LittleBigPlanet Karting Preview: A Karting Contender

Joy decision.

In spirit, it was LittleBigPlanet Racing all along. United Front Games' 2010 DIY kart racer, Modnation Racers, was a charming if slightly unbalanced effort driven by the same 'play, create, share' philosophy that underpins Media Molecule's creations.

William Ho, design director at UFG, calls the studios "kindred spirits", beaming: "We love them. Hopefully they love us!" Ho loves lots of things. Karting, LittleBigPlanet, and LittleBigPlanet Karting, for starters, he gleefully tells a room of journalists. I kind of love his Tango-orange trainers.

Ho is infectiously, uncynically enthusiastic about everything in that American way jaded Brits cannot seem to muster unless they work in children's television. Or at Media Molecule, whose modus operandi is to find the little spark of joy in everything and share it with as many people as possible, joyfully.

LittleBigPlanet Karting is exactly what it sounds like. It's a competitive kart racing adventure, set in Sackboy's craft world. The entire game is "authentically LittleBigPlanet" through and through, says Ho. Making the point, all roads in-game lead from the familiar Pod.

Here, it's been upgraded to a cardboard spaceship, which can be explored, and in which your karts and characters can be customised in the millions of bizarre little ways we've come to expect.

Dragsters, monster trucks, flowerpots, tin-cans, cupcakes and bumblebees whizz by with cheerful randomness as the menus are fiddled to show what's possible. And then, at last, into the game.

There's a few playable stages to try out and the mechanics play out predictably but satisfyingly. You can drift with the shoulder buttons, holding as long as you dare to earn a boost; and power-ups litter the circuits, with guns, homing missiles, grenades, close-range stun attacks and such like.

There's a Boxing Glove that works like Bullet Bill in Mario Kart, launching you forwards and knocking out anyone in the way. And true to the spirit of LittleBigPlanet, you can slap other racers with L2 and R2 - a touch Ho is so pleased with he looks like he might burst.

There's a Battle Mode circuit, King's Castle, for eight-way competition, though the demo is strictly single-player only versus AI. It's a tight space that forces karts into each others' paths, with tight navigation and a killer-aim useful skills to possess.

Finally, there's an original-themed race inspired by the World's Fair of the '20s, called Future Perfect - a track in the sky. Here, the game's secret weapon is revealed: the grappling hook.

Migrating over from the platform to the racing genre, it becomes your kart's means of latching on to objects to swing across great gaps in the circuit. But it's the wider possibilities in level creation that could make this a particularly canny addition.

Ho promises that LittleBigPlanet Karting will ship with the same set of level design tools his team uses to make the levels. And everything from kart and power-up parameters, to the behaviour of AI (which will please those irked by the injustices of Modnation), can be played with.

The bare bones for a potentially brilliant kart racing game are there, but there's still plenty of work to be done under the bonnet.

Significantly, this is LittleBigPlanet in a 3D world for the first time. So the normal rules of karting need not apply. "Already we've had people experiment with shooters, carnival games, and even slot machine," Ho reveals.

"People are also paying homage to certain scenes in movies and TV shows, and recreating classic arcade games from the '80s and '90s. You can switch the controls and the camera, so there's no reason why you can't just about recreate any other racing game."

It would all be delightfully encouraging but for one nagging detail. Currently, it's just not running close to smoothly enough.

"This is still very much a work in progress," Ho acknowledges. "We're constantly optimising - we've a long way to go, but I'm sure we'll get there." Is the target to be locked at 30 frames-per-second? Ho whispers, in a tiny voice as small as Sackboy: "I'm not supposed to say…" then erupts into a nervous laugh, nodding.

Curse my British cynicism. But if sheer enthusiasm can help iron out the remaining creases, the project could not be in better hands. Or trainers.

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