I wish I loved LittleBigPlanet. I wanted to. It's clever and confident, expressive and inventive. All the things you hope for in a new game. Yet I could only admire it from afar for the things it tried. Every attempt I made to snuggle up close and lose myself in its tactile universe was stymied by floaty, twitchy control and occasionally fussy level design. Whenever I tried to create something of my own, the creation suite overwhelmed me with a tangle of levers and connections that meant that all the great ideas in my head fizzled on the screen.
The game sold slowly but steadily, but the idealised dream of a vast fuzzy-felt community never really came to pass. The game clocked up a few million user levels shared, but once you remove the abandoned works in progress, half-finished doodles and levels designed to help players rack up Trophies without trying, it was clear that only a small percentage of those who bought the game ever really grasped the full potential of the design side of things. Most were content to rely on these few to make good on the concept's promise.
The temptation for a follow-up, you'd think, would be to pare things back, make it idiot-proof, box things in a bit more and make it easier for more people to make simpler things. What you lose in creativity, you gain in sheer volume of activity. The safe approach. It's to Media Molecule's credit that instead it has stuck to its guns and continued its expedition ever deeper into the jungle of user-defined content, knocking down the partition walls marked "Platform Game" and allowing everyone to make any kind of game they please.
With the UK beta trial for the game now well underway, we're starting to see how LittleBigPlanet 2 might fare in the wild. The cardboard and cloth look remains the same, but unpick the stitches and you find the stuffing has changed quite radically. To help illustrate how this impacts the gameplay, there are three story levels available to show off the new toys.
Larry Da Vinci's Hideout introduces you to the new grapple hook and jump pad objects. Both open the game out vertically, allowing for a level that takes Sackboy on an inexorable upwards climb, swinging like Tarzan and bouncing like a pinball along the way. The grapple hook can only attach to the same textured objects that Sackboy can grab, and it suffers a little from that old floaty feeling, but it's easy to see how it changes the way levels can be designed. Jump pads, on the other hand, are such a staple of the platform genre that it takes a while for you to remember that they weren't in the first game.
The Cosmos is set on a spaceship and demonstrates how the game's gravity can be tinkered with. Controlling Sackboy in low gravity is actually easier than normal, as he makes enormous graceful leaps rather than fiddly ineffectual hops. There are also some block puzzles that must be solved by rolling atop a pipe and flipping the gravity up and down. It's not too taxing, but it's the sort of seamless combination of platforming prowess and environmental brainteaser that Mario specialises in. The Cosmos also shows how levels can now be linked, with unlockable doorways feeding players from one stage to another.
Finally, The Factory of a Better Tomorrow brings Sackbots into the equation. These programmable AI drones don't exhibit much independence here, simply following Sackboy when he frees them from their cages, but they certainly help to make the game feel more populated. The level itself feels very LocoRoco, as you guide your trail of followers to safety, through pipes and under stamping metal presses.
There's also Block Drop, a curious and disappointing symbol-matching mini-game where you tap the face buttons that correspond to the shapes at the bottom of an ever-decreasing pile. Playable as a multiplayer mash-'em-up, it's presumably meant to show how gameplay no longer needs Sackboys to work, but it's hardly the most riveting example to use.
The new features are cleverly executed and obviously beneficial, but the gameplay is still very much an extension of the first game. The floaty, fidgety movement didn't distract me as much as it once did, but there were still times when I cursed Sackboy's tendency to stutter and wobble when I needed him to be as nimble as a gazelle. A tall order for a creature made of yarn, perhaps, but not an unreasonable request for a prospective platform game star.
What is clear is that the story mode is intended more as a serving suggestion than a main course in its own right. This is a game that is very much about creation, and the "proper" levels exist to inspire new ideas rather than simply amusing in their own right.
When you head over to the creation and sharing side of the game, the first thing you notice is that Sony's previous squeamishness about "tributes" seems to have abated. Whether that's because this is just a private beta, or because ModNation Racers managed to offer unofficial Mario and Spider-Man skins without everyone getting horribly sued, the fact is that the menu is stuffed full of fanboyism. There are LBP versions of Pac-Man, Tetris and even Geometry Wars. There's a very clever 2D remake of Left 4 Dead's No Mercy campaign. There are even machinima versions of Star Wars and Pitch Black, made using the game's new cut-scene creation tools.
The second thing you notice is that this proliferation of parody shows just how varied user output in LBP2 can be. The flexibility of the camera and the ability to give the player direct control of in-game objects opening out the possibilities far beyond the left-to-right scrollers that dominated the previous game.
Sackro Machines is a good example, a faithful homage to Micro Machines, right down to the birds-eye view of everyday kitchen items. Also earning a lot of attention is a prototype Vietnam FPS level, although it would be more accurate to describe it as a cross between Duck Hunt and Operation Wolf. It's a touch wonky, but when you consider that it's been put together in a relatively short time by people still feeling their way around the new toolbox, it's an impressive promise of things to come.
But how much stock can we put in these early beta creations? Sony handed out invites to the most active LBP community members, so it's fair to assume they have something of a headstart in the design stakes. Whether the average player will be able to open their Pop-It menu and create anything so ambitious seems unlikely. While a lot of the mechanics of creation have been streamlined, particularly where moving parts are concerned, there's now a whole slew of new interlinked features to grapple with, and even the warm buttery tones of Stephen Fry returning as the narrator fail to make these dizzying depths less imposing.
For all the variety on display, it's notable that the best user levels in the beta are still those that hew closest to the classic platform game structure. Offerings like The Cave and Persian Dreams, for example, are simple but very effective dashes through nicely designed stages that make good use of the new toys. This is, at heart, still a platform game, and there's a danger that in cramming every genre into the LBP mould it risks being a jack-of-all-trades but master of none.
I still want to love LittleBigPlanet, and for all my nagging misgivings I'm hopeful that the sequel will allow my cautious affection to bloom into genuine heartfelt passion. The potential is certainly there, but more than ever it seems it's up to the community to bring it to fruition. Let's hope we're up to the challenge.
LittleBigPlanet 2 is due for release exclusively on PlayStation 3 in November.