It seems that no matter which developer is originally behind the game or what platform it’s on, if you have a cute character that stems from a cartoon-like universe, you’re going to try and produce a kart racing game! Just look at the popularity that Mario Kart has amassed over the years, with last year’s Mario Kart 7 for Nintendo 3DS being a standout title for that handheld platform.  It’s inevitable.  

The latest entry in this style of game comes to us from Sony who recently gave us a sneak peek at its upcoming LittleBigPlanet Karting.  Readying for release sometime this year on the PlayStation 3, Sackboy’s racing debut is being handled by United Front Games, the same studio that produced ModNation Racers a couple of years back. Obviously they know a thing or two when it comes to kart racing games.  Now the main question is: can they achieve repeat success with Media Molecule’s baby?

The answer appears to be a resounding yes!  We went hands-on with a three level demo from the game featuring two grand prix-style tracks and one taking place in a castle, all of which played in a battle arena setting.  It’s nothing revolutionary but United Front definitely flexes its racing muscles in these areas.

The first grand prix track is a traditional run around the LittleBigPlanet world while the second takes place on a track called Future Perfect.  This is a “what would United Front do if they thought up a LBP track?” approach.  It’s pretty neat with a lot of wide gaps that require you to shoot your grappling hook in order to reach across.  Time it right and you’ll avoid a crash.  Time it perfectly and you’ll access additional areas, packed with collectible orbs and power-ups that will assist you in getting the jump on opponents.

Then there’s the battle arena where the goal is to simply avoid getting hit by enemy fire while scrounging up whatever power-ups you can and collecting a few orbs in the process.  This was a lot of fun mainly because it’s easy to see where opponents are (even behind walls) and you can set up attacks accordingly.

All of these modes can be played via split-screen with up to four players or online through the PlayStation Network where the player line-up expands.  Very cool.

One of LittleBigPlanet Karting’s biggest features is what would you expect given Media Molecule’s original games – customization.  Here you can create your dream Sackboy (or Sackgirl) using a number of features and costumes and then take them online – or off – to compete against the world.  In addition, you can tweak items on your vehicles including ones made of fuzzy linen or straws to give them a more custom appearance.

The final game will also include some kind of track editor so you can share your roadside creations with the world and challenge them on your terrain.  We didn’t see this in action just yet so we don’t know how extensive they are.  Knowing United Front and their knack for making user creation tools, it should be quite impressive in the final product.

Gameplay works in the same manner as ModNation did but without the relentless difficulty to get in the way.  In fact, you can customize races however you please by adjusting AI, racers and other objectives, and you can then share your rules with others as you proceed through each event.  

The general control scheme works like most kart games, with a button set aside for jumping and drifting, power-up activations, and more.  Your vehicle handling is very smooth and the grappling hook works where needed with little prompts popping up when you need to use them.

As for appearance, United Front is definitely going for a presentation that’s in line with previous LittleBigPlanet efforts.  No further proof of that is needed outside of the Hub, which is set up similarly to other games.  You explore a world using an on-screen controller (directed by your Sack character), choosing your events and moving forward from there.  

The tracks are definitely inspired by the LBP universe, from the little floating bats that fly around on strings to the “fuzziness” of certain elements around the track.  The audio consists of mostly pleasant music, though some of it is kind of drowned out by the consistent engine noises.

Though LittleBigPlanet Karting may not look like it has much to offer, you really need to dig deeper to find its depth.  And it’s worth looking forward to, if not just for the customization alone.  The presentation is coming together quite nicely and the gameplay is excellent thus far (despite a few frame rate hitches), with the online features taking advantage of PSN the same way that ModNation does.  We’ll see how the game holds up as it revs towards its eventual unveiling at E3.  For now, though, consider us ready to race…