Any gaming mascot worth his salt has starred in, or at least cameoed in, one of the many kart racers that have tried, but ultimately failed, to live up to the exacting high standards of genre stalwart, Mario Kart. From Sonic and Crash Bandicoot to Banjo and beyond, they’ve all had a stab, and despite varying degrees of success have all invariably fallen short. Next up to bat is Media Molecule’s hugely popular Sackboy and his LitteBigPlanet cohorts in what, at least on paper, looks to be a match made in karting heaven.
With the ever loveable Sackboy as its cover star, the delightful patchwork universe of LBP as its setting and United Front Games of ModNation Racers fame brought in to deal with the all important racing mechanics, it seemed everything was in place for a genuine contender to Mario’s long-held karting crown. Sadly, while the individual aspects are all impressive enough, too much of the overall experience feels disparate and at times even ill conceived. There is a decent karting game amidst the array of poor design choices, but LBP Karting never quite amounts to the sum of its individual parts – a huge shame given the potential inherent in such an obvious partnership.
LBP’s universe should lend itself extremely well to kart racing, and honestly, should have allowed for a racer that could have potentially moved out of the all-encompassing shadow that Mario Kart’s original design has cast over all subsequent kart racers. Instead, what we are left with is yet another Mario Kart clone that, despite a few nice touches and some solid racing mechanics, falls into the ever increasing pile of kart racing also-rans.
That all sounds a tad damning doesn’t it? Well, yeah, I suppose it does, but when you’re trying to compete with Mario Kart, let alone the raft of other karting games that seem to have appeared as if from nowhere this holiday season, you really have to bring your A game to stand a chance. The thing is, LBP Karting has some very slick handling, looks fantastic, is once again blessed with the voice work of the silky smooth Stephen Fry and is also home to a host of (mostly) user-friendly creation tools. All of this is hampered, however, by some infuriating AI, some pretty iffy track design and a collection of core design choices that maddeningly go out of their way to keep you from the core karting experience.
Of all of these, the most damning is probably the track design. Yes, in fairness, LBP Karting is infused with that community spirit that should hopefully see a myriad of excellent user-generated tracks appear over the coming months, but for now, all we can do is judge what is on offer, and sadly, what is here simply isn’t up to scratch. The tracks are visually gorgeous and are pleasingly imbued with that famed LBP handmade aesthetic (the kind that makes you want to reach into the screen and manipulate the world by hand), but in terms of basic design, offer up far too many dead ends and far too few surprises to make them genuinely fun to race around. The surprisingly addictive nature of classic LBP item collection does offset this issue somewhat in the single player story mode, but any kind of extended multiplayer session pushes the deficiencies inherent in their design abruptly to the fore.
Not helping matters is the often outrageously infuriating AI and the game’s bland but irritating collection of weapons. It’s all very much of the Mario Kart mould with the usual array of weapons and boosts, only here, not only do they feel bland, but they are also used excessively by the game’s unforgiving AI. We are all painfully aware of blue shell syndrome, but in LBP Karting, it seems wave after wave of attack is aimed at you with any attempt at defending an attack nullified by a second attack often shot in unison with the first – once in a while is fine, but this seems to happen all the bloody time.
Of course, many of these issues are laid to rest when racing against human opponents, but even here, LBP Karting’s design wants to get in the way of the fun. The actual set-up is pure LBP and while getting where you want to go can be a bit of a chore, the aesthetic is so beautifully crafted that it becomes easy to overlook so of its foibles. What isn’t so easy to overlook is having to unlock all of the multiplayer and online tracks by trudging through the story section. Now, I actually enjoyed playing through the story. In fact, despite the aforementioned AI issues, I thought it was all rather imaginative, what with its cool battle modes and collect-‘em-up stages, it’s the one part of the experience that tried to do something new with the genre. I just don’t get why the developers would choose to lock away the multiplayer experience behind it. A few unlockables would be fine, but everything? It just seems illogical.
The creation tools are mercifully easy to use and despite the bizarre omission of an auto-populate function, allow for some genuinely imaginative creations for those willing to put in the time. For many, this will prove an addition that will go unused, but with such great implementation of community features, knowing that others will, inevitably means that a steady stream of what (based on LittleBigPlanet’s user-generated content in the past), should be top-notch and largely imaginative content delivered on a relatively regular basis? Will it be embraced in the same was as LBP proper? Probably not, but all you need is a handful of committed players to keep the quality rolling in and I have no doubt that is exactly what will happen.
It’s far from perfect then and certainly doesn’t live up to the huge potential that a crossover between the consistently outstanding LBP and the mostly brilliant ModNation Racers promised, but with its solid handling, intriguing creative possibilities and that wonderful LBP aesthetic, this should certainly prove an amusing if far from perfect alternative to the more balanced, cultured karting from Nintendo’s leading man.
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