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game review

Simplicity is ultimately the name of the game. You can get by with knowing only two buttons: accelerate and shoot. It does help, however, if you learn two more: the grapple-hook button and brake.United Front Games, Santa Monica Studio

If the idea of a little cloth doll racing around in a tiny car with shirt buttons for wheels across chocolate-covered candy land sounds like absurdist fun, LittleBigPlanet Karting is probably the game for you.

Weird? Oh yes, but LittleBigPlanet games have always been odd. Indeed, weirdness is at the heart of the franchise's charm as it arms players with the tools they need to make their own levels, thereby challenging them to be as odd as they want. Hallucinogenic candy lands are only half the story – LittleBigPlanet Karting makes it possible to get much, much stranger.

As per usual, players take on the role of Sackboy, the mute cloth protagonist, as he makes his way through various adventures in Craft World, a whimsical fantasy land made from textiles, found objects and yes, even desserts.

But rather than running and jumping through a traditional side-scrolling LBP platformer, this time Sackboy takes the wheel of a go-kart to race against The Hoard, a group of mischievous gremlins intent on stealing Craft World's treasure in order to, well, hoard it.

Vancouver's United Front Games has brought its karting expertise, honed from its own ModNation Racers series, to the LittleBigPlanet world, started by U.K.-based Media Molecule. While the U.K. studio isn't majorly involved in this release, make no mistake, it's very much an LBP game with the same look and feel. The same British narrator guides players through the main story mode.

The beauty of the karting genre is that, unlike traditional racing games, anybody of any age can pick them up and play. Racing through the various circuits requires almost as much luck as skill, since there are any number of power-ups to grab along the way. Sackboy must arm himself with guided missiles, turbo boosts and deflector blasts if he's to finish in each race's top three, which he needs to do to continue on.

Simplicity is ultimately the name of the game. You can get by with knowing only two buttons: accelerate and shoot. It does help, however, if you learn two more: the grapple-hook button and brake.

In a regular racing game, one bad turn or crash usually means you might as well restart the race. But in LittleBigPlanet Karting , you can go from last place to first in a heartbeat if you find a shortcut or happen to pick up the right power-up, like say fast-forward, which zips you right up to the lead. Of course, your opponents also have the same opportunities, so there is some strategy involved as to which power-ups to go for and when to use them.

Strategy becomes even more important as you advance through the seven worlds. The difficulty and zanyness ramps up, with racers eventually having to make use of grappling hooks to avoid hazards such as killer electrical fields or toxic goo blocking the track. The game gets downright hard in the higher levels as opponents get smarter and the courses deadlier; I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I had to dial down the difficulty level to "casual" just to make it to the end.

Spicing up the standard circuit races are a number of different modes, such as the battle arenas. There's no racing in these, just all-out warfare between Sackboy and his opponents, with the goal being to rack up as many hits as you can.

There are also checkpoint races, where you have to get to the finish line before the clock runs out, as well as optional co-operative levels where several players can take part at the same time. Rounding out the experience are several "boss battles," which serve as nice diversions from the standard action by offering a mix of racing and combat. The game also has a host of multiplayer modes, where you can do virtually everything online with up to seven other friends that you can do in the single-player game.

Regardless of mode, the action is fast-paced, colourful and frenetic, with imaginatively designed levels ranging from futuristic space-funk settings that would make Bootsy Collins proud to a final world made of trash. Spirited and uplifting music, another trademark of the franchise, adds to the quick pace and the freakish feel of the environments.

If there's one knock against LittleBigPlanet Karting , however, it's that the soundtrack isn't quite as high-energy as in previous games. Still, taking all the elements together, it's hard not to be charmed by this odd, odd world.

Of course, it wouldn't be a LittleBigPlanet game without full customization. Every detail of SackBoy and his ride can be fiddled with to the player's liking. New parts, costumes and decorations lay in wait around the various tracks, with some being hidden in hard-to-reach areas, which adds to the replay value for players who really want to tinker.

You can stick with the standard appearances for Sackboy and his ride – modifying them in any way is purely cosmetic and doesn't affect on-track performance – but it looks so much cooler when he's wearing a giant Inca headdress while driving a skull-faced vehicle. And what the heck, you might as well throw in a choo-choo train horn for good measure.

The on-track prizes really come into play with the game's level editor. As with other entries in the series, this is the probably the best and easiest-to-use level editor in games today. There are simple video tutorials explaining every aspect of making your own tracks, from basic terrain building to advanced colouring and decorating. I had a decent track finished in about 10 minutes.

The create-share-play feature, where players can upload their creations online, is the secret to LittleBigPlanet's success. Previous games in the series have amassed millions of such player creations and there will doubtlessly be many for Karting as well, making LittleBigPlanet one of the best bangs for your buck.

You may finish the story mode and eventually tire of the wacky tracks built into the game, but it's unlikely you'll ever run out of new tracks and the inevitable weirdness they'll bring.