When the LittleBigPlanet franchise started back in 2008 on the PS3, it was unlike anything else that had ever been before; certainly on consoles. At a quick glance it looked like nothing more than a cutesy platformer – but it was in fact primarily a powerful, user-friendly level creation tool that also acted as a portal to thousands (and later millions) of user creations. LittleBigPlanet Karting is a slightly different beast. Three games (with a fourth due on Vita) later, LBP is an established, extremely visible name. The big question is: can this be more than yet another karting game, albeit one hidden under a well-loved license?
There are three ways to approach the LBPK beta, which result in three very different opinions being formed. The first line of approach involves concentrating on developer created races – which, to be frank, disappoint. Now, it looks brilliant. Although this game is being made by ModNation Racers developer United Front rather than LBP fathers Media Molecule, it immediately looks and ‘feels’ as though the racing is taking part in the LBP universe. Cloth and cardboard scenery whips by as you use familiar items on your way to the finish line; bounce pads jump your kart over gaps and obstacles, while jetpacks give you a temporary speed boost. There are even grapple hooks to help take you over particularly mammoth gaps. Yes, this is definitely LittleBigPlanet you’re racing about in.
Unfortunately there’s plenty to criticise. Sound effects are fine, and remixed LBP tunes are more than welcome; but specially-created music is bland and forgettable. Much more worrying is the important stuff, the gameplay; which starts to crumble under close inspection. ModNation Racers’ much-maligned handling has been vastly improved for this game, but the tracks available to twist and turn about in feel too… safe. Aesthetics aside, none of the trademark LBP innovation is present in the track design. Roads are rarely more than functional. This lack of passion and originality goes double for the weapons; there are extremely thinly veiled versions of Mario Kart’s mushroom, green shell, red shell, banana skin, and bullet bill weapons. Still, if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best – and they are at least proven winners.
There are three examples of alternative races; an isometric RC-style race, an arena battle, and a minigame where you must fetch items and return them to a target area while avoiding attacks from a static – but huge – enemy. In truth none of these are particularly engaging (I didn’t find them so, at least). It’s important to stress that the nature of a beta means that plenty of content is missing that will be present and correct in the final version of the game; but early signs aren’t particularly encouraging.
That said, the story changes completely when considering the beta from a creating/sharing point of view – and that, of course, has always been LBP’s true focus. Create is reassuringly user-friendly, and is a modified version of that seen in the ‘normal’ LBP titles; though long-standing fans will need a little time to adjust to the necessary changes made for creating in a 3D space. The familiar mix of pre-fabricated items, programming logic, and creating objects from scratch is all present and correct (along with options to adjust music, terrain and more) for decorating your races – or even changing the way they play. Laying down the track itself is as simple as driving an oversized paint roller around your chosen environment, raising it from (or lowering it to/into) the ground as and when you wish. There are options for changing the skin of your road, your fences, and even the ground itself. Yes, you can create forks in the road or even hidden off-road shortcuts.
It’s arguably easier to create here than it is in any other LittleBigPlanet game. You could make a diverting, fully-functional track within five minutes – or an overwhelmingly impressive, utterly unique one in any number of hours. In fact that’s just what a number of users have done with the beta (which just makes the dev-provided tracks look even more underwhelming). There have even been examples of truly innovative use of Create, resulting in brand new games and modes that have surely surprised even the developers. Once given the full selection of items and options in the final game, the LBPK community is sure to rival those of LBP 1&2 in terms of talent and impressive volume of fun, free content.
The third and final way to look at the LBPK beta is holistically. How does everything hold itself together? The answer is… not as well as it could – for now. The Story races on offer represent just a fifth or less of the whole, so the later races and themes could improve the experience dramatically. What the beta offered isn’t bad, just, well… not as good as what some players came up with within a few short weeks. Indeed, no matter how much the developer’s content improves between now and release, the community aspect is guaranteed to be the star of the show – just as it should be. There is however a worrying possibility, which all involved should hope is not realised, that – when it comes to track design – it won’t prove difficult to out-develop the developers.