Since its inception, Sony have been looking for a mascot for the Playstation – someone, or something, that can act as their equivalent of Mario or Sonic, just without the dungarees. Back in the days of the Playstation 1, Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot were fighting tooth and nail to be recognised as “the one”, but in the end, they both lost out. Come the Playstation 3, Sony had tried five or six different characters, but none had garnered the widespread, mass appeal of Mario. And then along came Sackboy.
The star of make-your-own-game Little Big Planet, Sackboy has been an unassuming hit. With his teddy bear like stylings and large button eyes, he’s about as cute as a mascot could be – yet he’s proven a distinct hit with players of all varieties. With four games under his belt, it seems Sony have decided the time is right to see if Sackboy can sink or swim, as he tries to take on Mario at his own game, and reach out into other genres, with Little Big Planet Karting.
As you may have guessed from the name, Little Big Planet Karting is a racing game in much the same vein of Mario Kart, where you’ll spend most of your time racing around a variety of themed tracks, picking up weapons and chucking them at your opponents as you try to steal first. Unlike Mario Kart, however, the creative spirit of Little Big Planet is alive and well here - in fact, the very first thing you’ll do is create your own racer, and car from the ground up, with the ability to decorate everything with stickers and objects galore, as you design the car you want to drive.
Better yet, the vast majority of the game can be played with up to four players in split-screen, whether it’s in competitive multiplayer, or co-operatively as you play through the story portion of the game. Divided into a series of planets, each of which contains several events, you and your friends can race against a collection of mix-and-match baddie racers, who, in the context of the very vague storyline, are stealing everything from the world of Little Big Planet. To put everything back to normal, all you’ll have to do is come in one the top three positions over a series of races, to beat the badniks into shame.
But far from just racing, there’s more to Little Big Planet Karting than meets the eye. Scattered across each of the tracks, hidden in hard to reach places, are a collection of items in bubbles that you can collect as you speed round the courses. With stickers, bits of track, items of scenery, new costumes, karts, and much, much more waiting to be unlocked, hunting down all the unlockable items in each level is almost as big a part of the game as racing the tracks themselves. With the menu keeping track of the percentage of items you’ve collected from each track, it’s easy enough to find which levels you’re missing the last few items on, too, as you go back in to complete the collection.
The races themselves are as you’d expect from a kart racer in the vein of Mario Kart – packed full of weapons, twists and turns, and elaborate banks, loops, and even lifts in places, each track can be a pretty manic affair. Some of the later races even require you to swing across sections, Tarzan style, by holding the L1 button to attach a grappling hook when prompted. Along with the aforementioned collectables, scattered amongst each track are a variety of “weaponator”, which you can pick up to arm yourself with one of a variety of dastardly devices – whether it’s a mortar launcher, which can be used to hit enemies well ahead of you, a giant boxing glove you can ride that squashes anything in its path, or a simple homing rocket, that targets the car ahead of you.
Interestingly, much like in Mario, these weapons can also be used for defence. Any weapon you pick up can be fired either forwards, or backwards (by pulling down on the analogue stick), making them perfect for surprising someone about to overtake you, but also letting you block anything that’s incoming with a counter fired backwards. With a handy warning sign that pops up when you’re about to get a rocket up your backside, all you have to do is wait until it changes to a shield, then fire your weapon backwards to successfully block their shot. It’s a cool enough feature – but you’ll need to have a weapon in reserve.
But while every effort seems to have been made to make the game as easy as possible for children, families, and newer players to pick up and play (a lengthy tutorial explains everything you could ever need to know), one of the main problems with Little Big Planet Karting is that the difficulty seems to be all over the place. Playing in split-screen co-op on normal difficulty, we breezed through the first planet, but suddenly, come the second, things got a heck of a lot harder. Going from coming first by a country mile, within the space of two races, we found ourselves not able to come higher than sixth – which is a bit of a drastic difference.
As you have to come at least third in order to unlock the next race, we were initially a bit concerned that we may have reached the end of our journey in the game. Luckily, flicking through the menus, we found there was a difficulty below normal called “casual”, but, unfortunately, the game seems to go out of its way to make you feel bad for even thinking about choosing it. Described as being perfect for “younger players” (which, when you’re not exactly would we be classed as young, is a little bit patronising), we switched the difficulty down to casual - and still only managed second. Even the difficulty for the youngsters wasn't easy enough for us. As part of its continued shaming of those who dare to play on a difficulty other than normal, if you play on Easy, you also won’t be able to post your scores to the leaderboards, meaning instead of seeing how you compare to the rest of the world after finishing each race, you’ll instead be greeted with a message telling you to switch to normal to be able to post scores – basically, reminding you how much worse you are than those who play on Normal.
While the majority of your time with Little Big Planet Karting will be spent whizzing around the various tracks in races, there are a selection of other modes here for your perusal - although sadly, they’re something of a mixed bag. In the menu, each planet has a number of large patches sewn to it, which represent mandatory events you'll need to complete in order to unlock the next planet, along with a number of smaller patches, which represent optional time attacks, and other minigames. While nearly all of the large patches represent races, each planet appears to have at least one compulsory Battle mode thrown in for good measure. It's just a shame these battles aren’t that much fun. Pitting you against a collection of other racers in a compact, square arena, instead of a race to the finish, your goal is only to blow up as many of your opponents as possible before the time runs out. But much like the random difficulty spike that happens in the races when you reach the second planet, the battle mode in general is actually incredibly tricky. With so many racers, and so many weapons, you’ll be lucky to stay alive for more than a few seconds – at least, that is, unless you discover our special trick. Having made several attempts at clearing the battle stages, we were about to give up in frustration, when we decided on a change of strategy. Rather than scrambling to find a weapon, then running off, trying to line up a shot, and undoubtedly getting hit by something before we have chance to fire, all you have to do is drive around in a circle in the middle of the arena, firing your weapon as soon as you get it. Monopolising the weapons (after all, once you’ve picked it up, no-one else can), this seems to be the de facto way to win at the battle mode – which is a bit of a shame, as it kind of shows it’s not all that much cop.
However, by far the best part of any Little Big Planet game is in the creativity, and here Little Big Planet Karting doesn’t disappoint. Along with the aforementioned ability to craft your own racer and kart, the game also comes with a fully featured level editor, letting you create the track of your dreams from the countless bits and bobs the game provides. It’s surprisingly easy to use, and incredibly powerful, too – if you choose, you could put together a fairly simple track, and be zipping around it against computer players in the space of five minutes. Choose to go that little bit deeper, though, and you’ve got the tools at your hand to make levels every bit as intricate – and in many cases more – than the ones the developers themselves have provided. It never ceases to amaze just how creative some people are, and with games like Little Big Planet Karting, it’s the creativity of the community that'll keep you coming back. With the ability to play through other people’s levels, experience their tracks, and bookmark/save them if you really like them, Little Big Planet Karting essentially has a never-ending supply of tracks – at least, until the community moves on. Already, it’s populated with hundreds of courses, modes, and matches – and with new ones being added every day, there’s always a reason to pop back and check out the latest and greatest – or even add your own.
And perhaps it’s the creation aspect that will dictate how much fun you’ll get out of Little Big Planet Karting. If you’re looking for a four player game that family and friends will enjoy as much as a game like Mario Kart, then this probably isn’t the game for you – if only because of the difficulty level that jumps around all over the place, although it's certainly worth moving the difficulty down to casual if you want a slightly smoother ride (it’s also not as colourful, which is a shame). But if you’re the sort of person who loses yourself for hours with a good level editor (one of the staff at Everybody Plays is known for the hours she spends decorating cars on Forza, despite the fact she barely plays the racing part of the game), and if you love seeing what the rest of the world’s coming up with, then perhaps Little Big Planet Karting's well worth a flutter.