Almost two years ago, during my vigil outside the Sony Wonder Technology Lab in New York City, I awaited the chance to buy a PS3. At that time, I wasn't thinking about a game like LittleBigPlanet. In terms of future titles, my friends and I were anticipating the next Final Fantasy, the next Gran Turismo or the next Tekken. None of us knew that a game like LBP was poised to become what Sony expects to be the biggest PS3 game ever. Naturally one would want to know; does it live up to the hype?
Let's begin with the basics. At its very core, LBP is a 2D platformer with a level creation tool. The controls are exceedingly simple -- X makes SackBoy jump, R1 allows you to grab and hold on to certain objects, the left and right directional buttons allow you to move back while the up and down ones allow you to move between the three different planes. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the R1 mechanic. The mere fact that SackBoy can grab/hold onto objects gives him the wide range of sub-abilities such as pushing, pulling, swinging, which really add a whole new layer of depth to the game.
Nevertheless, there are problems with the controls. The first problem I noticed was that the controls were not as responsive as I would like. For example, if you hold down the X button when you are trying to jump, you'll make a higher jump than just tapping it lightly. This mechanic doesn't seem to always function the way you'd expect it to, resulting in your SackBoy jumping into a pit of poisonous gas when all you really wanted was to land on a cute swinging cloud-shaped platform. Another larger annoyance rests in the implementation of the planes/layers mechanic; occasionally, you'll have a difficult time telling which one of the three planes you are on. It became particularly bothersome in the midst of one of the Metropolis stages, where the player must constantly switch planes and jump from one moving subway car to the next in order to proceed.
The art style and presentation are both absolutely impeccable. The large, vibrant color palette and varied textures makes SackBoy's world that much more endearing. Adding to that, the eight areas of the game have its own style, each one modeled after a region of the real world. Sure, it's not 1080p with a 60 fps framerate, but who cares when the results look this good? The music selection is yet another strong point in LBP. Despite the inclusion of ethic sounding songs, the insertion of trip-hop tracks adds a decidedly postmodern twist to the soundtrack. It doesn't sound like a video game soundtrack, but it also doesn't try to emulate a movie's. It's definitely quirky, but without being overly cinematic; here's to hoping an official soundtrack will be released at some point.
Another commendable aspect of the title has to be the tutorials. The tutorials, which help players understand the creation system, can make or break a game like LBP. Nothing to worry about here -- narrator Stephen Fry is witty and a pleasure to listen to. More skilled players might find the tutorials and demonstrations too long-winded, but they are perfect for most people trying to get a feel for the creation tools of the game. You'll even get a shiny Bronze Trophy for watching and playing through all of them.
This leads, quite naturally, to my unquestionably favorite part of LBP: level creation. Those of you with addictive personalities beware; you might never turn off your PS3 ever again. LBP comes with one of the most rich and powerful, yet user-friendly, creation systems I've ever seen. I really believe that years from now, we'll look back on the introduction of such an effective and capable customization tool in a console title as a major innovation. You are given everything from switches to bolts to materials to enemy A.I. in order to craft the exact world you want. The undo feature and Popit Cursor used to manipulate objects in your world are particularly intuitive to use. You can use the Popit Cursor to tweak, change or delete almost every aspect of your stage. Furthermore, the toolset gives you a number of templates which grant you a better understanding of how complex levels can be created. Ideally, by including these templates, the developers wanted us to know that anyone could recreate any stage in the game. While I honestly believe anyone who masters the toolset can create a fairly complex and playable level, herein lies the problem. The amount of time one needs to devote to LBP in order to create an elaborate level would be staggering -- I simply can't believe most casual players will be willing to make that investment.
Even if you don't have the slightest desire to create one of your own, you will have immediate access to a ton of quality levels created by fellow players. Even in the beta, some of the levels were already quite amazing. You can easily spend an ungodly amount of time playing with the user-created material. Other online aspects of LBP are implemented in beautiful ways as well. The ability to "heart" a stage, which basically means you are giving an online thumbs-up for the level, is especially effective -- by looking at the ratio of number of hearts to the number of players who have tried out the stage, you can easily figure out which levels are the cream of the crop. Moreover, you can check out the profile of the creator of a stage you like, which gives you access to stages they have hearted as well other levels they created. Lastly, the online co-op play in LBP is executed splendidly. You can see which of your friends are online and jump into a game with any of them. Even if you haven't made any of those yet, the Quick Play function lives up to its name by expeditiously placing you in a random level where you can immediately start to play.
Of course, with the good, comes the bad. Now we come to the biggest issue I had with LBP. The main story mode for this game is extremely brief and the difficulty is incredibly easy. My first playthrough clocked in at about eight hours, including breaks. Checkpoints are placed way too close together in what would otherwise be adequately difficult levels. Adding insult to injury, there really isn't much of a story to speak of. The paper-thin plot sends you from area to area helping out or defeating the in-game characters, but the story never becomes a compelling reason for you to continue. Furthermore, there might be some sensitivity issues with the characters you encounter -- although none of them are depicted in a negative light, apparent caricatures of everyone from geishas to the Hindu god Vishnu can be found in the different worlds.
Fortunately, the short main campaign isn't too much of a problem. The level design itself is decidedly fantastic. Every single level attempts to get you to try a new mechanic, whether it is something as simple as bouncing off a platform with a spring or as complex as the operation of a giant flying machine. Particularly after you begin creating your own stages, you'll grow to realize how much meticulous attention is paid to each aspect of the levels. One of the very last levels involves going through what can be best described as a giant multi-layer hamster wheel and having to make your way out; I still can't figure out for the life of me how to recreate something similar for my own level.
Furthermore, the replay value of this game is stupendous. Each level contains a ton of items for you to discover and a co-op area accessible only by two to four players. I'll usually repeat a level five or six times –- and I still won't get anywhere near uncovering every single sticker, object and material hidden in the stage. Perfectionists will likely spend months trying to gather 100% of the items on each stage. There are also keys you'll find located through out each level, which grants the player access to a bonus level. Those looking for a true challenge won't have to worry -- the later bonus levels can be extremely brutal, such as a stage that requires the player to jump from one mostly electrified rotating sandwich-like platform to the next in order to reach the end.
Finally, a list of minor grievances: optional mouse compatibility would have really streamlined the creation process. I wish I could really change how my Sackperson looks like. Thus far, customization is limited to changing costumes, textures and adding stickers. What I really want to do is have a character that looks nothing like SackBoy. Controlling something similar to one of your very own enemy creations would have been something cool. A mechanic I would like to see is killing enemies with something other than just stepping on them. The big Buster Sword originally wielded by Cloud Strife of Final Fantasy VII fame would make a perfect weapon for SackBoy. In the end, these absences were minor irritants and more of a wish list for future DLC on my part -- they do not really detract from an otherwise pitch-perfect title.
All in all, you just can't help but savor the entire experience that is LittleBigPlanet. You'll notice my review isn't overly long; despite the fact there is a lot more I could have said about it, LBP really is one of those unique titles you have to try out for yourself. Its advertising slogan sums it up rather well: "Play. Create. Share." The guys at Media Molecule poured their hearts into this title, and it most definitely shows. Some aspects probably need a little tweaking -- certainly, the story and controls leave a little to be desired, but they are very minor hiccups the bigger scheme of things. The innovative inclusion of level creation tools and the implementation of the online features alone are worth the price of admission; the charming presentation and design of the story levels are just icing on the cake. I beseech you, as a fellow PS3 owner: even if you never cared for platform games or think LBP is too "cute" for you, give it a rental or borrow it from a friend. I promise you'll have a delightful time.
PS3 Fanboy Score: 9.0