It has been said by us here at The Digital Fix that Sackboy was the great failed attempt to identify a mascot for Sony and its third PlayStation. It was a valiant try, with a fantastically cute character, wonderfully creative and inventive game that allowed everyone to play, create and share. The thing was that then Nathan Drake happened, Uncharted blew up and he became the single most identifiable thing about anything Sony - epitomised by his arrival at launch with the PS Vita, whilst Sackboy only turned up a short while ago. However, the sack fights back. The aforementioned Vita platformer was as wonderful as anything on the home console and now here he is with his first Karting game - LittleBigPlanet Karting. He’s also starring in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, a Super Smash Bros. clone, alongside Drake too. It seems Sony are diversifying the reach of their mascots in the same way Nintendo have successfully done for many years with Mario, but here sharing the load between Drake and Sackboy rather than putting all the weight of new game series on the shoulders of one avatar, presumably in the hope that each succeeds rather than failing due to saturation. Here then, we have United Front Games’ and Media Molecule’s take on Super Mario Kart. With ModNation Racers forgotten can Sony generate a successful driving franchise with one of their mascots and the sharing ethos?
On loading up LittleBigPlanet Karting you are forced to wait whilst a mandatory install from the Blu-Ray to the hard drive is processed. The ten minute wait isn’t a major problem in itself as if everything’s on the hard drive the in-game loading should be negligible at best. Unfortunately it seems this initial wait is practice for the game as a whole. The loading screen is where you spend most of your time - before a level starts and after a level ends plus other instances in-between. There are even multiple stages of loading - click on a level and see it say ‘loading’ before going to a white screen which is yet more loading. It’s incredibly frustrating as there is no excuse having installed everything from the disc. It’s actually unforgivable really and the biggest issue with an otherwise surprisingly excellent game.
LittleBigPlanet Karting turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts, which is something you’ll discover once past the mandatory install. After this you’re in your usual pod which will be familiar to all LittleBigPlanet owners and in front of you is a number of planetoids. Press X and you jump from your Kart to your PS3 controller and you can from there enter the story mode, community, store, check out recent activity or head towards your own personal moon, or that of your friends. If you choose story mode as most will on first boot-up you’re directed towards the Queen’s Gardens where you get to learn the basics of Sackboy racing as taught by the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry, back for another LBP game and remarkably entertaining as always. The karting is all Sackboyed up as you might imagine; by this we mean it all feels a little floaty-light at first with that inimitable textile momentum that comes from being made out of sackcloth. You quickly get used to it - and are racing around the training track within seconds. The driving is simple to learn and simple to master - aside from turning left or right and choosing which button you’d prefer to be your accelerator, there’s a jump button, a weaponator controlling button and arguably the most important button: the drift button.
The driving mechanics have been made as simple as point your kart in the right direction, speed-up and press X to drift around a corner. No need to jiggle your brake and accelerator as you struggle to tame the metal box (or balloons, or whatever your chosen kart is made from) beneath you. Drifting is something you’ll be doing at pretty much every corner. Whilst there’s no track as challenging as anything you’d see in Formula One, drifting makes it that much easier to get the best driving line time and time again. There’s rarely any need to brake at all, but with drift you never have to. Holding the drift for a period of time lights your wheels on fire - hold for longer and the fire grows stronger. Once you let the drift go you get a boost proportional to the size of flames flailing behind your rear wheel screech. It’s a lot of fun generating the requisite heat when drifting and anyone can do it due to the simplified system.
The whole game is simplified really in terms of driving. It’s remarkably easy - on either of the two difficulties: casual and normal. There’s no tournament or league setup going on here and no grades of car as you might be used to from Mario’s Star and Flower cups, and multiple ccs of engines. You see, in the world of sackcloth the karting game follows the tried and trusted template utilised by the four platformers - there’s a story, a different set of levels by different creators and your aim is to ensure passage through each for your kart and Sackman, ultimately finishing the game and completing the story. The story itself is complete and utterly throwaway, appealing no doubt to younger gamers but entirely peripheral to the main entertainment at heart. Fortunately you can skip everything to do with the story, but suffice it to say you’re helping fight back against the Hoard, who appear to be taking anything and everything they can from everyone else in the world - going completely against the (play, create and) share ethos of LittleBigPlanet. It’s really odd at first to be playing a racer with such a structure but soon enough you get used to it and it’s not a problem anymore, driven by the sheer fun and variety found throughout each of the levels you go karting in.
As you progress through the story mode the sheer brilliance of level design continually hammers your head until you really believe in it. Initially you’re in a garden world that feels a little bit like the Mushroom Kingdom and all you’re thinking is that this is a straightforward, dumbed down karting game looking to offer a Sony alternative to the king of karts and to do so in a way so appealing to youngsters. The truth is far more than this, though. As the environment changes so does the linearity of racing. Multiple paths through a level, ups and downs, flying and jumping, the sheer variety is there for all to see. A grappling hook provides some of the greatest joy - flying through the air, holding L1 to grab the big loofah in the sky you’re passing underneath, and then letting go at the appropriate inflexion, tumbling forwards towards the next part of the firm track, and maybe even doing a cheeky 360 to provide some extra boost on touchdown. Whilst this might even get old when seeing it on the seventieth level, it’s unlikely as it will be dressed up in fabulously different and funky clothes. You don’t just have a snow world and a garden world and a water world here. No, you get all kinds of novel and exquisite environmental design - one particular highlight was racing around tape players, long play record decks and more, with an appropriately themed bass laden soundtrack fitting the visual design perfectly. In fact, the soundtrack deserves a special mention - songs and music tracks are all massively enjoyable and well suited to whichever race you’re partaking in at any given moment.
The story mode is full of different types of racing. You have your usual race against seven of the Hoard over three laps of course. But there’s multiple battle arena areas where the aim is to get the most hits compared to the other drivers. There are specific versus levels which are designed for competitive multiplayer but can be played on your own too, radio controlled two-dimensional top-down levels and even first person Grand Prix type races where it’s just you against the clock - and energy, meaning you need to pit accordingly. There are boss battles and checkpoint racing as well. It’s all mixed up nicely, some you have to do to progress and others unlocked along the way to enable you to one hundred percent the game. Of course if you’re trying to get one hundred percent it’s not just a matter of playing the game and completing each level - you’ll want to collect all the prizes and star each level too thanks to your excellent performance. You get the pride of having done so but also something (slightly) more tangible in terms of a trophy or two.
Collecting all the prizes feeds into the creation and sharing part of any Little Big event. There’s nothing different here. Making your own levels and publishing them for the entire community to enjoy is as big a part of karting as it is the platforming Sack games. There are fifty-seven tutorials designed to teach you how to make your own racetrack and holistic event, including the ability to do everything the game’s designers have done as they’ve shared their entire toolset with us, the gamers. As with all LittleBigPlanets before it, making your own level is very very easy if you don’t mind it being very very simple, but given time and understanding, incredibly complex beasts can be enabled. In the simplest terms you can paint (literally) a track onto your empty canvas and drive around it. From there on you can change the track design, environment and Kart logic or more to deliver an astoundingly enjoyable race for friends and others to face once they’re done and dusted with the story mode. For our review the servers weren’t yet available so all we could do was create on our own solitary moon - and as such nor could we try anyone else’s fantasies. The possibilities are limitless though - it’s surely just a matter of time until we see Monte Carlo, Monza and any variant of Rainbow Road appear in raceable form. Given the lack of servers we were unable to test the online multiplayer, but local worked just fine with a split-screen.
It’s difficult to know where people will focus the majority of their time with LittleBigPlanet Karting - multiplayer is always a favourite, especially in karting type arcade racers because of the variety of weapons and speed boosters and shortcuts that can aid success - or failure - versus your typical simulation racing title. As mentioned above split-screen affords the opportunity to play locally against up to three others and given the variety of levels available it’s incredibly good fun as a party racer. Online multiplayer will likely have a little more grit and competitiveness to it but again, we were unable to test this as the servers are offline until November 9th. There’s nothing here quite as dispiriting as a blue shell whichever form of multiplayer you go for, although there are homing rockets and the equivalent of the three red shells, they just don’t seem to have quite the effect on a person’s state of mind when hit. To say this is where people will spend most of their time though is to ignore the seventy-odd levels ready for racing with all their secrets, and of course the making of your own levels. What this means is there’s something for everybody and all desires provided there’s a seed of race love hidden somewhere to start with.
Fundamentally that’s why LittleBigPlanet Karting has surprised us. With simple yet fun and consistent driving mechanics, fascinating level design, variety in environments and challenge, a great soundtrack and the ability to play, create and share as with all other titles in Sackboy’s stable, we have an oddly conceived but brilliantly realised gem which provides a real alternative to other racers, including Mario Kart. Sony have got what they wanted then. Expansion of their stars into new types of game franchise, and with it a real adjunct to Nintendo’s way of doing things.