Like this introduction, LittleBigPlanet is about creation. Every time we write an introduction to a review, we have to ask ourselves, “What should I write about?” Often the answer comes in the form of blueberry pie, cookies, history, or occasionally the game itself. The act of creating or molding the perfect introduction is about ingenuity, creativity, and ultimately, a grasp of the written word. LBP is about creating the perfect level within the context of the 2D parameters of the game.
LBP is considerably less pretentious than this introduction. LBP is an odd game, partially because it is loosely defined. Games like Dead Space, Fallout 3, or even Far Cry 2 apply to a specific set of rules defined by a genre. But what is LittleBigPlanet? Is it a social experience? Is it a platformer? Is it a mix of the two? Is it more?
While we can pretend to have the answers, we won’t try to force them. Instead, Jonathan Holmes and I will simply review LittleBigPlanet. Hit the break for it.
LittleBigPlanet (PlayStation 3)
Developed by Media Molecule
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment of America
Released on October 27, 2008
LittleBigPlanet isn’t a prolific platformer, nor is it a social experience beyond the realm of Second Life. It is a mix of the two, where creation is the key component to the game. LBP is defined by the people who play it and create for it -- which is to say, it is quite an immeasurable property. Yet, what Media Molecule (the game’s developer) constructed around the level creation and social apparatus is form-fitting for the game and fulfilling to the player.
The introductory sequence is the perfect example of what Media Molecule achieves with LittleBigPlanet. The game’s avatar, Sackboy, drops from a portal into a barely lit room. The narrator introduces the only gameplay mechanics (running, jumping, swinging) and then the player takes off into a brilliantly realized level introducing developer headshots and names while maneuvering over simplified obstacles in the background and foreground. The point is that Media Molecule just showed players an interactive experience inside of one of the most disregarded portions of a game -- the credits. It is fun, short, highly realized and serves the specific purpose of exploring the controls as well as the mechanisms that fuel the game.
And the best part of the introductory sequence is that it is constructed with the same tools that are provided to the player. In fact, the entire single-player mode is fueled by the introduction’s notion. Players will navigate several different regions of Earth, each brilliantly displayed and visualized according to stylized themes. Players will experience a southwest America with jagged canyons, cacti, and an old West mentality and have the opportunity to explore many more locales including Japan, Africa and many others. The themes are drastically different and the utilization of the platform mechanics is vast.
The only real problem arises with the brevity of the campaign and weightiness of Sackboy. There are eight different regions, with a total of 25 major levels. Players unconcerned with finding hidden prize bubbles full of objects that can be used to customize the ostensibly cute avatar or levels will find the campaign deeply unsatisfactory. For the player eager to collect some of the ingeniously hidden bubbles, the single-player will suffice as an experience unto itself. Levels are composed on three planes representing the foreground, middle, and background of every level. Jumping onto objects into either territory is streamlined to some degree, but occasionally, issues will arise as the game piles in too many objects in close vicinity, causing movement to be impaired significantly. It isn’t game-breaking by any means, but can lead to a great deal of frustration in the later levels when the difficulty really ramps up. In addition to this, the physics of Sackboy’s movements can be confusing. Objects that bounce alter the speed and height of the player’s jump. It is inexact and nearly impossible to gauge -- leading to many deaths. Thankfully, checkpoints allow a multitude of lives.
Other than the simple gameplay elements, LBP makes major use of an in-game menu called the Poppit, which is attached to players’ avatars with a neon string. The menu collects objects that can be applied in the single-player mode (such as stickers that can be applied to cardboard slates to earn more prizes), but are mainly used in level creation. The Poppit allows for placement of the game’s building materials, like wood and cardboard, stickers and decorations, and various other objects created by Media Molecule. It also has a suicide function, which is handy when navigating user-created levels that aren’t realized like the developer-created campaign. The menus are quick to navigate and even quicker to experiment with in the proper context. Cheeky tutorials often accompany the picking of different objects, tweaks, and customization options. The creation portion of the game is laden with these tutorials and it forces players outside of their levels, but they’re handy and, more importantly, entertaining.
LBP is powered by a cardboard construct called the Pod, which is a portal to the different aspects of the game -- level creation, single-player, and social apparatus. It’s fully customizable with stickers, much like everything else in the game, and functions quite well in getting players where they want to be quickly. The Pod’s most important utilization is the scanning of user-created levels uploaded to PlayStation Network. Players can enter in specific search parameters, decided by players, and jump into levels of their choosing. After completion you can decide what the level is worth and “heart” it for safekeeping to get back to the level again without navigating a host of ratings or parameters.
Level creation itself can seem like a daunting task, but Media Molecule breaks it down beautifully. The Poppit allows quick interchanges of items and the only limits are on the creator. Players can easily shape and mold objects to their desire, animate characters with the usage of brains that can be tweaked to do everything possible on the game’s 2D plain, and stickers are vast, colorful, and can be applied to nearly everything. The blank slate that players can begin with provides an ample amount of space to create. The tools are great, but what players create can sometimes be terrible. Thanks to the sorting tools and community presence, these can be disregarded quite easily.
Visually, the game is astounding. The texture work is above and beyond the majority of games on the market and the art is superb. Sackboy’s animations are spot-on (minus some swinging hang-ups) and the game’s visuals lend credence to its upbeat approach. The music does much the same for the tone and the massive amount of effects can lend flavor to any creation.
Playing levels is done cooperatively either locally or via PSN. Joining friends is a snap, load times small, and can be quite the good time. The game supports up to four players at once, but four players are definitely not advised. The camera accommodates cooperative play by panning out spectacularly wide, but four is too crowded. The single-player really pops with two-players, and the game often caters to that with special sections dedicated to having two or more players at once.
One thing needs to be said about the game in relation to the problems with the servers during the initial stages of release. When the network is down, you can’t join your friends, upload levels, or even play created levels. Without a network, LBP is a complete shell of an experience.
As long as the network is stable, LBP is a marvelous accomplishment rife with the fun of creation and exploring others’ created levels. The game is going to continually grow and hopefully evolve as the designers get a better grasp of what is offered in the game. As a product, LBP is amazingly solid with firm foundations outside of minor movement issues. As an experience, LBP is immeasurable and defined by the community. Let’s hope designers keep designing and further the bar as the game grows older.
I've never before had to review a game like LittleBigPlanet. In fact, to call this title a "game" doesn't even feel right. It's wrong in the same way calling the Internet a "a number of web pages" or New York City "a series of streets and alleyways" is wrong. I mean, how the hell do you review New York City? It's too huge to assess, too varied to attempt to even partially understand. That's LittleBigPlanet in a nutshell; a city of games, all user-created, all varying in quality, all available online, free of charge.
That will mean nothing to you if you are not a PS3 owner who has their system online, as I wasn't the first time I wrote this review. If you are one of them, then you will have an entirely different (and inferior) experience with LittleBigPlanet. For whatever reason, I could not get my PS3 online for the first week I had the game, and as such, expected to be forced to write this review based solely on the game's offline story mode. Like Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Castle Crashers, I expected LittleBigPlanet to be just as fun offline as online. I mean, there are around ten million PS3 owners currently online, but that leaves almost ten million more who are offline, and Sony wouldn't disappoint that many people with a less-than-fantastic offline mode, right?
I couldn't be much more disappointed with offline LittleBigPlanet. The only moments of joy derivable from playing this mode come from looking at it. Despite being the single best-looking polygon-based game I've seen, LittleBigPlanet's story mode is an annoying bore.
The annoying part comes from the game's questionable programming. Here, you can take your pick from any number of irritating flaws; the floaty, imprecise jumping; the glitchy, nearly game-breaking multi-layered play field; or the very buggy collision detection (I found myself trapped inside a inanimate object more than a few times). It's mystifying that the game could be released in this state, especially considering how long it's been in development. Even worse than bugs and bad controls is the fact that the game is boring, the most boring game in the genre I've played since Aero the Acro-bat. Unlike just about every 2D platformer ever, LittleBigPlanet features absolutely no weapons or power-ups. It has only a few enemies (about three every other level) and even fewer bosses, nearly none of whom are memorable. As for the level design (something that saved the power-up and enemy lacking Loco Roco), it ranges from poor to above-average, but it usually settles in somewhere between the two. The game is also far too easy, despite its crappy controls. Most levels will be played once, cleared on the first try, and never played again.
If this review was just for LittleBigPlanet's offline story mode, I'd give it a 6.0. It really is that forgettable. I was all ready to say, "Every PS3 owner should play this game once just to look at it, but after that one look, you'll never need to play it again," but that was before I got my PS3 back online. That's when everything changed.
The game's controls are still piss-poor, and many of the online levels are just as boring as the ones on the game disc, but that's hardly the point. Some of the levels here are well-designed, some are not, but the amazing thing is how little that matters. I've found that level design means nothing next to the amount of personality a LittleBigPlanet level has, and thanks to the game's amazing level creator, the amount of personality users can cram into their levels appears to be limitless.
Put bluntly, you can make anything in LittleBigPlanet; the only boundaries are in your own mind. For instance, in my first hour of online play, I had already experienced a level that was nothing more than a musical conveyor belt that played Air Man's theme from Mega Man 2; a 2D version of Metal Gear Solid 4; a remake of the first level of Gradius; and a Batman:The Animated Series-inspired level that featured real illustrations from the TV show (not to mention a kick-ass Batmobile replica). It really felt like the first time I surfed the Internet. Anything and everything was possible in sea of information. I could imagine spending days, even weeks, just sifting through all the content already out there on LittleBigPlanet.
Now don't take me for a wide-eyed, UCC (user-created content) virgin. This isn't the first time I've played a game that featured great UCC. I've played some fantastic user-created levels made from Mega Man: Powered Up on the PSP, as well as with Blast Works on the Wii, but those two fantastic titles did nothing to prepare me for LittleBigPlanet. Comparing them would be like comparing two tiny elementary schools to massive university. The size difference is just that astounding. If elementary school is all you know, college is going to blow your mind.
That's not to say that I'd recommend LittleBigPlanet to everybody. As varied as LittleBigPlanet can be, it always remains limited to its 2D gameplay, and that doesn't suit everybody (especially amongst PS3 owners). The game may also turn off die-hard fans of 2D platformers, as its below-average controls and lack of power-up system are as baffling as they are disappointing. Basically, the "game" part of LittleBigPlanet isn't that great: a real 6.0. On the flip-side of all that is LittleBigPlanet's amazing level creation tools and enormous amount of quality online UCC, which both come together to offer a separate (and superior) experience: a genuine 10.0 purchase.
So, like I asked at the beginning of this review, how do you review the New York City of videogames? How do you review LittleBigPlanet? I'm just guessing here, but I think all you can do is add up what you know, the good and the bad, and find the average. So, 6.0 (for offline play) plus 10.0 (for online play) divided by two equals...
Overall Score: 8.5 (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
reviewed by Brad Nicholson