When I first heard that MediaMolecule were joining forces with United Front Games to turn LittleBigPlanet into a kart racer, I scoffed. I may even have snorted, and I probably made that annoying 'Tchoh' sound that game cynics make whenever someone comes along and urinates in their little pond of bliss. You see, I've always liked LittleBigPlanet and I've always admired MediaMolecule's approach to game design, and really didn't want to see them endorsing anything that looked like it was going to besmirch LBP's good name.
I needn't really have worried. Despite ModNation Racers being a little bit pants (mostly because of the handling, partly because it practically drowned under an ocean of microcontent and online flakiness), United Front games had their heart in the right place, providing a racing game that fully adopted Sony's "Play, Create, Share" idylls. Well, before Sony replaced that with "Spend, Stripmine, Squander" at least.
But MediaMolecule's influence in LittleBigPlanet Karting is wholly apparent from the moment you fire up the LBP Karting Beta. It feels like LBP right away, and as soon as Stephen Fry's dulcit tones issue forth from your television's speakers, you start to feel a lot better about the game.
So it's completely geared around kart racing this time round - which isn't to say that there are LBPers out there who will probably find ways to make an LBPK first person shooter, difference engine or other crazy creation. But if (like me) you've been secretly pining for a remake of EA's Racing Destruction Set from way way back in the Commodore 64 days, then you might find a lot to love in LittleBigPlanet Karting.
After a brief introduction to LittleBigPlanet and its dry-weave hero Sackboy, you're up and running with your own LBPK Pod and your first kart (a rather simple looking soapbox derby kart). Like LBP, you can instantly set about customizing your sack character and its ride (and like LBP you don't get a whole lot of decorative options to start with, but more are obviously unlocked as you play Story Mode and start earning some in-game cash).
Fry works his magic on the tutorials as before, and these are a good starting point. Learning how karts handle, how to drift and how to deploy in-game weapons and defensive measures is fun and worth doing just to hear Mr Twitter himself making sweet love to your inner dictionary by telling you how to take a better racing line, or how to see off your opponents.
Once you're done with the tutorials you can dive into the gameworld itself, and tackle the first Story Mode races. Early on, it doesn't really matter that your kart's a bit rubbish, races are fairly low-end and easy to win. What you do get in the story mode levels is a deep insight into just how bloody pretty the game is and how you're going to be able to build your own tasty tracks in no time at all once you start delving into the game's all important creative side.
With that, you can dive out to check on your Earth and Moon - your publishing area and your development area.
Clicking on a blank moon 'crater' lets you take a look at the game's powerful and intuitive editor and it's right about here where I got hopelessly hooked on LBP Karts. Stealing all the best bits from ModNation Racer's rather lovely track creation mode, LBPK's editor is a work of genius and has more than enough tools and goodies to keep LBP OCDers happy.
Laying down a track is as easy as rolling paint on a wall. In fact you use a paint roller to 'paint' your track layout initially. Driving the roller is intuitive and simple, but it's the all-important tweaking that takes place afterwards that can really mark your creation out as something special.
Terrain can be raised and lowered to add dips and hills to your track. Individual track pieces can be tweaked and all sorts of lumps, jumps and stunt opportunities can easily be created from the set of tools you're provided with in the beta.
You can also add interesting environmental features like water and lighting to tailor your track to your own tastes.
Testing it out either on your own or against a set of bot opponents gives you an idea of how well it will play, and where you need to make adjustments. Like LBP, you can draw custom shapes with any of those familiar old materials you remember from the LBP series, plus a few new items too.
Be warned though, it's a massive time sink just like LBP was and it's not something for lightweight casual gamers if you're after creating something fairly complex. If you just want to slap down some road and race on it, you can create something very quickly but getting the best results from the editor takes time - not because the tools are complicated and fiddly to use (they're excellent - even if you've never 'played' LBP before) but mostly because you've got so many options, it's sometimes difficult to know what aspect to focus on. Still, a large set of toys to play with straight out of the box is far better than having to work around your solutions and simplify them to fit the game, so it's not worth moaning about really.
The all important aspect that let ModNation Racers down was the handling. It felt too slippery and slidey and frame rates seemed to be all over the place. So far in the LBPK Beta I haven't encountered any framerate issues or tearing, and the kart handling model feels beautifully tweaked. Just on the edge of being a physics-based marvel, with enough arcade props to make it a fun experience too.
Like just about every other Kart Racer out there, the powerups in LBP are standard fare but obviously there's scope to tweak these later on too. Needless to say, the whole thing is wrapped up with a rather tasty online community of players who are already knocking together some excellent tracks and ideas, and online multiplayer modes are going to be immense fun once people start creating and sharing.
So there you have it. Although it's a beta, it's already feeling like another great addition to the LBP universe and it's also already the best thing United Front have ever been involved with. For all those of you who (like me) struggled to build top-down racers in LBP2, this is pretty much the answer to all your prayers.
LBP Karting will be available from 9th November 2012.