LittleBigPlanet 2 review: A celebration of creativity

Whether you fell wildly, profoundly in love with the original LittleBigPlanet, or whether you were turned off by its occasionally imprecise controls -- a foible which spells certain doom for platformers -- it's hard to deny that Media Molecule created something magical. Not only was it charming from toe to tip, it placed an unprecedented amount of attention on user-generated content. The most fervent, active members of its community understood the true joy of the game came not from being its player but, rather, its author. In other words, the creation tools weren't a compliment to the game: They were the main course.

However, even though some of the creations whipped up by LBP's master architects had convinced me otherwise, the game's tools couldn't be used to make everything. Media Molecule was clearly counting on this element of surprise when it came time to one-up the title. At GDC last year, studio co-founder Alex Evans quoted Henry Ford, saying, "If I asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. But I gave them a car."

Even in the half-joking manner in which the quote was used, I thought citing one of the grandfathers of automotive innovation seemed like hubris when coming from a video game developer. Now that I have the unimaginably expanded tools of LittleBigPlanet 2 at my disposal, I'm convinced that I was dead, dead wrong.
Let's start with the most obvious of these expansions: The new power-ups which Sackboy -- who's almost exclusively referred to by the much more gender-neutral moniker "Sack Thing" this time around -- can wield. The Creatinator (which allows Sack to shoot a projectile from his head), Grabinator (which allows Sack to lift and throw objects) and the Grappling Hook (which is a grappling hook) each add a remarkable amount of depth to the game, reflected in a number of the clever puzzles which pepper the Story mode.

LittleBigPlanet 2 isn't just a great platformer, it's a veritable celebration of creativity.

Though the entire game is unquestionably more entertaining with a second (Or third! Or fourth!) player, the shenanigans cooperative players can get into using these new devices are virtually infinite. If you or your Player Two have a mischievous streak, you'll spend a majority of your time hurling each other to your deaths, or grapple-dragging each other to your deaths, or shooting each other in the face with giant cakes, which is non-fatal but humiliating (and delightful) nonetheless.

There are more, fairly obscure changes beneath the surface as well, including Sackbots, which creators can program with a variety of behaviors and aesthetic qualities -- but the addition responsible for LittleBigPlanet 2's genre-bending capabilities is the (equally ridiculously named) Controllinator. This new tool lets creators assign various in-game functions to buttons on the DualShock, which opens up a number of possibilities which might be difficult to understand until you start tinkering around with it.

Fortunately, the game's exhaustive (but not exhausting!) tutorial process does a great job of succinctly showing you the ropes. After about an hour of guided, Stephen Fry-voiced lessons, you'll be whipping up complex creations that will blow the doors off of anything you could create in the series' first installment. Assuming it had doors, that is.

Almost all of the creation tools from the first game have been completely overhauled, allowing for a much more streamlined level design process. That doesn't mean that your encyclopedic knowledge of said tools' inner working is forfeit -- rather, it just means that creations that were once impossible are now possible, and creations that were once possible are now incredibly simple.

Here's a good example of this new design ethos in action: In the original LittleBigPlanet, creating movement required an interaction between an object, an anchor and a pulley or winch. In the sequel, this very tangible exchange has been boiled down to its core: Players can now attach a "Mover" to any object, which can be easily manipulated to send said object careening in any direction of the creator's choosing. What was once took minutes of calculation now requires only seconds -- and that philosophy applies to nearly every other aspect of design, as well.

All it takes to understand the many, many implications of these new tools and the streamlined way in which they interact is a playthrough of LittleBigPlanet 2's Story mode. Much like the original, it's designed to demonstrate what the Create mode is capable of; however, unlike the original, turning that demonstration into an engaging standalone product was clearly a top priority.

The Story mode, while brief, possesses plenty of satisfying challenges and brilliant puzzles -- and, thanks to the immense number of new gameplay mechanics present in the Create mode, it moves between genres with blinding speed. Each level introduces a new toy, puzzle or playground, whether it be a top-down race, a side-scrolling shooter or a friendly game of basketball, in which players can lift and throw one another. (I'd be a much larger fan of the sport if this were considered acceptable behavior in real life.)

Ideally, I'd be able to put this review off until a year or so after its release, long after the LittleBigCommunity has had a chance to take all the new features for a walk. The beta has already produced some truly phenomenal results -- featured creators have already whipped up levels that rival those from Media Molecule in terms of quality and cleverness (using the beta's incomplete set of tools, no less). Still, it seems like these authors have only scratched the surface of what LBP2 has to offer.

Then again, that's a tough thing to quantify. How much does LittleBigPlanet 2 have to offer? Well, infinity, I guess, but that sounds undeservedly clinical. Yes, it's an incredible platformer, categorically and exponentially improved over its predecessor, but there's a much larger picture that might take you a few evenings of madcap, freeform architecture to discover. LittleBigPlanet 2 isn't just a great platformer, it's a veritable celebration of creativity.

It's a refreshing reminder that these kinds of games, while extremely rare, are still being made by developers who are as passionate as -- and much, much smarter than -- the rest of us.

This review is based on review code of LittleBigPlanet 2 provided by Sony.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.