When everybody talks about big things coming in tiny packages, little do they realize that it has never been more fitting than in the case of Media Molecule’s magnum opus debut, LittleBigPlanet. Everybody remembers the first time they saw this game – maybe when it was being announced at the GDC, or when it replaced tedious PowerPoint presentations at the Sony keynote at E3, or when they finally got their hands on a controller at one end and the game at the other – only to feel Cupid’s arrows turn their heart into a pincushion with each moment spent looking at one of the most endearing digital persona ever created. In the blink of an eye, PS3 loyalists were vindicated, even as Xbox 360 exclusivists suddenly started eying Braid with a disdain that they didn’t feel until that very moment, and the PC crowd – well, they just milled around with an air of open hostility, armed with voodoo dolls and wooden stakes, so what else is new?
Overnight, what started out as an indie console platform-er quickly ballooned into the flagship title for the PS3, with screaming fans proclaiming it as the first coming of the elusive “PS3 killer app” that was rumoured to be lurking in the wilderness right alongside Bigfoot, while Sony and the video game press repeatedly thrust choice buzzwords such as Game 3.0 and Multi-plane game play down our willing and well-lubed throats, elevating Sackboy to the lofty position of platform mascot. But with such unprecedented hype over the game, which passed around the “Play. Create. Share” mantra to enraptured audiences worldwide (yours truly sitting third from left in the front row), there was a little voice of doubt that constantly wondered whether it would actually pass muster when push came to shove.
And the quick answer to that simply happens to be: more than you would believe. LittleBigPlanet is probably what you’d get if a jute bag got knocked up by Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island and Michel Gondry, and then went to live with its rich uncle who trained it in the ways of the modern world. With a charm lifted straight from the golden age of platforming, LBP expands upon it across three planes of 2.5D, allowing the player to guide their Sackboys (and girls) over, under, through, in front of and behind the single side-scrolling plane that we’re all used to in our platform-ers.
While LBP’s core strengths lie in the Create and Share sections, which form the cornerstone of the over-hyped Game 3.0 design philosophy, the Play section, created by Media Molecule to serve as the pre-built levels for the game, is no slouch either. With over 50 levels spread across eight surrealistically themed areas – which include an African Savannah with monkeys, meerkats and crocodile-infested rivers, a Corpse Bride-slash-Dia De Los Muertos wedding affair in Mexico, a romp through the skyscrapers and construction yards of New York City, mind-numbing psychedelic adventures through Japan and India and finally, a confrontation with the evil boss in his frozen Siberian tundra hideout – LBP’s Play mode offers enough variety and rip-roaring fun to make the single player experience alone worth the asking price, especially when it ends up looking the way it does.
LittleBigPlanet is a visual treat unlike any other, firmly wedging its foot in the door of true videogame art before kicking it wide open and duking it out in an all-out brawl to take the throne. Every aspect of the game screams high-school diorama in 1080p HD – from everyday materials and trinkets being used to flesh out the worlds to the childishly adorable way everything is glued or wired together in a level. But that doesn’t mean that modern game-engine gimmicks like real time lighting and shadowing, high resolution texturemapping, etc. pack their bags and hitchhike their way home to Heavy Rain – LBP packs in enough HD goodness to punch the framerates in the gut at times, making even the mighty PS3 hardware sweat with the effort. Thankfully, though, these instances are few and far between and don’t prove to be much of an annoyance, except if you happen to be in a particularly tough section of the game.
In fact, for the first time since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Okami, I find myself replaying the game over and over just to look at the environments in greater detail, something that I hope most people would also end up doing – if not to ogle the graphical splendour around their Sackperson, then at least to grab all the collectibles, including stickers and prize bubbles with a whole lot of goodies in them. Once collected, the objects can be used to play addictive (and challenging) mini-games or to expand the toolset available in the Create mode. And if playing with yourself isn’t the sort of thing you want to be doing for long, then there’s always the option of dragging in three of your friends along on your adventure, locally or online via PSN. And unlike other experiences where you are asked to choose between co-operative and competitive multiple player, LBP adds in a mixture of both, allowing players to work together to solve puzzles, beat bosses and get through the game, in addition to playing against each other by seeing who can collect the maximum number of score bubbles and chain together multipliers.
Unfortunately, there are more than a few hurdles to get this working the way Media Molecule or us, as the players, imagined it. While it’s a great deal of fun making Sackboy jump, grab, swing, pull and emote his way through the various worlds, there’s a slightly sticky feeling to the controls, which may be the result of the pressure-sensitive controls that vary the intensity of the action depending on how hard a particular button is pressed. When thrown into a situation where Sackboy has to perfectly time a series of jumps, this off-by-a-microsecond jump usually ends up sending him to the big jute field in the sky. Imagine Braid without the pixel perfect controls and the handy time rewind feature and you’ll realize how maddening this can potentially get. Combined with the camera shifting in, out and sideways in a co-op game, it practically becomes impossible at times to get through some sections cooperatively without someone hanging a horseshoe over you for good luck.
To add insult to injury, and laugh derisively at you when you screw up, Media Molecule’s check-pointing system is nothing short of sadistic, especially in the later parts of the game. The player is just given three (on some very rare occasions, six) lives at each checkpoint. Even though the checkpoints are fairly well spaced through the levels, using up all your lives at a checkpoint forces you to restart the level from scratch, which is downright unacceptable in a modern platform-er. Since LBP isn’t a particularly difficult game to begin with, it can be shocking, painful and pretty damn infuriating when you’re forced to restart a level all over again simply because the floaty controls don’t really help you nail those pixel perfect jumps even by yourself, leave alone with friends in a co-op session.
Thankfully, if you’re fed up with Sackboy meeting his untimely demise thanks to Media Molecule’s design, you can show them who’s boss by becoming your own metteur en scène and unleashing the Steven Spielberg (or the Uwe Boll) within you. LBP’s Create mode has something for everyone – from the casual player who just wants to use it to give his or her Sackperson a whole new wardrobe, the tinkerer who just wants to kill time by creating random stuff like a giant pool where they can hang out with friends and all the way up to the hardcore professionals who spend hours upon hours creating mind-boggling stuff like Galaga or The Azure Palace. If you were planning to jump in and create awesome levels with just a few hours of work though, prepare to be disappointed, unless you happen to be a bloody genius at level design and are completely used to the LBP canvas and the Pop-It interface. So, yeah, sad, but it’s not going to be replacing your PowerPoint presentations anytime soon.
Clearly targeted at the hardcore user, excellent tutorials voiced by Stephen Fry notwithstanding, LBP’s Create mode won’t let you add your own pictures and audio or design a level without a whole lot of planning, considering that the Undo command is basically turns time backwards, so if you’ve progressed quite a bit into the design and suddenly figure out that a particular thing won’t exactly work, you’re left with no choice but to take down everything else until you get to the point where you added it in, even if the other components happen to be working great. If you’ve got a creative streak to you and are willing to invest the time, this could very well be the platform to start making those games you’ve always dreamed about. If not, well, you could just wait for someone else to make something cool and then download it to play or edit locally.
Which brings us to the Share mode of the game. Once you’ve managed to create your masterpiece, all you need to do is upload the level for others to download, rate and play, and if you’ve designed it in, others can just download prize bubbles containing your building blocks and start creating stuff of their own. Users who download your creations are asked to tag them with a choice selection of keywords and then “heart” it, which serves as the community approval meter. Unfortunately, Sony’s crazy censorship and moderation rules mean that there’s every chance your creation could get the axe online, especially if they think your content isn’t suitable for all ages or has derivative content that could be deemed copyrighted material, even if it necessarily isn’t both. And as for the 84,000+ levels that are supposed to exist online, they must reside on some server in the twilight zone, considering searches using the completely inadequate, barebones search engine doesn’t ever work the way it should.
In the end, while LittleBigPlanet isn’t the killer app that will redeem the PS3 platform, it’s a convincing argument to get a PS3 if you don’t already own one. Even without ever fiddling with the Create tools, Media Molecule has created an experience that not only provides a solid foundation via the story mode, but builds upon it with a robust tool-set that’s already being used to churn out inventive, fun and sometimes downright crazy content for the whole world to enjoy. Whether the game manages to create a paradigm shift as far as user-generated content goes or entrenches itself firmly in a niche market, what is sure is that this pretty much beats the crap out of any other game released in a long, long time when it comes to sheer creativity, making it one of the biggest milestones in the history of the PlayStation brand, if not game design as a whole.