I've been in the sway of LittleBigPlanet since I first laid eyes on the game at the 2007 E3. It was tucked back into the back corner of the Sony booth and while I had seen videos of it from its launch at GDC there was still nothing like seeing the game in person. Media Molecule was only showing off the game portion of the game but I still remember bounding around the amazingly colorful level they created and it was love at first sight. Cyril claims I'm "in the tank" for the game and while that's accurate it's hard not to fall in love hard with such an imaginative game with such lofty design goals.
It's worth nothing that LittleBigPlanet isn't for everyone and there are certain gaming demographics who won't "get" LittleBigPlanet. Thankfully for them there are plenty of other games with guns and explosions to play. For those who are looking for something new and creative, LittleBigPlanet is a breath of fresh air and a place where people can stretch their creative legs. If you're not a creative person the game allows you to see what other people have done which may spark your own imagination a bit but we'll get to that in a bit.
At first blush LittleBigPlanet is a co-op platforming game where you and three friends can play your way around a wide variety of platform style puzzles. If you're looking for bee suits or other power ups you won't find them in LittleBigPlanet (although they'll probably make it in the semi-announced sequel) but there are plenty of other things to do in teh game. There is a nice assortment of vehicles and other environmental objects that more than make up for the lack of power-ups in the game.
Real world physics are the core of the game and your sackboy can manipulate things in the environment by grabbing on and moving them around. This doesn't sounds like much but it does allow for some innovative gameplay ideas within the game. This allows you to do things like racing down hills, swinging from vines, and even setting things on fire to solve puzzles.
The game ships with a set of Media Molecule levels to help introduce you to the game. They are themed around seven different "creators", each with their own theme to their levels. There's a part of me that wanted to call these the single player levels but you can play through them with friends online or off. The level design in these levels is really impressive as they do a great job of showing off what you can do with the game. The gameplay is standard platforming fodder as you jump over things, unlock puzzles, and defeat boss monsters but it's how these things are done in the game that makes them cool. The game is really a homage to the games that came before it. There are moments in the game where you'll have flashbacks to Mario, Sonic, and a host of other gaming icons and the execution is dead on.
What separates LittleBigPlanet from the other games is the support for four player co-op. Playing with four people can be a little chaotic but it's a lot of fun with the right mix of people. The game even passed the girlfriend test as my non-gaming girlfriend was able to get into the game pretty quickly. She did get frustrated with some of the jumping puzzles but with more time (and patience on my part) I think she'll get into it.
The great thing about the levels is that there's a ton of re-play value in each level as there are oodles of hidden items scattered throughout each level. I played through each level with a small eye for hidden items but even then I only found about 35-40% of the items on each level the first time through. Items are hidden in clever places and some can only be unlocked on a second or third play through as they require items found in other levels in the game. These items are unlocked by placing stickers on an item in the game which then unlocks these items. Another bonus is that some puzzles in the game require two or more people to complete which adds a bit to the game as well.
The Media Molecule levels themselves are worth the cost of entry alone but the real depth of the game comes once you've played through them and collected all the items within (which is no easy feat). Once you're done with the built in levels you can create your own levels using the game's built in editor which is surprising easy to use. The game has tutorials that cover everything from placing objects on the screen to how to add you own images to the game. I was a little frustrated that I had to go through a tutorial before I could play with one of the built in tools as I'm a learn by doing kind of guy.The real problem I had with the creation system was my own lack of creativity and not being able to come up with a cogent idea for a game. I was certainly able to create a few small levels that played with the physics level but I've yet to come up with a solid idea for a level. There are also a lot of tools and items for you to build your levels with and it's a bit hard to manage everything at once. You can "Heart" certain items so that they appear in a special area but there's still a lot of items to sort through.
Fortunately for me (and other likeminded individuals) you can go out and play levels that other creative people have created. One of the best decisions Media Molecule made was porting the levels from the game's beta to the retail version. This meant there were already hundreds of levels to play through when the game was released. Sure there are a ton of Mario 1-1 levels out there but there are also some other really interesting levels. I played one level that was like walking paint splattered puzzle level while another was a God of War styled level replete with pull open chests and other staples of the series.
To keep the cream at the top the game implements a simple rating scale that allows you to rate games on a scale of one to five and then provide a one word description of the level. This makes it easy to find levels that are solid and once you do you can "heart" the level so you can return to it later. There's also a built in grief reporting tool that allows you to report inappropriate levels and content immediately to Sony which should help curtail people ruining the experience by exposing themselves in the game.
The in game audio is nearly perfect as Media Molecule brought in Stephen Fry to do the voice over work in the game and while he's only heard during the introduction and the tutorials, it really adds to the storybook feel of the LittleBigPlanet. The rest of the audio design is perfect. Everything from the sounds that the machines make in the game to the amazing soundtrack is just perfect.
Graphically the game is a stellar example of next generation graphics and one of the games that I'll be busting out to show off what the PS3 can do until Killzone 2 hits in February. There are tons of fun little graphical details like how the sackboy changes his hands depending on the mood he's in and the amazing variety of fabrics and materials that compose the levels in the game.
This game will live and die by how well Sony promotes and supports it's community. While you can say that of any game LittleBigPlanet is going to need a steady diet of tutorials and community spaces where people can share their ideas. In some ways it's a bit like how Microsoft supports their developer community by providing insider tips and tricks. The LittleBigWorkshop is a good start and hopefully Sony keeps the ball rolling with the site. It's not hard to see a new generation of game developers being raised on the game and with Sony allowing for people to make money on making levels for the game the incentive is there for people to spend the time learning and promoting the game.
LittleBigPlanet is one of the few games I've played that lives up and exceeds the expectations I had for it. I knew the levels would be cute and the graphics would be great but I didn't expect the audio to be so perfect or the content creation engine to spark such creativity in other people. Hopefully the game gets the audience it needs to survive as LittleBigPlanet is one of the most unique and creative games ever to be pressed to a disc.