Much like the already-previewed PS3 version, this game feels very much like a blend of Mario Kart and LittleBigPlanet. While the customisation options aren't as deep as the larger console, and it's lacking the auto-populate function in the track studio, there's still plenty to play with. Soon after starting the game, I found myself lost in a sea of choices, most of which need unlocking.
Career mode appears to be the best way to unlock new options, and the characterisation added by the story is quite endearing. You play as "Tag", a former graffiti artist now getting into customising and racing karts. The cutscenes are all done in the same cutesy-3D style as the rest of the graphics, and the plotline is oddly compelling. The unlocks themselves are dependent on your performance, each race having three "career goals" to aim for, with increasing difficulty and bonuses for bronze, silver, and gold. The bronze target is almost always "third place or better" with no extra goals, but the tougher challenges offer silver and gold unlocks. There are also "Modjobs", which are a little like trophies, and also unlock items when achieved.
When racing in career mode, or in "action race" mode, there are various pickups placed on the track. Most of these are weapons, with the exception of the nitro boost. These pickups are randomised, in both type and upgrade level, making for some tense moments when you're coming last and pick up a mine. Some higher-level weapons, along with the hazards found in some stages, can destroy karts, forcing a reset. This also happens when you fall off the track.
In addition to weapons, there are boost abilities. You increase the boost gauge with certain actions during the race, such as drifting, and landing 360+ spins during a jump. This boost power can then be used for a speed increase, a shield, or for a "takedown" attack. Takedowns come in two varieties, "sideswipes", which work when you're alongside an opponent, and "stomps", area-effect takedowns which can only be performed while airborne. That isn't as hard as it sounds, however, as there's a "hop" ability you can use at any time, along with a "super-hop" when you double tap the button. Takedowns become more important when there's an elite racer on the track, as "first place and elite takedown" is a common gold target. It also unlocks a "grudge match" - a head-to-head race against the character, whose likeness and kart are unlocked if you win. This aspect is incomplete in the build I played, with some unlocks unavailable.
It's important to note that this doesn't feel like a PS3 game wedged into a portable format. The sensitivity is perfect for the hand-held system, and each function has an appropriate place in both available control schemes. The customisation likewise feels built for the PSP, not scaled back from a more powerful system. Emphasising this impression, load times are practically non-existent, even compared to many PSP-exclusive titles. The game frequently moved on before I could read the tips on the loading screen.
Unfortunately, the preview code isn't online-enabled, so there's no sense of community yet. With the game as playable and as customisable as it already is though, there's bound to be a lot of interesting player-generated content showing up (and getting deleted for copyright violations). LittleBigPlanet set the stage, and United Front have definitely run the idea in a new direction. There's a lot of freedom when customising your kart and Mod (the people are called Mods, nobody explains why).
In addition, track building is some of the most user-friendly I've ever seen in a level editor, even without the apparently PS3-exclusive "autopopulate" command. The game automatically loops from wherever you place the starting line, and the standard driving controls allow you to redirect the track, pave what you've lined up by accelerating, and undo changes by reversing. You can raise mountains, lower land into lakes, plant trees and buildings, and modify the appearance of the level to the limits of your imagination with only a handful of button-presses. The simplicity and depth of the system are impressive.
It seems likely that this portable version will gain a niche following when it's released on May 21st this year. Definitely one to watch out for if you've grown weary of the many other racing titles available for the PSP and you're after something a little different.