Back when ModNation Racers was first announced at E3 2009, Sony touted the game as the karting equivalent of LittleBigPlanet. It seemed like a fair enough comparison. Both titles featured the same lighthearted, accessible approach to their genre. Both valued user-generated content that was as easy to create as it was to share.
Thing is, I remember thinking to myself at the time that, in taking that approach, Sony was wielding a double-edged sword. Sure, they’d come up with a clever way to market a new IP to fans of one of their most successful franchises, but they were also effectively limiting themselves from every actually making a proper LittleBigPlanet racing game, given how hard it would be to differentiate that hypothetical title from the ModNation formula.
Turns out, I was right and wrong in the same breath—wrong for believing that Sony wouldn’t try to milk their lovable little cloth mascot yet again, and right for thinking that any LittleBigPlanet karting game would have a hard time justifying its existence.
Sadly, developer United Front Games has done woefully little to set LittleBigPlanet Karting apart from their earlier work on the ModNation franchise. Sure, there are a few of the requisite superficial changes, like charming narration from the inimitable Stephen Fry and character vignettes that provide the bare minimum of narrative motivation for the single-player races, but that’s just about it. The racing mechanics are about as close to a copy/paste job as it gets. Both the way the karts handle and the core principles behind boosting, where you drift around corners and perform aerial spins to fill your meter, are identical. There are really only a handful of changes to the core gameplay that make LittleBigPlanet Karting more relevant to its starring character—you can now pick up score and prize bubbles along the track, and some courses require you to use the grappling hook to swing over large gaps.
The one area that has seen a significant overhaul, the combat system, actually comes out worse for the wear. The weapons you gather during the race no longer level up with each future pickup, meaning there’s no longer any strategic gambit in saving your firepower for later. You can still defend against incoming attacks, but rather than burning up your boost meter to generate a shield, you can hold back on the left stick to fire your weapon backwards, sacrificing your offensive capabilities for a quick bit of defense. The relatively scarcity of weapon pickups means that when your AI opponents decided to pile on the attacks one after another—and believe me, they will—you have no choice but to stand there and watch any chance at victory slip away.
Most disappointing of all is that fact that United Front didn’t take this as an opportunity to remedy several of the major shortcomings in ModNation Racers‘ design. Every vehicle of the game is still identical when it comes to underlying stats like speed, acceleration, and handling, so there are none of the tradeoffs that give other kart racers a bit more depth and variety. The weapons are still a bit too chaotic for their own good, so you’ll frequently lose an otherwise flawless race thanks to a few last minute attacks.
Still, there’s one area LittleBigPlanet Karting does push the envelope forward, and that’s in the suite of creation tools. United Front has struck a happy medium between the quick and simple aspects of ModNation Racers‘ track editor and the more intricate options of LittleBigPlanet. You can still roll out a basic track with the paintbrush in a matter of seconds, but if you’d like to tweak further, there’s plenty for you to dive into, from a robust set of cosmetic upgrades to detailed tuning of the enemy AI. You can even create levels that aren’t standard races at all, like free roaming battle arenas and objective-driven gametypes, which is a definite boon to the game’s long-term livelihood.
Really, in spite my long list of grievances, LittleBigPlanet Karting isn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination. The fundamentals are all there. There are plenty of well designed tracks to enjoy, and the easy-to-use creation tools should ensure they keep on coming for years to come. Ultimately, though, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is just a hollow reskin designed to cash in on the LittleBigPlanet name. Surely Sackboy deserves more than that.
SUMMARY: If you can look past the fact that it’s essentially ModNation Racers with a Sackboy-colored coat of paint, LittleBigPlanet Karting is an enjoyable enough vehicular romp. Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that United Front has already made this game once—and they did it better the first time.
- THE GOOD: An enjoyable kart racer stuffed with all the charm of LittleBigPlanet…
- THE BAD: …that borrows way too heavily from ModNation Racers to stand on its own merits.
- THE UGLY: Losing a race because the AI decides to single you out in the homestretch.
LittleBigPlanet Karting is a PlayStation 3 exclusive.