As Sony's latest poster child for user-generated content, it's hardly surprising that people are already likening ModNation Racers to LittleBigPlanet. But it's not as similar as you initially suspect. Although United Front's PS3 game aims to do for kart racers what Media Molecule's did for platformers, allowing you to customise characters and cars before building and sharing your own tracks, it's approaching things from a markedly different perspective - letting you get things up and running extremely quickly with tools that favour accessibility over precision.
If LittleBigPlanet treated you like an engineer at times, showering you with the contents of a fulsome toolbox filled with nuts, springs and cantilevers, and asking you to consider projections, torque, and other slightly less than user-friendly notions, ModNation assumes you're an artist at heart - and not necessarily a particularly gifted one. Aiming to bring the easy fun of kart racing itself to the world of game design, most of its terrain and track tools take the forms of brushes, and all of them scale intelligently to the player's own personal levels of OCD.
Players start with a range of terrain backdrops, with a snowy mountain landscape revealed so far, and deserts and urban settings presumably waiting in the wings. The first thing to do is lay down a track, a process that involves driving a little character on a steamroller around the map. It's a sweet-natured design choice, and also a clever one, as the steamroller uses the same basic controls as the racer itself, so creating a circuit is a very similar experience to blasting around one. Elevation is handled equally intuitively, by pushing the right thumb-stick up and down, with the game engine automatically banking the tracks on turns.
That's not the only thing that's automatic. Zipping quickly from editor to test mode reveals that ModNation has also placed rudimentary textures for you, tarted up the starting line with lights and roadside detailing, and stuck down fencing. Any of these details can be subsequently altered by highlighting and tweaking with the modification controls, but it's nice to have the fiddly stuff out of the way at the start.
With a course designed, there's a range of simple track-editing tools, all of which more or less lock your design cursor to the roadway, whether you're painting in stretches of different surfacing - dusty sections, for example, make for slippier handling and devilish corners - or bringing areas of fencing in to create chicanes. Meanwhile, the landscape tools allow you to yank chunks of cliff wall and mountain ranges from the ground, dig out lake basins and fill them with water, or add roadside detailing, spraying down trees which then bounce cheerily out of the ground, painting in houses, and even adding a range of cartoon farmyard animals.
As with the rest of the game, although you can work with a broad brush for your first pass, it's a very simple process to then highlight individual objects and move or delete them, and the landscape tools wisely work around the track itself, meaning if you accidentally draw over the tarmac as you're planting forestry, ModNation will know not to put a Douglas Fir in the middle of your hairpin bend. Each landscape also has its own themed objects, and so within a few seconds of messing around with the mountainous backdrop, our developer had set up some nice Swiss chalets and a thick forest of pines. Enough to make you think of investing in a timeshare, really.
Being a kart racer, there's also a range of weapon drops to deploy, each of which can be laid down and then subsequently altered as necessary. United Front isn't willing to say much about what to expect so far, but we're shown some simple missiles, and a more complex system of collectable triggers - pick-ups that will allow you to squash enemies under a block, say, or open up a personal shortcut.
Building a fairly elaborate track, with a central lake, roadside houses, weaponry, and even an odd spray of wildflowers over the dusty sections (being the last day of E3, and the eight millionth runthrough of the demo, it's entirely possible our developer had long since lost his mind) takes a skilled player around 10 minutes, by the look of it, and jumping into it for a quick test circuit - a process which handily spawns some AI partners - reveals a speedy and confident racer, filled with explosive takedowns and plenty of physics chaos as karts smash into tyre walls and bounce off each other.
Away from the track, there's a wealth of vehicle and avatar design options, ranging from the ability to tweak everything from your engine type to the size and location of your character's nose. Racers themselves are based on the vinyl toy scene, an easy way of ensuring a strong sense of continuity between characters, while allowing a nice variety of customisations, and it's a lot more successful than the often slightly anonymous look of the landscapes and textures themselves. By no means ugly, ModNation's world has the slight blandness of a PC RTS from a few years ago, and while the approach will doubtless be less divisive than the patchwork handicraft stylings of LittleBigPlanet, the game may struggle to make much of a name for itself visually.
United Front isn't ready to talk about the sharing options yet, but the developers have suggested they're drawing a lot of inspiration from the idea of remixing: to lower the barriers to entry for players slightly fearful of building from scratch, there'll be a heavy emphasis on taking other people's tracks and karts - including those bundled in by the developers - and tinkering with them to make them your own. With online options and a fairly large campaign, then, ModNation Racers is looking quietly promising. A hint, perhaps, of the next generation of user-generated content, it's learnt from a few of LittleBigPlanet's mistakes, even if it can't hope to match its quirky sense of style.