- Review Price: £34.93
”’Platform: PlayStation 3”’
In the weeks since I started playing LittleBigPlanet I’ve struggled to come up with a really good way of describing it. Is it the rebirth of the classic 2D platform game? Is it a games construction kit? Is it a social gaming app – a sort of MySpace or Facebook of video games? Somehow, nothing I can come up with really seems to do Media Molecule’s game justice. Frankly, the only way you’ll really, truly understand it is get out there and play it yourself. I’d recommend you do so right away.
Okay. You probably want a few more details first. Fair enough. Just imagine that somebody has spent hours making the platforms, springs, mechanisms and enemies that you might see in your average Mario game out of spare bits of wood, modelling clay, brick, cloth, stuffing and general bric-a-brac. They’ve then arranged these bits into levels and somehow given you control of a little sackcloth puppet – a sackboy – who can run around them.
I know it sounds odd, but it’s actually as close as I can get to how LittleBigPlanet looks and plays. On the one hand, it all seems weirdly home-made, with an aesthetic that’s one-third jumble sale, one-third art class and one-third Bagpuss. On the other hand, the game and its world feel imbued with this wonderful physicality. The gorgeous detailed textures and naturalistic lighting make all this made-up nonsense seem strangely, tangibly real.
It helps that every surface and every object seems to have lifelike physical properties. Get your sackboy to grab and drag a sacking box and it moves and threatens to topple with a convincing impression of weight, friction and momentum. Get hold of a wooden horse, give it a push, then watch as it responds to changes of slope and speed. You might have seen physics at work in driving games or FPS games before, but you’ve never seen a real-time physics engine employed in a platform game with as much energy and imagination as it is here.
And this is the key to LittleBigPlanet’s reinvention of the 2D platformer. The classic run, jump and grab gameplay comes straight from the Mario tradition, but the way the physics works on balloons, bungie cords, skateboards, springs, rope swings, dangling girders and mine trains makes all the old clichés feel fresh once again.
We often talk about ‘playing’ a game, but often that term covers a multitude of experiences. In LittleBigPlanet ‘playing’ comes close to the sort of un-self-conscious messing around we get up to when we’re kids. It’s not about proving something, conquering something, or getting to the end of the level – though all these things still have their place. It’s just running wild and having fun.
That’s true if you play alone, and doubly true if you can find a spare girlfriend, partner, sibling, friend or housemate and get them to enjoy the game with you (up to four of you can play offline or online, but it’s actually more fun when everyone is in the same room). The view zooms in and out as much as possible to keep all of you on the screen, and there’s something about the game that invites warm cooperation and mildly spiteful competition as you race around, grabbing hold of this, dangling from that and generally throwing your sackboy around.
Your loved ones might not get the point at first, but as soon as they find themselves hanging on to your legs while you cling on to a balloon that isn’t quite rising as fast as you need it to, they will. It’s the kind of game that makes you laugh, both for the rich, surreal humour in the game and for the humour you’ll bring to it. Gaming has bought us few better remedies for the blues.
Were this just a great co-operative 2D platform game I’d be (figuratively) grabbing you all by the lapels and urging you to buy it, but we’re only talking ‘tip of the iceberg’. LittleBigPlanet is really all about making Media Molecule’s game your own game. Take your sackboy, for starters. Right from the game’s introduction – voiced, as are all the links and tutorials – by an avuncular Stephen Fry – you’re encouraged to take the little chap and customise him. Change his eyes, change his material, add hair, hats or a moustache, try different costumes on for size. Make him into a cat or a monkey. It’s all up to you.
And after years of watching canned animations for gaming mascots, there’s something refreshing about a character that you can fully make your own. Using the D-pad you can make your sackboy smile or frown. Using the sticks and the triggers you can move his or her arms or tilt the controller to make him or her sway or wiggle. It sounds silly, even irrelevant, but when you’re playing, particularly with others, it all becomes part of the fun.
There’s also good news for those of you who like a spot of decorating. In LittleBigPlanet you can collect stickers and decorations, using these to permanently spruce up or graffiti the pod that your sackboy calls home, or the existing levels. In some cases, the stickers even work as switches, opening up new sections or releasing bonus items onto the scene. All this stuff is ingeniously worked into the main story mode. You know the sort of coins or power-ups you collect in regular platform games? Well, there’s still a sort of in-game, high-score currency but here the levels are also festooned with bubbles containing stickers, decorations, objects and new costume items to pick up.
This is brilliant. In most games I struggle to work up any enthusiasm for bonus collectibles. In LittleBigPlanet I actually worry that the second level of the Mexican stage contains a costume bubble I’ve missed out on. You want to return to levels until you’ve found everything, and the fact that stickers found in later levels can be used to unlock new objects in earlier levels makes that a sensible approach. That, and the fact that most LBP levels are so much fun that you never mind another journey through them.
Yet even this customisation is only the beginning. The most revolutionary aspect of LittleBigPlanet is that, having created all these odd characters, platforms and mechanisms to delight you, Media Molecule wants you to have a go with them too. We’re not talking about the sort of map editor that PC FPS fans will be used to, but about a real-time editing mode where others can play as you’re creating – the closest thing we’ve seen before is probably Garry’s Mod in Half-Life 2 or The Forge in Halo 3.
Using the same ‘popit’ interface you use to decorate your sackboy or the levels in the game, you can place your own scenery, objects and enemies by selecting items from a goodie bag and just placing them on the screen. You can rotate and rescale them with the right stick, and flip them with a press of a button. The only thing you need to worry about is gravity. While you’re placing objects it’s switched off, but put your popit away and the whole stack falls to earth and (hopefully) into place. Once that’s done, you can let your friends play around with them, polish your design, then upload the lot to Media Molecule’s servers. Of course, you’ll have to unlock all the goodies first, and the only way to do that is work your way through the existing levels. Playing feeds creating, and visa versa.
The more you get involved in this, the more it all makes sense. The existing ‘story’ levels, each supposedly designed by a specific ‘curator creator’ are all so much more than just sample levels, but they do provide you with inspiration as to what you might one day achieve. Not all of us will reach such dizzy heights; the interface is probably as simple as it can be, but juggling all the scenery items, objects and mechanisms on several different planes of depth (the game has you moving in and out of the screen) is tricky, and it will take a lot of trial and error before you come up with anything functional, let alone enjoyable.
Yet the mucking around is fun in itself, in the sort of way that things like plastiscene or Lego were when we were kids. Plus, even if most of us are hopeless, you only need a scattering of dedicated, talented individuals to provide us with levels that can surprise us, delight us or take the game and its objects to places even Media Molecule probably can’t foresee. Little Big Planet has already been used to make Pac-Man levels, Mario, Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid tributes and even proposals of marriage.
I’m not sure you can quite say that the only limit is our collected imaginations – there’s only so far you can take the game’s characters, scenery and platform game furniture – but this is a big step beyond anything we’ve seen before.
For this reason, I’m going only to gently chide LittleBigPlanet for its most fundamental failings: the controls and the checkpointing system. To be honest, the controls aren’t quite as flawless as they could be. After a while you get used to the way sackboy handles and the slightly odd, pressure sensitive jumping, but it’s never as polished or intuitive as Nintendo’s classic Mario setup, and there are always going to be times when you die because your sackboy fails to respond quickly or predictably enough to your commands.
At times this puts the game on the verge of frustration, because the game uses an odd checkpoint system where passing a special circular portal saves your progress in the level, but you can only return through the portal so many times before you die permanently and have to begin again from the start. In theory, this all sounds quite sensible, but in practice – and when there’s a mountainous difficulty spike placed splat at the end of the level – it’s as close as this amazing game can get to being a nightmare.
I’ve spent hours considering whether this – or the server issues US users have been encountering – are enough for me to dock a point from what is clearly and easily one of my two favourite games of this year, or the last five for that matter. If those of you who like to believe that a 10 equals a perfect game want to do so, I’m fine with that. As far as I’m concerned, however, this is an instant classic. It’s a game we should celebrate now for what it is, and later for what it’s slowly turning into. I can’t say it clearer than this: if I didn’t have a PlayStation 3 right now, I would buy one tomorrow just to carry on exploring this LittleBigPlanet. Games don’t get any better than that.
Utterly wonderful and totally unmissable, LittleBigPlanet is a true landmark game. Not all of us will have the skills or talent to create our own gaming masterpieces, but who cares when we’re having this much fun?