LittleBigPlanet Karting: review


It certainly looks like LittleBigPlanet. With the playful music, familiar sound effects, and even Stephen Fry on board for more narration than ever, it also sounds like LittleBigPlanet. It feels like neither LittleBigPlanet nor Mario Kart however, thanks to an almost total lack of understanding of what people love about the franchises. Most crushing of all, the evidence is there to suggest that this could have been something truly special. Allow us to explain.

People being what they are, many of them will take one look at a screenshot or two – or even just consider the basic premise of LittleBigPlanet Karting – and immediately dismiss it as a lazy Mario Kart rip-off. This is not the case at all, but also – it is. You see, variety is the name of the game here. Unfortunately, the balance between basic karting and inventive uses of the level editor is all wrong.

We’d glove to make a pun, but somebody beat us to the punch.

The majority of developer-created stages are pretty much what you’d expect – that is, Mario Kart style racing with an LBP skin. Presentation is very much in keeping with the LBP spirit. There’s still a ‘pod’ hub – which you can decorate – where you can invite friends, browse levels (again presented via a series of planets in Story mode), customise your sackboy/girl avatar, and choose or mod your kart. Once in a racing stage you’ll find environments and characters from previous games, as well as newcomers that fit into the design aesthetic perfectly. Everything is made from a charmingly homey range of materials such as wood, sponge, cloth, and cardboard.

As soon as the 3-2-1 race countdown begins, everything will be immediately familiar to anybody who’s ever played a karting game. There’s a starting boost for hitting accelerate at the right time, weapon pickups and boosts scattered around the track, hazards to avoid, even the standard eight total number of racers. There are score bubbles to collect and – a nice touch – various items to decorate your own tracks with appear as collectables in the various tracks. The killing blow is that unfortunately, virtually all of these tracks suffer from cripplingly uninspiring level design. They’re just nothing special. The best track, which even affects handling, is a superb WipEout tribute near the end of the story. Here, it’s immediately obvious that LittleBigWipEout would have been a nigh-on essential purchase.

On the same planet are tracks similarly superior to the rest but, as the game is all but over at this point, it’s too little too late. The further LBPK strays from the basic Mario Kart template the better it becomes, and there are high points long before you’ll be pining for a cute WipEout tribute game. Memorable moments include stomping around as a fire-breathing metal dinosaur, dodging bomb-dropping trucks in an automatically scrolling ¾ perspective track, and chasing – and shooting – a giant insect thing. These are meant as throwaway bonus moments rather than part of the main event though and worst of all, they ultimately remain memorable only because so much of the game is unmemorable. The first-person track should have been great, but even that is dull.

When armed, deflecting a homing weapon is easy. Unarmed, it’s frustratingly impossible.

LittleBigPlanet was (and is) much-loved by many because it’s a lovingly crafted, utterly unique game that is happy to empower all that play it. Mario Karts are enjoyed of course due to great track design and fantastic (if sometimes infuriating) gameplay, but there’s another important factor at play that United Front don’t seem to have realised. Every Mario Kart environment, every playable character, every vehicle (in later games), every weapon, is adapted from the games starring Mario and his friends. Lakitu in his cloud floats by to announce lap numbers and wrong turns, turtle shells remain offensive weapons, stars still render you invincible, Bowser’s castle interiors and exteriors become fiery race tracks, and so on and so on.

The fatal mistake made by LBPK is that it simply lifts the pre-existing ideas from Mario, and paints them LBP colour. The end result is that basic races feel overly familiar, and track design usually isn’t nearly good enough to compensate. It’s telling (and damning) that the inevtiable user-created Mario Kart track recreations, once the weapons have been skinned back to their original appearances, carry red & green shells, banana skins, bullet bills and more that act exactly the same as Nintendo’s.

Yes, the user created content remains an important factor. In LBP, creating a bug-free level that is interesting and lasts more than 30 seconds takes hours of work. In LBPK, it’s possible to create a flawless, if basic, track in minutes. The other side of this coin is that while it’s theoretically possible to create almost any track you can think of (you can create your own objects, deform the terrain, create shortcuts, etc), the more complex your creation the more frustrating the process becomes. Working in 3D space with an awkward camera and a few bugs left over from the beta are mainly to blame for this.

There are already some brilliant player stages available, many predictably surpassing most or all of the developer’s offerings, and the number of such stages will only increase over time. Finding human players in the sparsely populated servers is a challenge in itself though, and you’ll soon be done with the story – even on the hardest difficulty (“normal”) you’ll qualify in most races first time.

One simple decision – namely keeping Mario Kart aping to a minimum – would have increased this game’s quality tenfold. As it is, this is a game with some enjoyable moments yet which relies far too heavily on the players to provide value for money. Hopefully we’ll see another LBP racer; one which asks not “what would LBP karting be like?”, but “how can we use LBP to make a brand new racing game?”.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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