distinguishing features apart from their looks; racing in an army tank allows you to travel at exactly the same speed as a hovercraft or even a lowrider, which, incidentally, is rather slow. However, the game does provide the useful feature of giving players the option to select their preferred controls, such as accelerating with either R2 or X, which then automatically adapts the other action buttons to match.
A major issue is the unbalanced nature of the in-game items. While weapons can be a saviour to those straggling at the back, players leading at the front of the pack will often feel victimised by the sheer advantage others have over them. For example, many items such as the boxing glove, rockets, and fast-forward function can turn a race completely on its head, meaning that you can be ahead in 1st place for all 3 laps and then at the last minute be overtaken by the chap in 8th place gliding past you on a rocket. Infuriatingly, there's nothing you can do about it. We frequently encountered players online sticking to the back of the pack, purely so that they could grab an assist item at the last minute and win 1st place. There is an option to defend yourself against the countless homing missiles that will come in search of you during a race, but the mechanic doesn't always work as intended. The problem is accentuated by the ruthless nature of the other inhabitants of Craftworld, who will bombard you until you're sitting in last place.
Where LittleBigPlanet Karting really does succeed is in its creation mode, which provides an almost limitless scope for players to let their creativity run wild, adding plenty of replay value. Here you can create your own tracks to share with the rest of the world, using a simple tool kit made even easier with detailed tutorials, courtesy once again of Stephen Fry. By laying your own track, placing items, and delicately adorning your construction with death traps such as backwards placed bounce-pads (seriously, try it), you can make something truly bizarre and fun to play. Yes, it is time-consuming, and sometimes rather fiddly, but the end result far exceeds the means, and even if you're not the creative type, you can always try out other players' designs during online gameplay. We're particularly fond of the exceptional Mario Kart recreations already available.
LittleBigPlanet Karting's shortcomings undermine its ability to provide a compelling racing experience. With unbalanced weapons, ruthless AI, and clunky menus, it leaves you pondering what the game actually has to offer – aside from the in-depth creation mode and dulcet tones of narrator Stephen Fry, of course.