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Hands-on preview: LittleBigPlanet Karting

May 02 // Dale North
LittleBigPlanet Karting (PS3)Developer: Sony Publisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleases: 2012  At its core, LittleBigPlanet Karting is exactly what you'd expect from the name. Exactly. And that's likely a good thing. It's super-approachable kart racing action (Mario Kart fans would be right at home) with the design and user-created content you'd expect from this franchise. This means that you'll be busting off attacks on fellow racers from pick-up weapons while hugging corners in a struggle to stay at the front of the pack. It's fast and really easy to get into. But Karting goes beyond simple racing with several different game modes. Much like the LBP games, there are worlds to explore, and this opens up greatly with user-created courses. Beyond this, we were told to expect battle modes, waypoint races, treasure hunts, score attacks and more.  Customization in LBP Karting works just as it does in the previous series games, so much so that the Popit interface is exactly the same. Through this your Sackboy racer can be anything you imagine, as always, but now your vehicle can be customized just as easily. I saw karts made out of straws and tape, potted plants, and even cupcakes. I played a few rounds as "breakfast boy," which had hash browns for a body, bacon for a mustache and beard, and an egg shell as a hat. He drove a rusted tin can with tank wheels as a kart. He managed to be both gross and cute. I tried the standard kart racing in a stage that was inspired by a garden from the first LittleBigPlanet game, and from the looks of it the flat worlds of the series seem to make the transition to full 3D nicely. The kart racing felt decent, though maybe a bit simple. Some vehicles felt a bit lacking in weight and grip, with Sackboy and his ride seeming to move a bit farther off the track than expected. It may just be the Mario Kart fan in me, but I found myself sighing when I lost control of my kart. On the upside, a good drifting mechanic was put into Karting, with long slides building up tire fire to put karts into a boost coming out of a turn. Through this, after getting the hang of it, I was easily able to make my way to the front of the pack without needing to use any powerups. On my second run through of the same stage I used Karting's "weaponators," which let me pick up weapons to make the race a bit easier. There's the standard seeking shot, but the rest temporarily transform your kart into something a bit more powerful. One transforms your kart into a rocket, letting you blast past the competition. My favorite turned the kart into a huge flying boxing glove, letting me punch other racers out of the way. LittleBigPlanet Karting's deathmatch battle mode can be played locally or online with up to 8 players. I tried my hand at the circular King's Castle course, whic ended up being a weapon-packed free-for-all. It was so fast that I was barely able to keep track of what I was firing, but I managed to do rather well by randomly lobbing grenades and blasting other racers with area-effecting EMP shots. My second time around I found that I could turn my cart to skid into a near-continuous power slide, snapping up weapons and blasting off quick shots along the way. I can already tell you that this mode is going to be a big hit.  Another standard racing stage called Future Perfect showed off one of Karting's neatest additions to the genre, grappling hooks. It sounds crazy at first, but the grappling worked nicely on this course, with too-long jumps being closed by the well-timed shot of a hook (L1 button) to a sponge, letting the driver pull and fling his way to the desired landing point. Smart hooking and releasing can help uncover alternate paths, and directional control after a hooked jump will let you perform tricks. While the grappling mechanic is a welcome addition to kart play, the level it was featured in was a bit of a mess. Proper landings felt like luck with all of the confusing, overlapping pathways, and in the same vein, races seemed like a free-for-all, with no optimum pathway to take. Some frustrating, unbalanced course design forced too many racers down some pathways, causing catching on some sidewalls.  With United Front Games at the helm, it's safe to assume that some form of the ModNation Racers engine is under the hood for LittleBigPlanet Karting. That's not a bad thing, mind you. This game seems like the obvious progression, unifying the solid racing action of ModNation and LittleBigPlanet's brand of user-created content. Given their track record, and considering the ties to the LBP franchise, we can be sure it's going to be fun to create in Karting. Let's hope that they can shape up the actual gameplay to match.
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LittleBigPlanet Karting came power sliding in at a Sony press event last week. William Ho, design director at United Front Games, said that the development team put their experience in racing games (they also made ModNation R...

Review: ModNation Racers: Road Trip

Feb 13 // Jim Sterling
ModNation Racers: Road Trip (PlayStation Vita)Developer: SCE San Diego StudioPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: February 15, 2012 MSRP: $29.99 ModNation Racers: Road Trip is notably stripped down from the very beginning. While fellow Vita title Uncharted: Golden Abyss uses the system's powerful hardware to present an authentic console experience, Road Trip uses the handheld medium as an excuse to be as flat and flavorless as possible. Gone are the vast online hub world and sense of exploration that stood out as the original's strongest features. In fact, head-to-head online multiplayer has been scrapped altogether. The world of Road Trip is a linear and restricted one, consisting of a series of almost static screens in which players access community content, build their own racers, and run a variety of solo challenges or local multiplayer races. When it comes to multiplayer competition, the best players can do is download time trial data from others (either online or through NEAR) and race against their ghosts. Head-to-head online racing was such a big part of ModNation Racers that its exclusion is puzzling at best and a glaring lack of effort at worst. To its credit, Road Trip attempts to at least emulate its console predecessor when it comes to user-created content. The toolset used to build one's racers, vehicles, and tracks are robust and closely resemble the full range of toys available on the PlayStation 3. Whatever players want to make, there is a huge amount to customize, with lots of unlockable gear available through playing races or by collecting tokens to spend on random items. Customization is done using the touch screen, allowing players to browse the many menus and to apply colorful stickers using their fingers. This new input works in some situations -- such as drawing out a race track in real-time by touch alone -- although the small, densely populated menus and difficulty in seeing where an object is being placed under one's hand can result in frustration and inconvenience, making the interface come off as needlessly forced in place of adequate button commands. By far, it by works best in track building, where the power to grow mountains by pressing behind the Vita system is intuitive and rather inspiring. When it comes to making anything else, more traditional controls will always work better. Road Trip's creation options are further held back by prominent input lag that infests every single menu item. Whether choosing a new helmet for one's racer or browsing the available paint jobs for a new car body, there's a marked delay between making a selection and getting a response. While it's not quite as sluggish as attempting to download pornography on a dial-up connection, it's a significant, consistent issue that's hard to ignore. Creations can once again be shared online, and players are able to download tracks, racers, and cars that have been built by others. These features closely resemble those found on the PS3, with simple browsing options allowing users to find the most popular creations and provide personal ratings. Yet again,though, the lack of a hub world and the focus on dull, dreary menus takes a lot of the excitement out of the proceedings. The extra wonder and fun of player interaction has been replaced with a whole lot of boring browsing through unresponsive menus. When it comes time to finally race, Road Trip provides the bare minimum required to qualify as a videogame. There's a career mode and standalone single-player races alongside the limited multiplayer options, but none of them are very enthralling. Races against the A.I. bear many of the same rubber banding issues found in the console version, although the frequency and devastation of power-ups have been reduced significantly. This is a small comfort when faced with the fact that ModNation's gameplay is, at heart, still a fairly tepid mimicry of Mario Kart with very little improved over its larger, more substantial console cousin. When repetitive races against aggressive, rubber-banding A.I. is the best action that most Vita users can hope for, there's not a lot to keep one coming back. This has a direct impact on everything else that Road Trip offers, since what's the point in lovingly creating a hot new car when the chance to see it in action is so restricted to be mostly unenjoyable? Career races reward players with unlockable new mods should they perform specific in-game challenges, but since the joy of modding has been crippled by the races themselves, the rewards don't prove a significant enough draw. The simple pleasure of crafting a new character and cruising around the online hub to show it off is gone, as is the ability to see it racing alongside the characters of fellow players. If ModNation Racers was an orgy of user-created content, its Road Trip follow-up is mostly an extended masturbation session. All this is topped off by the game's worst aspect: its complete and utter hideousness. By far the ugliest PlayStation Vita title available at launch, racetracks feature washed-out colors and sparse environments while characters appear jaggy and textureless. The frame rate is thoroughly abysmal to boot, with the engine apparently struggling to keep even the smallest of races chugging along at a consistent pace. In stark contrast to the gorgeous and colorful world presented on the PS3, Road Trip is barren and unpleasant to look at, and I certainly hope that it does not become anybody's first impression of what a PlayStation Vita can do. If this is the initial experience players have with a Vita, they'll wonder why they didn't just stick with a PSP. The poor visuals are doubly galling when you note that Road Trip copied one major issue from the original game -- lengthy loading times. Yes, San Diego Studio couldn't bring us online multiplayer, but it could ape that particular feature. Loading times on the PS Vita can be substantial, but Road Trip is the biggest offender of all the games I've played so far -- games with far superior visual and aural effects, I should add. To go from Uncharted to this is like waiting half an hour for a hamburger after Gordon Ramsey whipped you up a steak in ten minutes. By far the most blatantly rushed cash-in attempt of all the PS Vita launch titles, ModNation Racers: Road Trip is to be avoided at all costs. With horrid visuals, dawdling menus, and threadbare features, this lazy piece of software insults the system it is supposed to help showcase. In fact, I'd say its existence could be directly harmful to the Vita, given how it's one of the bigger titles available at launch and makes the Vita look like it's only capable of producing garbage. With superior offerings available when the Vita hits store shelves, this is one waste of time that can and should be avoided.
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ModNation Racers is very much an "odd one out" when it comes to Sony exclusives. It has the "build anything" mantra of LittleBigPlanet but remains tied to a single genre of game -- a genre that LittleBigPlanet itself is plann...

Modnation Racers: Road Trip is better with touch controls

Oct 22 // Abel Girmay
Modnation Racers: Road Trip (PlayStation Vita)Developer: SCE Studios San DiegoPublisher: SCEARelease: February 22, 2012 For those unfamiliar, Modnation Racers is a the Sony exclusive kart racer with a heavy emphasis on creation and customization. Since the series' launch last year, there have been over 2,000,000 creations available and shared, with approximately 500,000 of those being tracks. Fans of the series will be pleased to know then that Road Trip will be able to access all of those creations, day one. You can't upload Road Trip creations for use on the PlayStation 3 or PlayStation Portable, though. The experience of playing a handheld game versus a console game is distinguished most notably by the fact that handheld experiences must be quick bursts of fun that are as immediately satisfying as they are deep. For a game like Modnation, this can prove a challenge as you can conceivably spend hours building and perfecting a custom track. For Road Trip, SCE San Diego is making smart use of the PS Vita touch screen functionality to lessen the amount of time spent building from hours to mere minutes. It starts with you choosing from a preset list of environments: jungles, island resorts, deserts and the like. After that, you simply draw the shape of the track from an overhead view of the environment. Just touch down on the screen to draw and you have a track designing in literally seconds. It's that simple.  From here, you can select the placement of finish lines, weapon drops, and boost pads just by selecting the option from the menu and touching the spot you want to place them at. Or you can use the auto-populate feature if you don't care to go too deep. There is also an option to use the Vita camera to make tracks out of what you've photographed. This was not demoed though, so I'm not sure how it works. Once you have a track laid out, you can manipulate the surrounding environment with touch fairly simply. So when I wanted to lay out a lake, I simply selected the option from the menu, traced onscreen the area that I wanted to place my lake in, and watched the terrain form in an effect reminiscent of From Dust. Road Trip also makes use of the back touch pad during track customization. When creating mountains for my track, I place my fingers on the back touch pad and rose the terrain with corresponding spots onscreen. When you have all the touch features working together, what you get is the ability to make complex and creative tracks in minutes. Creating tracks in Road Trip is streamlined, amazingly intuitive and easy to use all while retaining the richness and depth that the series has built its name upon.  While the touch controls shine the most in the track editor, they are also featured in the avatar and kart editor. Relegated mostly to Minority Report-style drag and drop, touch in the kart editor allows you to zoom in close and swap out kart components such as tires, suspension, spoilers, etc. In the avatar editor you use the touch controls in a similar manner, swapping out clothes and accessories. One cool feature though is Modnations' use of the the Vita's gyroscope. At anytime when customization a kart or avatar, you can shake the Vita to randomize your creation. It's not the most fascinating feature ever, but it's there and it works. Our demo of Modnation Racers: Road Trip also showed off the game's career mode, complete with over thirty tracks and events. If you like the series' take on kart racing already then you will feel at home here. Drifting and drafting are back and intelligent use of them is as important as managing your boost, shortcuts, and weapons. As I've said, I have never been interested in the whole motion/waggle/touch control craze of late. If every Kinect and Move controller suddenly vanished tomorrow, the evil leprechaun on my shoulder would probably break into a river dance. Road Trip, though, uses touch to great effect that further elevates the core gameplay of the series. Handhelds are about quick fun, and Modnation is about creating cool stuff. Road Trip's use of touch control supports both these design mantras and comes out the better for it.
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I am not a fan of motion gaming, waggle, touch screens, or other so-called "casual controls." It's not that I write them off the moment I see them. I just have yet to see a game that uses those control options to make the exp...


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