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LittleBigPlanet 3 review: Knitting lessons

Justin Clark
Justin Clark|@justinofclark|November 18, 2014 12:00 AM
PS4, PS3

There's a moment in LittleBigPlanet 3 where Hugh Laurie's villainous Newton, an effete British lightbulb with an egg timer built into his bowler hat, faces down his conscience, berating him with his greatest fear: that nothing he creates will ever be good enough, has never been good enough. It's a fear that LittleBigPlanet players will be familiar with, given the creative possibilities presented by the series. The feeling is more pronounced this time around, and the overwhelming diabolical genius at work in LittleBigPlanet 3 is almost a cause for alarm.

The first and second games in the series felt like a toy box, with developer Media Molecule providing about 3 or 4 hours of examples of how it could be utilized. In contrast, LittleBigPlanet 3, now helmed by Sumo Digital, is the first to feel like the pre-formed game at its core is meant to be a showstopper, an abundant showcase of greatness, a dare to the player to push the envelope even further. Lucky for us, for those who decide to rise to the challenge, they have never made creation easier or more satisfying than it is now.Like LittleBigPlanet 2, there is a tiny dense core of a plot to be found here, where Newton, the aforementioned lightbulb antagonist, sucks Sackboy through a portal to the world of Bunkum before the credits are even done scrolling. Newton enlists Sackboy, under the guise of business-as-usual saving the world, to help raid the creepy mansion home of Nana Pud, an old crone living on the outskirts of Bunkum. Nana has been charged with guarding the tea canister prison of the Titans, three gluttonous shadow beasts who almost gobbled up all of Bunkum's creativity before three heroes, Oddsock, Toggle, and Swoop, put a stop to them. Of course, Newton's intentions are less than pure, and soon enough it's up to good old Sackboy or Sackgirl to bring him down before all the creativity in the world is gone. It's simple, amusing stuff, but there's no denying it's a threadbare excuse to let the player go wild in a chaotic Rube Goldberg playground.

LittleBigPlanet 3 takes a bit of a different approach to its level structure. Instead of simply beating one stage and moving on, each section is its own self-contained hub, where all the different stages and challenges have to be found instead of opening automatically. Once you've unlocked a new character, you can find the character specific little nooks and crannies that only they can fit into, and then unearth even more goodies, more bonus stages and activities. It's an inspired way of not only acclimating players to each new character, but also making Bunkum feel like a more connected world than those in previous games.

Adventure mode sends players on a whirlwind tour of Bunkum, taking them from a swampy hodgepodge of 1950s kitsch with a bobbysoxer soundtrack to match, to a Russian palace wallpapered with Russian literature backed by quirky renditions of the Hungarian Dance and Tchaikovsky, to a seaside cottage run by a papercraft queen with temper issues. The same attention to detail that fuels every LittleBigPlanet is obvious here, but it's far more dynamic and nimble than before, and the game takes every opportunity to take things to the extreme. The best and most insane example is in the Russian stage, in which a bearded zookeeper is having trouble keeping his bears calm and happy – because someone changed their radio station to play Skinny Puppy instead of a Russian lullaby. Bouncing bears fill the stage, making everything shake and jolting Sackboy on impact, giving you your money's worth as you try navigate platforms and make it to the end. It's a bit of a running theme, the feeling of an entire stage looking to throw little Sackboy and his friends around like the ragdolls they are. As opposed to the weight of previous titles, where you felt like a tiny element in a giant world, there are many more instances of the world tossing the characters into free-flowing peril. The sense of loose, carefree dynamics is palpable, making for a game that feels less Toy Story, more Bugs Bunny.

It's a welcome change of pace, and the scale has been adjusted accordingly. Where prior games only had three layers of background to play and build upon, LittleBigPlanet 3 is capable of 16, and the pre-created levels take full advantage of it. Slides and bouncing platforms may take you from the far back to the extreme front in seconds, and sliding walls allow characters to perform wall runs to reach foreground areas in style. LittleBigPlanet hasn't quite gone full 3D, but it's definitely playing with space in a way it never has before.

That expanded feeling of freedom is personified by the new characters, Oddsock, Toggle, and Swoop. All three throw their own special twist on the typical LittleBigPlanet repertoire of platform jumping, running and climbing. Oddsock is essentially a Sackdog, able to run up ramps and bounce off surfaces, and his stages have an invigorating sense of speed and verticality to them. Toggle can change his size from short and stout to big and blubbery at will, and all his stages tend to work off of split second switching between the two to weigh down switches, or float onto/sink into water. These are actually the hardest, especially where water is concerned. Switching from heavy to light while under water causes Oddsock to rise up quickly, giving him a boosted jump, and the game asks for some ridiculous, aggravating stunts using the physics to your advantage. Thankfully these areas are short, and there are far more areas that work off of simple platforming bliss.

Swoop, the Sackbird, is the trickiest of the three. Swoop can fly, but to keep him from just breezing through every obstacle, only his downward flight – his swoop, if you will – is a fast, fluid motion. Gaining height, on the other hand, is a slow process, involving tapping X for dear life. He's still a godsend for exploring the central hub worlds for more collectibles and missions, but controls while swooping are extraordinarily finicky, and downright nerve-racking when surrounded by one-hit death. Still, he and the other two new cohorts collectively represent a welcome and mostly successful attempt to shake even the vague threat of stagnation out of LBP's typical gameplay; their only real crime is that we'll have to wait for users to start creating levels around them to get more.

Apart from LBP3's new arrivals, you'll still spend the majority of your time as Sackboy, and the only major change is a new set of tools he can pull out of his pocket. The Pumpinator is, very simply, a combination vaccuum and leaf blower. The Blink Ball isn't quite a portal gun but allows you to reach certain areas if the projectile hits a specific wavy surface. It's an extremely fussy tool, however, as the ball never quite fires in the direction you think you're aiming, and when there are multiple Blink surfaces in an area, it can turn into an irksome bother. Coincidentally, there is a portal item in a few of the levels, and the game would've been better off with more of these than the Blink Ball sections. The Boost Boots, meanwhile, allow for a quick dash in any direction.

The best tool, unfortunately, is the least implemented in the main campaign: the Hook Hat, which allows Sackboy to ride rails around stages. It's a fun, fast and crazy mechanic where holding R1 latches Sackboy's helmet onto a floating track that will take him in wicked, rollercoaster spirals, requiring fast reflexes to account for gaps in the track and keen eyes for bonuses that might go whooshing past. It effectively turns stages into short bursts of the Uniracers sequel the world so desperately needs. The campaign doesn't utilize the Hook Hat often enough, but it's not like the rest of the game isn't choked with content to begin with, to say nothing of the staggering amount of user-created levels to find and enjoy.

Which, of course, leads to the true main event: content creation. Previous games always had the feel of someone opening their vast toy box and letting you just go nuts. The tools that had been pared down to their simplest, user-friendly forms in LittleBigPlanet 2 have returned, but user-friendly isn't enough for LBP3. This time, the entire game seems tailor-made to ease players into creation. The gentle urging starts in the main game, where hidden stages allow you to create items from scratch for use in that stage alone, such as creating your own slapdash racing kart (in my case, an ice skate with tennis ball wheels and three balloons attached for jumps). You're given a small blueprint screen in which to choose your elements and stitch them together, which is fun enough in its own right, especially now that you can use the DualShock 4's touchpad to move elements into place. What was once an arduous process is now as simple as cropping and rotating a photo on your phone.

Outside of the main game, however, is a special planet called Popit Academy, built with the sole purpose of teaching budding creators the ropes without wandering aimlessly in the level creator. Larry DaVinci from LittleBigPlanet 2 is your professor here, through level after level of puzzles that have to be solved using all the creation tools at your disposal. The initial lessons are child's play, especially if you're already an old hand at this, but there's only so much information the soothing, fatherly tones of Stephen Fry can impart on its own. You learn best by doing, and Popit Academy takes you by the hand, improving your skills bit by bit, until you're either excited to play the next creation puzzle, or ravenous to get out there and start making your ideas come to life. It's a great example of how to make an accessible tutorial without pandering.

For the experts who just jump straight into creation, however, it's also never been easier to get yourself noticed. The Community options have been given a nice once over, allowing the best and most popular builds their time to shine. The dev team will weekly pick new stages to spotlight, and the ones waiting there on day one are indeed cream of the crop platforming. So far, there's only a few new ones taking advantage of the updated depth and weaponry options, though that will probably change quickly post launch. Until then, you just have to make due with all 3 million(!) levels and custom games from LBP 1 and 2, backwards compatible and upscaled for use with LBP3's stellar new graphics engine. If there's a flaw here, it's the same one that's been a problem since the beginning, in that what usually gets upvoted the most are LittleBigPlanet renditions of other games. With Oddsock's mechanics in mind, I give it 24 hours before there are 2,000 attempts at recreating Sonic 1's Green Hill Zone.

I'd love to be proven wrong, though. The Adventure mode at the center of LittleBigPlanet 3 is a grand showcase of bold imagination like nothing else out there, with a wellspring of charm and warm-natured humor at its heart. Even so, Sumo Digital's brief 4-5 hours of polished, pre-made contributions pale in comparison to what could be – but that's essentially the point. The world that's been forged out of the enormous toy box this time around has never been more vibrant and inviting, but it's only a miniscule portion of what's now possible. As ever, LittleBigPlanet 3 is a foundation, upon which eager minds can start building even more inspiring content, and that process has been made more accessible than ever before.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS4 version of LittleBigPlanet 3, provided by Sony. Images: Sony.

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LittleBigPlanet 3 review: Knitting lessons