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Big potential in a small frame: we go hands on with LittleBigPlanet Karting

For five years now, Sackboy has adorably climbed his way into our brains and nestled himself into a space deep inside our craniums. The LittleBigPlanet avatar is trending towards iconic, with his simple and adaptable looks that players can customize to the point of mania. If you are a fan of the PlayStation 3, then you are unavoidably familar with the character—he is everywhere.

Yet despite the exposure of the character, Sackboy has thus far been confined mostly to his own franchise in the LittleBigWorld titles. But like Michael Jordan back in his prime, you can’t stop Sackboy, you can only hope to contain him. The next world that Sackboy will invade and occupy is that of kart racing, thanks to developers United Front Games (ModNation Racing, Sleeping Dogs), who have experience with kart racing that few other developers can come close to touching.

Last week in LA, Sony and United Front gave members of the press the opportunity to try out an early build of the game, which was announced last month.

The inclusion of LittleBigPlanet to a karting world are more than just cosmetic. From the start that much is obvious, as the customization options for both Sackboy and your cart are robust, to say the least. One of the developers proudly pointed to a sackboy that had a beard made of bacon. It was a glorious sight.

The hundreds of customization options are something that will make you feel better about your avatar, but the real meat of the game lies with the racing and gameplay, naturally. There will be several types of games, and as you would expect from this type of title, there will of course be a level editor that allows users to stretch their creativity and construct new maps and even ways to play.

“We haven’t talked a lot about the create features in the game, in terms of the level editor,” William Ho, Design Director for United Front Games said. “Basically you are getting the same level editor that all of our professional level editors are using. There’s nothing hidden from you. Everything. All the powerful tools and gadgets that we use to make our tracks, to make our levels are available to you.”

You can customize everything from the levels to the AI to the weapons—from scratch. To some it may border on overwhelming, but to others it will breed an obsessive level of options that should open the game up to game modes and levels designed from fans that will probably shock even the developers with their creativity and ingenuity.

When the demo began, we were taken to the game’s pod. The new pod is updated and upgraded, but it is an area that should be familiar to any fans of LBP. The pod is where you will spend a lot of time, navigating through the game’s options, and up to four players can hang out there. But for now, the focus was on three maps, each with their own feel.

The first was a traditional kart racing level, with a track, opponents, weapons, and all the trappings you would expect. The gameplay is traditional kart racing, but with a LBP feel. There is a touch of whimsy obvious in the design, which is emphasized as you race around the track and use the dreaded slap attack, which can back hand opponents out of the way, or just let your friends know you are thinking about them violently.

The controls also allow for drifting, and the drifting has benefits of its own beyond just the mechanic of drifting around a corner to save yourself from a slow turn. If you hold a drift for long enough, you will earn a drift turbo boost. Around the track you will also find several icons that you can pickup. Most are weapons, a few are race bonuses like a jetpack, which is like a nitro boost.

The weapons, however, are obviously going to play a huge part. There are several types, ranging from homing missiles to ricochet projectiles to electrical radial attacks and more.

The speed was a bit odd, and the game at first felt slow. This seemed a deliberate move to encourage you to focus on getting turbos through drifting, or snagging the jet pack boosts–it’s typical kart racing, especially for those familiar with ModNation Racers.

After crushing my AI foes and engaging in a little victory dance that I stayed awake that night hoping no one recorded, the second game mode became available.

Battle modes will be a major part of LBPK. The area on display was an enclosed, square area that featured a slew of weapons to help you crush your enemies and see them driven before you. The winner was the first person to reach 10 kills. This pretty much came down to who got the best weapons first. The AI opponents were fun to dominate, but playing this split-screen or on-line will be a better, and much more engaging experience.

The third level was another race, and this one used the grappling feature heavily. Grappling will play a significant role throughout the game, and some jumps will give you the option to grapple and swing to a higher level of the track. Sometimes this is a shortcut, other times it will just be a different area.

Otherwise the course was fairly traditional, with weapons scattered about along with a few environmental traps and obstacles. It is combat kart racing, and while it isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, the amount of options should elevate this title from imitation to innovator.

The demo was limited, but the game will be anything but. The number of different game modes that will be available should be enough to satisfy anyone looking for variety. Beyond the races and the battle modes, there will also be treasure hunts, team sports, and many other games within the game. All of these will also quickly be mutated by fans once the level creator is unleashed.

“It’s fun, its fresh, it’s addictive kart racing action adventure,” Ho said. “It’s all set in a 3D craft world for the first time, and everything about ths game is authentic LittleBigPlanet.”

The marriage of ModNation and LittleBigPlanet is a natural one, and one that is going to be defined by the idea of potential. The levels and game modes available at launch should be robust enough to offer a bit for everyone, but the game won’t really begin to reach its potential until fans begin to experiment with the level editor and customization options.

LittleBigPlanet Karting isn’t exactly groundbreaking, and it’s still a little rough around the edges, but no one can really tell what it will be like until the creativity of the fans comes to the surface. The foundation is there though, and LittleBigPlanet Karting may be the next evolution of kart racing.