Cards on the table: I wasn't too enamoured with the previous LittleBigPlanet games, certainly not to the degree many others were. It wasn't just the floaty, fiddly physics-powered platforming either: I found Stephen Fry's narration overbearing, and never felt it meshed the elements of create and play quite as effectively as it could have. For my money, the raves that greeted Media Molecule's debut and its follow-up should have been reserved for the vastly superior Tearaway.
With the Guildford studio busy working on a port to the Vita's best game alongside an all-new project, it's handed over the keys to its world of fabric, cardboard and sticky-backed plastic to Sumo Digital. New developer, new approach? You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise after sitting through the nauseating live-action introduction which sees Fry witter on about Cerebrum-bilical cords and Imagispheres, two terms that join Levelution and Drivatar in the rankest part of gaming's lexicon of made-up words. "Let's spark together," coos Fry, severely testing my gag reflex. Let's not, Stephen. Let's shut up for five minutes instead.
Happily, it gets better, even if Fry's garrulousness - and, indeed, the verbosity of the rest of the cast - is a frequent irritant. LittleBigPlanet 3, like its predecessors, might be generally aimed at a younger audience, but I don't think I've played any kids' game that spends quite so long explaining everything in such painstaking detail rather than simply letting you get on with discovering what everything does. Once it dares to let go of your hand, LittleBigPlanet 3 can be a lot of fun, and it starts with a campaign that's more expansive and interesting than its predecessors.
A pleasantly maniacal Hugh Laurie plays the lightbulb-headed Newton, a character who lives in a world called Bunkum, and who ropes an unwitting Sackboy into unleashing three Titans, previously locked away for robbing the world of its creativity. Your job is to explore three hub worlds in order to awaken a trio of heroes that rescued Bunkum on the last occasion: Oddsock, a wall-jumping dog; Toggle, who switches between a lighter and heavier form; and Swoop, a burlap bird which does as its name suggests, and can also grab objects between its talons. They all have a little more heft to them than Sackboy, and as such are more enjoyable - and reliable - to control. So it's a pity you're required to complete three regular levels before you get to play with them, and they're only infrequently used thereafter.
As if aware of Sackboy's own limitations, Sumo gives him a selection of gadgets to make his stages more exciting. Among these are a kind of vacuum gun that can push and pull foam objects, a ball that can be fired at shiny surfaces to teleport there, and a helmet that allows you to glide along rails. If the physics of the world still result in some maddeningly awkward manoeuvring, the level design makes the most of these tricks. Though the generous checkpointing negates much of the challenge - and thus the sense of peril - these stages are fun and pleasingly varied. In the early game you'll take part in a casino heist, hiding behind pop-up cards to avoid a sweeping searchlight; shortly afterwards there's a beautiful stage set in a 50s diner, with The Chordettes on the jukebox. That's followed by a gorgeous, woozy space level, a lovely bit of leisurely exploration which plays up Sackboy's inherent floatiness as a strength.
Meanwhile, within each hub, you'll find a number of additional characters offering optional missions. Some are platforming challenges - Oddsock's speed and wall-running skills make his the most entertaining of these - while others invite you to build contraptions with the various pieces you've unlocked. One of the best is the first you'll encounter, which tasks you with building a vehicle to beat a speedy rival. After a rollerskate template proved too unwieldy to control, I eventually crossed the line first in a balloon-powered plastic bottle.
This sort of idea is the perfect introduction to the game's creative element. I've always found that side of LittleBigPlanet rather daunting in the past - making a stage or even a single object has always felt slightly too time-consuming to be worth the effort - but while the idea of building an object to complete a challenge is nothing new (Banjo Kazooie: Nuts 'n' Bolts and Rovio's Bad Piggies, among others, got there a while ago) it's good to see Sumo finding another way to encourage players to make stuff, rather than relying almost entirely on a series of long-winded tutorials.
Elsewhere, a selection of Popit Puzzles walks you through a series of stages, each of which instructs you in the use of a different tool. You'll learn to scale, rotate, edit and delete objects, before moving onto advanced techniques. Encouraging you to work out practical solutions to environmental obstructions is a far better method of teaching players the versatility of the game's creative toolset, which has been expanded to include power-ups and weather effects among a host of other additions. I wouldn't necessarily say I'm any more likely to make my own game in LittleBigPlanet, but at least I now feel I have a few tools at my disposal should I find the time to sink into a pet project.
It's a real shame, then, that LittleBigPlanet 3 is another Sony-published game that suffers from a litany of technical issues at launch. Even after applying a 'mandatory for review' patch, I had issues with clipping, screen tearing and noticeable frame-rate drops - particularly during co-op play. More serious problems included freezes lasting several seconds every time I pulled up the Popit menu, while two stages saw Sackboy disappear entirely after a checkpoint, forcing me to restart the level. Having quit the game after reaching the second hub, I was dismayed to find it still locked on my return, forcing me to complete the previous boss battle once more. A day one patch addresses some of these issues, though whether all these bugs will be resolved remains to be seen - and besides, that's little comfort to those with slow or intermittent broadband.
Without these problems, I'd have no hesitation in saying this is the best LittleBigPlanet game to date. The deeper integration of creative elements into the story is a big plus, as is the superior level design, and the new characters are very welcome, even if they're ultimately underused. But in its current state, it's hard to recommend without some serious caveats. Held together by Sellotape rather than superglue, LittleBigPlanet 3 is in constant danger of falling apart.