LittleBigPlanet Karting: A second chance at kart racing stardom

Modnation Racers was poised to lap the entire kart-racing genre. Sharing LittleBigPlanet’s emphasis on user-generated content, Modnation promised endless content. For everyone raised on Super Mario Kart’s five meager cups, track customization seemed a dream come true, and Modnation Racers was boosting for user-generated gold.

It spun out on its own banana peel.

United Front Games, developer of Modnation Racers, is set to release LittleBigPlanet Karting in November. The licensing move makes perfect sense: Modnation was already considered LittleBigPlanet on wheels, and the addition of LittleBigPlanet’s beloved mascot Sackboy gives the game some much-needed curb appeal. But United Front have serious hurdles to overcome.

Half-mile style

Even since Super Mario Kart first shelled players in ‘92, platformer star power has inspired kart racers’ colorful tracks. The combination works flawlessly: cartoon vistas and characters complement zany on-track action and allow players to further explore their favorite sidescroller locales.

As a brand new developer with no appealing intellectual property, United Front Games had to create their own world for Modnation Racers. And they sorta botched it.

United Front created an original style, with characters reminiscent of vinyl collector’s toys riding in squat semi-realistic cars. The do-it-yourself design ethos offered the chance to customize and outfit your character however you wanted.

Unfortunately, characters often looked awkward due to the squat, long-armed base models. The community quickly began cloning characters from other games to race with, but the majority of these ended up as half-baked approximations.

With LittleBigKart, United Front are in a much better position. Sackboy’s already a tried-and-true gaming icon and provides a great template for customization. Unlike the smooth and soulless vinyl toys in Modnation Racers, sackboys and girls have texture and charm. And they seem to be more stylistically flexible, occasionally leaning toward a Jim Henson or Tim Burton look when appropriately customized.

Track mania

The characters may have been a little boring, but Modnation’s level design was incredibland. United Front’s creation tools were great for creating tracks, but they failed miserably at creating worlds. Typical kart racers touch on exciting platformer hallmarks: racers draft past prehistoric beasts, powerslide through ice caves, and hop lava gorges in crumbling castles.

In Modnation Racers, there’s grasslands, dirt paths, beaches, and city streets. None of the levels feel stylistically realized. One grasslands level features a castle, but the castle only acts as a background prop. There’s a beach with a destroyed ship, but you only drive under it for a few seconds. The city levels settle for looking like a real-world metropolis. Oh look, you can see the ocean in the background, along with some cranes. Joy.

Ignoring that the prop-based scenery feels tacked in, how are these interesting areas to race through? Where are the treetop hops, the halloween hell-paths, the zero-g space races?

Kart racers are defined by their outlandish tracks: Ghost Valley, Papu-Papu’s Pyramid, Hot Top Volcano. People play them to get away from realism and drift into another world. Levels in Modnation Racers aren’t even inspired for what they are. They’re dingy, dry, and dull; green, grey, and brown.

LittleBigKart has a little more color overall, but early videos make the game’s hues look dark and muted. Levels are more thematically varied- if the tools are capable of LittleBigPlanet’s level of customization, a talented modding community could come together to make some pretty special level designs.

The Modnation community never hit their stride, with too many Mario Kart clone levels and corkscrew tracks made for infinite drifts. Hopefully a team-up with the LittleBigPlanet community will result in some really substantial content.

Weak weapons

Super Mario Kart’s weapons are diverse. Banana peels sit, shells shoot, and mushrooms boost. Feathers hyperhop, stars protect, and lighting bolts shrink. There’s some small overlap, but each item has its own niche.

In Modnation Racers, every attack item does the same thing. Instead of stark differences between items, they have differences between tiers. The game appropriates Diddy Kong Racing’s multi-tiered item system, where holding onto an item lets you level it up at the next pickup balloon.

Except United Front got it completely wrong.

In Diddy Kong Racing, each item has its own identity. When you level up your item, you receive the next tier of that item type. Boosters last longer, rockets home, and dropped items become more treacherous. In addition, each item has its own balloon color, so you have to decide between holding out for that double boost or picking up some rockets for quick revenge.

In Modnation Racers, every attack works according to its tier: level 1 is straight shot, level 2 is homing, and level 3 is all-out attack. The only functional difference between them is that the level 3 Sonic Boom is better than everything else.

There’s no thrill. Diddy Kong Racing lets you strategize to some extent, choosing which item you want. Mario Kart gives the tension of chance, your placement determining what you really want and what you’ll likely get.

Modnation has the worst of all worlds. Since every weapon can do everything, they’re all boring. Diversity is nil. The sonic boom is the lightning is the rockets. An item balloon’s potential is limited to attack or boost.

LittleBigKart claims to let players modify items and even game modes, allowing for a slew of unique items. Modders can figure out for themselves which items work well and which don’t, tweaking weapon sets until they’re perfectly chaotic. Or maybe the items will be perfect to start with, and the community can work out how best to ruin a beautiful thing.

Ready? Set? ………………………………………………Load!

Modnation Racers load times are ridiculous. Despite previous gripes, Modnation Racers would be pretty enjoyable if not for the load times. They’re enormous. They’re constant. You could count to ten as Modnation makes that final chug from 99% to 100%.

It’s a racing game. Shouldn’t it be fast?

The load times are somewhat understandable. Modnation Racers was United Front’s first game. All the custom design tools probably strained the team. They had priorities- they needed to push custom content to differentiate themselves, and they probably just lacked the time and money to meet their ambitions.

The load times are still absolutely bananas.

Booting up the game, there are at least five loading screens before you can possibly play. Two are stunningly long, so long that extra loading icons pop up in the meantime. Expect to waste two to five minutes every time you boot up the game, and a minute or two when switching levels. In a genre meant to be played with friends, this is dealbreaking.

And then there’s loading within levels. Whenever a rocket hits your kart, the screen fades to a red loading screen before placing your kart back on track. It completely breaks the game’s pacing. A shame.

LittleBigKart will extend the LittleBig brand, and Sony’s unlikely to let long loads tarnish the franchise. United Front have stated that gamers will be pleasantly surprised by the load times in LittleBigKart. Hopefully they’re entirely agreeable, not just mostly acceptable.

Sonic boom

Even if LittleBigKart drifts donuts around Modnation Racers, United Front faces one hell of an uphill battle. Sega plans to release Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed a mere two weeks after LittleBigKart, with a roster of classic characters that reads like a love-letter to nostalgic fans. Sonic the Hedgehog races against Jet Grind Radio’s Beat, Golden Axe’s Gilius Thunderhead, and Skies of Arcadia’s Vyse in an outstanding show of fanservice.

Transformed brings with it a cherished feature of Diddy Kong Racing: the ability to race in karts, hovercrafts, and airplanes. While Mario Kart 7 tried aerial and underwater karting recently, those features felt tacked on. They didn’t offer the diversity of play that developer Sumo Digital is touting for Sonic Racing Transformed.

To handle the extra work of adding hovercraft and airplane racing, Sumo has hired ex-members of defunct racing developers Bizarre Creations and Black Rock Studio, who worked on Blur and Split/Second, respectively.

Wait. We’ve been here before.

Blur and Split/Second released within a week of each other, leading to consumer confusion that cannibalized sales of both titles. Both racers were arcade racers heavily infused with kart racing sensibilities, and simultaneous releases diluted their identity.

Modnation Racers was released that same week.

Because it was a straight kart racer, Modnation seems to have come out ahead. It didn’t have to struggle for first in a new arcade/kart racing subgenre. With Sonic Racing Transformed, history repeats. And this time, the playing field has levelled out.

Sonic Racing Transformed has a multi-console advantage, but the battle for PS3 players favors LittleBigKart. By releasing earlier and appealing to Sony fan loyalty, LittleBigKart may just leave Sonic Racing Transformed in the dust for single-console sales.

No matter what, though, it’ll be good to see some healthy karting competition this November. Mario’s been getting fat on his karting throne- we could use another Diddy Kong or Crash Team Racing-style shakeup to the genre, and nobody’s better positioned to dethrone the plumber than Sonic and Sackboy. Hopefully they don’t spin out in the process.

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