It's all you man... supastar!
On the surface, Little Big Planet is as simple as they come: you run, you jump, you mimic the Super Mario Bros. Sometimes you push blocks or clutch them for dear life. The gameplay and controls are so basic, so charmingly classic that even non-gamers can play it in minutes.
[image1]Simplicity belies the real value of Little Big Planet: It’s a powerful toy construction set for the inventor-types, and a massive heap of user content that comes down from the Internets. Tight, light-hearted gameplay is the fun creamy center that binds this disc-shaped Oreo into a tasty package.
Your LBP world tour begins with the globe-trotting 20-level Story Mode. The actual story is a throwaway, fun in its irreverence but sadly insubstantial. But whatever, this is a damn Mario game. You forget about "rich narrative" after the first big jump.
Complexity and story get the hell out of the way so that you can enjoy the striking level design. Each scene is a challenging arrangement of ingenious mechanical creations: A giraffe in an Africa-themed level may not be as interesting, but when it’s a mechanical giraffe built from wooden boards and bolts and pulleys and stickers, it’s a sight to see.
In fact, it’s a lovely sight everywhere. LBP looks lush and vibrant with a healthy dose of edginess. Realistic material effects, deep colors, and a fun, offbeat art direction give off a Grimm dark fairy-tale look. Emmy-award winning Stephen Fry (narrator for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) narrates with a tongue firmly in cheek, while a low-key soundtrack mixes up funky world music and dramatic orchestral themes. It’s a great package that never descends to the dreaded level of kiddie fare.
[image2]You can blaze through all the Story Mode levels in a day or two, but you’ll go back to hunt down hundreds of prizes like level decorations and costumes for your character. Almost every object and creature is hidden as a gift for you to use in your own levels - the treasure hunting becomes the addictive core of Little Big Planet. Bonus levels and the imminent deluge of user-created levels are going to satisfy your needs for content even if
you lack an imagination you have no intentions of using the level editor.
The level editor isn’t a scary thing - I was extremely pleased with the flexibility and polish of the editor. Short interactive tutorials teach you how to build what you need in short, rewarding steps. You can undo mistakes as you make them and even save individual objects for reuse or as backup copies. In a day or two I was using the entire toolkit with ease, and you don’t need to know every last bit to make a fun level.
The editor has a few quirks to learn, but I will tell you from experience as a professional level designer: all game-making software has its problems with controls and crashing and so forth. The LBP editor is exceptionally stable and user-friendly in comparison.
Level creation doesn’t have to be a lonely enterprise, either - every area of Little Big Planet supports multiplayer. You can build robots or decorate levels with your friends, play through Story Mode together, or just get a crew together for random levels.
[image3]The social tools look and work well, especially the costumes. Of the hundreds of prizes in LBP, the 20 outfits or so are the hardest to complete, and they go a long way towards distinguishing your Sackboy avatar from the next. Character customization has the same flexible mix-and-match appeal as the level editor of any MMORPG - I have become fond of my blinged-out, kimono-wearing Sackboy, a pint-sized pimp I call “Money the Dragon”.
There’s also some MMO-style chat and emoting. Sackboy can smile, pout, or fume; he can wave his arms or slap another Sackboy (like a pimp named Money). You can chat using the on-screen keyboard, a USB keyboard, or any PS3 headset. Either way, these tools are a big help in communicating to your teammates. You know, like, “You just put your ugly stamp on the robot I’ve been building for two hours, here comes a slap.”
A little Facebook-style tagging and PlayStation Eye camera functionality is icing on the social-gaming cake, but I believe the level creator is going to blow up. This is a fact of game development: give random users some resources, and they will discover awesomely unimaginable new uses for them. You can’t change Little Big Planet's direction as a platform game with one-hit kills, but it’s only a matter of time before somebody makes a great photo booth lounge or full-field sport. The Media Molecule crew must be terrified.
My biggest warning is that Little Big Planet demands an Internet connection. You need four players to collect all the Story Mode prizes, and there just aren’t enough in-game levels. Costumes are meant to show off, and custom levels are meant to share with an audience.
[image4]This also means that parents should think about whether Little Big Planet is appropriate for their children. It’s a great toy set, it’s got great creative potential, and it’s very kid-friendly, but like most any online service, it’s possible that you could hear swearing over voice chat and view penis-monster levels. At least a few community features let you flag offensive players for possible consequences.
My other warning is that the first few weeks of LBP may be rough. The closed beta period was fun, but four-person online games suffered from huge lag spikes. Most online games these days are flooded at first and then they stabilize, even World of Warcraft crashed on opening day. These problems usually level out soon after launch, but if the lag persists, though, it will be a serious blow to LBP’s multiplayer and online components.
Little Big Planet is just what Doctor Sony ordered: universally appealing gameplay with an appealing everyman hero that is connected to streaming delivery of new content. Sony should be lauded for such a gamble, and Media Molecule should be praised. This is a rare toy that has the capacity to inspire the inventor, the explorer, and the gamer.