I think Déjà Vu is a perfectly acceptable reaction to have here.
After all, Sony's already published several ModNation Racers titles across their handhelds and home consoles. Banking on the same "Play, Create, Share" initiative, ModNation Racers was never really a direct competitor for Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet franchise, notably because it dedicated itself to the art of teeny-tiny go-karters with a thirst for bloody, er, wacky hijinx.
All that's out the window as Sony's directed ModNation developer United Front Games to take LittleBigPlanet to the mini-golf course for some safe and sane kart racing. Can the developer make good on Media Molecule's baby or is this the spin-off gamers desire? And do really need this game right now?
LittleBigPlanet Karting (LBPK) stars out much like every LBP game before it: with the imaginations of thousands of bored people. Of course, these people happen to sit behind the wheel, stuck in traffic. How meta would it be if you were playing LBPK in your car on a TV system? After a quick tutorial that teaches you the basics of drift-boosts and weaponry, both offensive and defensive, you'll be on the campaign trail, unlocking new track pieces and decorative items.
As you progress through the campaign, you'll get a fair bit of insight into the variety of tracks you can create on your own. You can set down hairpin turns followed by split paths and massive jumps. You can surprise racers with chasms wider than they can jump. Luckily, the Sack people can grapple-hook to the far side or float gracefully over shorter leaps.
Creators will quickly find that LittleBigPlanet Karting successfully melds ModNation and LBP building tools to establish a happy medium between the two franchises. I'm not much for creating my own levels, but I spent enough time to fiddle with my various unlocks and discover the different types of modes players can build for the rest of the community.
In particular, I grew quickly fond of checkpoint races that forced players to focus on good lines and smart power-up use. While you might reserve a healthy dose of brainpower for whacking other racers as they slide up next to you, checkpoint races require fine drift control and a determination not quite so evident in other modes.
You might not think LBPK can stand up to genre originators like Mario Kart, but i frequently found myself surprised by the game's single-player campaign and competitive multiplayer. I wouldn't say Karting surpasses Mario Kart in any one area, but it's more than competent and serves as an excellent base to grow from.
Most of this is thanks to the tight controls and incredible speed. Whipping around turns and burning rubber feel as satisfying as it does in high-watermark games like Mario Kart Double-Dash and Mario Kart DS. Flying over jumps and hitting other players with homing missiles isn't nearly as iconic as some of the best tracks or fan-favorite weapons in Mario Kart, but they act as balanced, entertaining stand-ins. "Homing Missile" or "Fast Forward" won't replace "Red Shell" or "Mushroom" in gaming's greater lexicon, but United Front Games should be commended for their work here.
What's more, weapons are incredibly balanced in all circumstances. If you're intent on being the leader of any online pack, you'll want to master defensive weapons quickly. SackBoys (and SackGirls) will be notified of incoming fire by an icon at the bottom of the screen. When that icon turns into a blue shield, it's time to fire backwards or drop a mine to defend. Of course, more powerful items aren't blockable, but clearly communicating proper timing to the player goes a long way towards balancing races.
I found a significant reduction in genre-staple rubber-banding as well. The first four racers must rely on excellent lines and smart weapon use to pass each other, while the slower half of racers will have powerful items at their disposal for an easy leg up.
I kept surprising myself with compelling finishes, engaging multiplayer gameplay, and a huge grin on my face. I respect much of LittleBigPlanet's style, but that doesn't mean it's for me. Media Molecule's arts and crafts style works perfectly in this genre, but United Front Games has smartly ditched the floaty controls and inaccuracy that's turned me off from LBP in the past.
Still, Karting feels more like an expansion pack than a brand new title in the franchise. Relegating the player's imagination to go-karting alone was a necessary step in taking the brand in new directions, but it also means the Wild West of amateur gameplay development remains settled in LBP2, and not Karting.
If you're a fan of wacky racers, LBPK will satisfy your itch on PlayStation 3, complete with Move support. Likewise, if you're a long-time LBP creator, I'm probably not capable of steering you away from Karting. Regardless, all gamers would do well to expect something less than LittleBigPlanet 2, but something more than they might expect from United Front and the ModNation series.