Although Little Big Planet could be described as a platforming game, its dedication to creativity in every area takes it far beyond the confines of the genre. Everything from your character to the environment is geared towards user creation and adaptation, via stickers and costumes right up to a full-blown level creator. Each level of the story mode is an unforgettable trip through the wild imagination of the designers, and it would be difficult to find a game that's as much fun to play with friends co-operatively. It's a little disheartening that the Story mode is over so quickly, and although there's some longevity to be had from finding all the hidden extras, you can still see everything the story has to offer in six hours. Then there's the level creator--an astoundingly powerful toolset that theoretically allows you to recreate anything you see in the included levels and much more. However, it still requires a great deal of time and skill to develop something that people will actually want to play, and despite the best intentions of the developer, it's a feature that not everyone will be able to take full advantage of. The overall result is a game that's incredibly fun while it lasts, and one that has the potential to be taken further by its community.
The titular Little Big Planet is the place where all human imagination collects--the planet above the cosmos where our untapped creativity escapes when we're asleep or daydreaming. That's the background, anyway, and though characters occasionally refer to each other in the game, this fantastical journey has little in the way of exposition or backstory. There are eight themed worlds in total, and they vary in style from places such as the African savannah to the Mexican desert and ninja-obsessed Japan. Each world has either three or four individual levels, most of which can be completed in less than 10 minutes, and each level also has a bonus challenge or race if you can find the key hidden within. These bonus levels offer some of the most fun and imaginative experiences in the game, with an homage to Line Rider, skipping contests, and even drag racing competitions.
Little Big Planet's emphasis on creativity is completely embodied by its mascot, Sackboy. This endearingly cute rag doll acts as a blank slate for your creativity, and as you collect new materials and clothing in the story mode, you can constantly try out new looks. You can dress him up in costumes, add accessories such as hats and glasses, and even change his covering from that familiar brown to a particularly gaudy pink. Sackboy is also highly expressive, and you can use the controller's triggers and analog stick to move his arms and even smack unruly players. The D pad controls his facial expressions: up for happy, down for sad, left for scared, and right for angry, and repeatedly tapping in that direction further emphasises these emotions. You can also use the motion sensor to move Sackboy's head and hips, nodding knowingly if you win a level, at least until someone inevitably smacks you in the face for being so smug. With so much control over your character, you often end up spending a good deal of time just changing clothes, pulling faces, and maybe even sticking a "LOLZ" sticker on your buddy's forehead.
Although the character customisation may be in-depth, the platforming itself is not. There are only two action buttons: X to jump, and R1 to grab hold of swings and move objects. Sackboy doesn't use any special powers, and he doesn't become any faster or stronger throughout the course of the game. This is platforming in its purest form: jumping from platform to platform, dodging obstacles such as fire and electricity, and collecting blue orbs to score points along the way. What makes Little Big Planet unique is that it frequently goes way beyond platforming into something else entirely, seemingly for no other reason than to satisfy the designer's rampant imagination. With scenarios such as hot-air balloon riding, animal prison breaks, and ninja henchmen battles, every level of Little Big Planet demonstrates incredible imagination.
The main story mode follows a sequential progression, so you open up new levels by completing them in order. However, even when you've finished a level, you'll want to return to collect the hidden items, keys, and point bubbles that you likely missed the first time around. Collecting items allows you more creative freedom in the form of stickers and costumes, whereas music and materials can be used in the creation mode afterward. You can also collect loot drops by putting stickers down in certain places, and there are puzzles that you can only solve by playing in the two- to four-player mode. These include gates that can only be opened remotely, objects that require multiple characters to pull, and in one brilliant scene, a car driven by one character while another dangles on a trapeze underneath.
Little Big Planet poses a bit of a dilemma; it's miles more fun in multiplayer, but also more flawed. Figuring out the puzzles and experiencing the set pieces for the first time with others is one of the most memorable experiences we've had this year, and chances are that you'll find yourself recounting the best moments with your friends afterwards. Unfortunately, there's a downside to playing in multiplayer, and it's something that often afflicts platforming games: the camera. It frequently struggles to frame the action, and considering many precision jumps are required, certain sections become nigh-on impossible. The generous spacing of respawn points lets you retry most of the tricky sections, but if you fail after using up your lives, you have to restart the entire level. There were many occasions in multiplayer in which we intentionally killed ourselves, just so that one player could try a section without the camera jerking around all of the time.
Sadly, with no scalable difficulty level and relatively few truly testing challenges, stalwarts of the genre will be able to reach the last boss in less than six hours. This isn't counting the time it takes to go back and collect everything, but the fact remains, you can see all the main levels in one prolonged sitting. Clearly, if the community jumps on the creation tools then this longevity will be extended, but it will take time and great skill from home designers to match the creativity and professionalism of Media Molecule's work.
Once you've finished the story and built up a stock of items, stickers, and other creation tools, you'll want to head to the My Moon that orbits Little Big Planet to start building your own levels. The creation tools are comprehensive, which is why you have to go through plenty of tutorials to learn the basics. You begin by moving items around, but things become a lot trickier when you start creating characters and moving objects. For example, enemies and allies have to be given an AI routine so they know whether to follow or run away from a player when they're approached. The physics system is easy to understand, so making things is common sense, but it can still be very time-consuming to construct even the most simple moving objects. You can create structures and glue everything together with ease, but it takes a lot more work to use motors, pistons and springs. These help to set traps, make puzzles and add vehicles, which makes for more interesting levels, but creating and testing everything is a lot of work for the creator. Given the work required to build even simple systems, it's a pretty momentous task to re-create something on the scale of the levels made by the developers.
Thankfully, the task has been made easier by the inclusion of premade objects and level templates from the main game. This makes it a lot easier to start dropping in characters, structures, and vehicles, although you'll still want to adapt them to create your own look. The other problem for budding designers is that the game has three separate planes to work on, which lets players move between fore, middle, and background when playing. This means that unless you think on all three levels when making obstacles, players can simply pop into the foreground and avoid them completely. Once you have all of your main content in place, you can add finishing touches such as respawn points, dynamic music that changes according to player proximity, and characters that offer instructions on what to do. You can also throw in point bubbles and prizes to encourage players to play your level, and of course it's a good idea to play through repeatedly to make sure that others won't get stuck.
With all of this in mind, it's no small feat to create a Little Big Planet level that people will actually want to play. The reality, at least according to what we've seen happen in the game thus far, is that home designers will use the tools to make much smaller-scale creations than the levels in story mode. We've seen some great creations based on a nightclub and even TV show The Crystal Maze, in addition to video game homages such as Space Invaders and Breakout. They're simple ideas that incorporate systems already built by the developers, and they're probably a good indication of where the community is going to go with the game.
Going online with Little Big Planet is a breeze as you can see which of your friends are online and jump straight into their pod. The multiplayer online mode works well, even if it's not as smooth as the local multiplayer. You also can't play the create mode online, though a future update will purportedly enable this feature. Sharing is also well implemented, and you can choose to move levels from your My Moon to the online Little Big Planet. When people play a level here, they can choose from preset tags to help describe the level for other players. This helps Little Big Planet to group similar levels together, so if you like what you're playing, you can search for creations that players have awarded similar tags. You can also add a heart to your favourite designers and search through all of their levels, and the system streams content live from the network so you don't have to save anything. There's even an option to play 'Cool Levels' from the main menu if you want something at random. If you really like a level or fancy adapting what you've seen, you can take levels submitted by other people and copy them to your own moon for later. All in all, it's a system that looks like it can cope with the content that's set to come out after the game's release.
This is a beautifully assembled game, with a patchwork visual style that covers the technical achievements underneath. There are smaller details such as reflections in the collectable balls to look out for, as well as some really nice fire, smoke, and electricity effects. It may be cruel to watch Sackboy die, but he can be electrocuted, burned, and disintegrated in a variety of ways, each resulting in highly detailed effects. Special mention should go to the physics system, which is pitched just a fraction beyond realistic to allow for some amazing stunts, jumps, and races. Then there's the soundtrack, a mix of genres from indie artists such as The Go Team and Jim Noir that all suit the game to a tee. Finally, a nod has to go to the pitch-perfect narration from British comedian Stephen Fry, and apart from his insistence that you don't post anything rude online, his voice is just as charming as the rest of the game.
Little Big Planet is a startlingly imaginative take on the platforming genre, and its story mode, while short, is truly outstanding. It's down to the community to elongate the life of the game, and while only the most ardent fans will be up to the task of making compelling content, the tools here certainly have some potential. If you've not got a creative bent then you might feel like you're getting half a game, but that doesn't stop Little Big Planet being a star that burns twice as bright, half as long.