Version tested: PlayStation 3
It was the little game with big ideas. A compact, cute PS3 platform game from a tiny indie studio that wanted the world to muck in with its making, using level and object creation tools. But with time (and not very much of it at that), LittleBigPlanet became a very big game indeed.
It took off, like one of its own rocket-propelled skateboards. It became the poster-child for a new generation of gaming; commentators and Sony executives showered it in buzzwords, talking up connected communities creating constellations of content, portraying LittleBigPlanet as Spore in skate pants.
Sony got giddy with all the reflected glory and love. First it promoted the game's Sackboy avatar to platform mascot and ubiquitous totem of cool, and then elevated LittleBigPlanet itself to the status of a triple-A, blockbuster tent-pole of its entire platform strategy. It as good as said that this was the game that would save PS3, and even those who'd loved it at first sight had to wonder whether Media Molecule's funky experiment could take the strain.
Amidst all this big talk though, one of the game's big ideas got lost in the chatter: an idea that will probably mean more to more people than any of the Game 3.0 posturing and theorising, or the daringly ambitious online features, or the astonishing freedom of the creative tools. LittleBigPlanet sets out to resurrect the simple fun of a game you control with left, right and jump. It sets out to make the side-scrolling platform game relevant and exciting again. And it succeeds.
With its homespun beauty, irrepressible charm, wild momentum and tactile physics, LittleBigPlanet strongly recalls Nintendo's 1995 classic Yoshi's Island - and while it's nothing like as perfect a platformer, it's enough of a compliment to say that it can stand up to the comparison at all. The game's Story mode is a suite of some 20-odd levels made by Media Molecule that circumnavigate LittleBigPlanet's imaginary world.
The Tudor gardens of Britain; the African savannah; a haunted Tim Burton wedding in some spooky alternative South America; and on through Mexican badlands, American cities, mystical interludes in Japan and India, and a devious parody of a Siberian villain's lair. The conceit is that every themed stop on the way is curated by a creator, a king or magician who sets the scene and the challenges, the way players are later invited to themselves.
It's all portrayed in the game's unforgettable visuals, a dreamlike diorama of cardboard and sponge that blends the home-made aesthetic of Michel Gondry music videos with the heady surrealism and humour of stop-motion children's TV from decades ago, shows like The Clangers or The Magic Roundabout. The sticky-back-plastic stylisation clashes headlong with extreme realism; the rendering of light sources and textured surfaces is scientifically exact, as total a realisation of high-definition as you'll see anywhere in games this year. Characters, hazards and contraptions are conjured out of household objects, trinkets, plain chunks of material, stickers, gears and pullies and motors and joints.
It's a marvel: a high-res, low-fi animated sketchbook that never fails to delight and astonish, even if the art in some stages has less charm than in others (the Japanese and Indian stages being the swoonsome highlight). Drinking in every detail is a compelling enough reason for several playthroughs of this fairly short Story mode. The vast number of hidden collectables is another: all of them are valuable and useful, being stickers, materials, machines, objects, tools or decorations to use in the game's Create mode, or costume pieces for dressing up the Sackboys (an addictive diversion in itself), or mini-game levels.
You'll also want to return to play as much of the game as you can in multiplayer. The levels and goals are identical - with the exception of a few optional puzzles for multiple players only - but with more than one Sackboy running around, LittleBigPlanet becomes a loosely-structured scrum of competition, collaboration and sheer, joyful mucking around. There are mini-races, and the scramble to collect bubbles of stuff for your score - those bubbles add a score multiplier if you chain them, and pop with a deliciously moreish sound. The camera scales competently for four players on a single machine, and it's played this way that LittleBigPlanet is at its absolute best: an irresistible, riotous, social and totally accessible entertainment.
The game's physics have a huge part to play in this. In keeping with the theme of conjuring fantasy from the realistic and mundane, the physics are consistent but also exaggerated and slightly slowed, and the PS3's processing power taxed to the point of slowdown in a couple of places by the sheer amount of bouncing, collapsing, pinwheeling chaos, as well as the blistering speeds achieved in some vehicle sections. It's slapstick of the highest order, and again, adding extra players just adds to the feedback-loop of fun.
With physics as the basic building block, Media Molecule has designed levels around momentum and mechanical ingenuity more than taxing puzzles or acrobatic challenges. The quality isn't totally consistent - the game drags a little in the finicky and generic Mexican section, about halfway through. The mini-game levels seem rather arbitrary and pointless solo, although if you use the Quick Play option to chain them in multiplayer, they can sustain an uproarious hour or two. But the second half of Story mode is mostly fantastic, and at their most ingenious and surprising, the systems of cogs and tunnels and traps that the Sackboys tumble through are worthy of Nintendo's best designs.
The controls and the lives system, however, are not. Sackboys are fun to manipulate, especially the puppeteering you can do with their facial expressions and gestures, but also just their easy, bouncing joie-de-vivre. But there's the slightest lack of precision and definition to the floaty jump, a hint of stickiness, the timing's off by a fraction of a fraction of a second. When the game presents you with exacting challenges of dexterity and timing, as it occasionally does, that's a minor annoyance. When it's combined with the vague, slow and over-zealously auto-corrected movement between the game's three planes of depth, it's a problem.
Then there's the checkpoint lives system, which gives you an infinite number of lives for a level, but only three (or on too-rare occasions, six) for any given checkpoint. Although checkpoints are generously and well placed, three lives just aren't enough for some of the harder sections, and if you lose them all, it's back to the start of the level. Abandoning lives completely would have stripped all the tension out of the game, but this inflexible system creates half a dozen chokepoints of almost unbearable, teeth-grinding irritation that simply didn't need to be there.
LittleBigPlanet is a great platform game. It's not a perfect one. It doesn't need to be, though, because its creative tools turn it into something else entirely, a unique, hilarious, endless entertainment. Even - and this is an absolutely crucial point - if you never use them.
Go to Cool Levels, and LittleBigPlanet presents you with an alternative world of stages created by other players, scattered around randomly to encourage you to browse and take punts on things. A genius tagging system - where you're asked to pick one of a random selection of words to describe a level after you've played it - combined with "heart" scores (hearting is LittleBigPlanet's equivalent of digg.com's digging, and also works as a bookmark for favourite items in Create mode) makes it easy to get a feel for what's worth trying. Levels download very quickly, too, and can be saved to the hard drive for posterity, or to edit yourself later. The review copy of the game could have done with more powerful and flexible search features, but we understand this will be addressed in the final version.
And the levels themselves, based on those generated by the game's beta test alone, are simply extraordinary. You haven't seen anything like this in videogames before. Finely-tuned pieces of platform-game design are understandably rare, and attempts to recreate others, like Super Mario Bros' first level, don't even remotely work. But these are replaced by a wild creativity and anarchic humour that no organised development studio could ever hope to create, and a sort of gleeful ignorance of the need to have a point or be a challenge or submit to any kind of traditional concept of what a videogame level should be.
There are plenty of one-shot jokes and inventions: the car that plays Sweet Child O' Mine; the fanboy jab at the Xbox 360's red ring of death; the comedically cack-handed Rick Roll. The best levels are just playgrounds filled with bizarre toys, or sort of interactive theatre performances that interject a little light platforming into variously stupid or strange stories. The two-part Heist - the story of a bank job gone wrong - has already established itself as an artful classic; you can also shoot Sackboy to a cardboard moon on an Apollo mission or, in the memorably eerie Asgard, pick your way through a forest of giant, electrified glass Sackboys, your image warping as though you're in a hall of mirrors.
The quality and diversity are already surprising. In reality, deep and rewarding gameplay will only feature in a tiny percentage of levels - it will take more professionally-designed levels to truly extend the lifespan of LittleBigPlanet as a platform game - but it doesn't matter. As an endlessly renewable sideshow, a daily source of surprises and silliness, a genuinely new form of interactive entertainment, it's a triumph - and one for which Media Molecule can actually only take some of the credit.
That credit goes to the handful of players dedicated enough to go through the painstaking hour upon hour upon hour of work necessary to put these levels together. And herein lies LittleBigPlanet's greatest disappointment - or at least, its double-edged sword. Create mode is an incredible achievement, allowing tremendous scope for freedom (especially in its mechanical tools) within the simple, logical and fast Popit interface, and accompanied by an exhaustive suite of tutorials narrated by an avuncular Stephen Fry. And yet, it's still really quite hard to make things.
That's partly down to some minor niggles with the interface (the laborious undo command, the counter-intuitive "pause" rules, the inefficient lack of shortcut commands). It's mostly down to the overwhelming depth of customisation and parameter-tweaking that's possible, but that can't be a bad thing. Can it?
Perhaps it can. It depends who Media Molecule wants to involve in LittleBigPlanet, and what it wants them to create. Cool Levels is already populated with the work of a talented hardcore who will serve the rest of the game's community with entertainment for years. But the creation, as it stands, isn't going to involve the majority of players of the game. It won't let them do the things they want to do - put their own images or music straight in a level (unless it's by taking pictures with an EyeToy). It will let them do hundreds of things they don't want to do or would never think of. And the three planes of action add a fiddly layer of organisational complexity in themselves: it might have been more accessible to limit creation to a single, flat plane to lower the barrier to entry.
The promise that anyone could create something simple and fun and personal with LittleBigPlanet hasn't come true. In a way, it's the opposite of Spore, which makes it easy and fun for every single player to have creative input, but doesn't let any of them change the fabric of the game. LittleBigPlanet lets them run wild, with unprecedented results, but it locks the majority out of the creative process, because it's time-consuming and simply not very enjoyable.
We hoped it could do both those things. That it doesn't isn't the let-down it might have been, thanks to the untamed community of brilliant nutjobs that's already out there, appending their DIY masterpieces to this beautiful, mildly flawed, magnificently multiplayer platform game. We salute them, we salute Media Molecule for making it possible for them, and we salute Sony for its total commitment to this brave, hare-brained project.
But mostly, we're just happy to see a flagship game for a modern system that's about running from left to right and jumping over things. New ideas are great, great old ideas are better, and LittleBigPlanet has both: it's the future and the past of videogames, rolled into one.
9 / 10