IGN Review of Little Big Planet
It's been a good while since we saw the first GDC demo of LittleBigPlanet, and pretty much everyone in attendance was blown away by what we witnessed. The promise of an original platformer that would allow us to create our own levels, practically on the fly, was immense, and the game quickly became one of the PlayStation 3's marquee titles and a good reason to pick up a system. We all figured it would be good, so the question was, just how good would it be?
The answer is that it's absolutely fantastic, an instant classic that actually turned out to be better than my expectations. The community and creation stuff was bound to be reason enough to own the game, but the included content put together by Media Molecule is so good that even if the level building tools weren't in the picture, this would still be a must-have experience.
That's not to say that it's without faults. There are a handful of things that can be cleaned up or fixed by way of patches that are a little annoying at the moment (which I'll come back to in a bit), but they barely mar the surface of an overall game that is nothing short of brilliant in terms of both its design and implementation.
When you first start up the game, your only option will be to hit up the main Story mode. The first three levels (which are the same that were featured in the beta, if you played that) serve as good tutorials for how to play the game. In terms of mechanics, this is about as pure and basic a control setup as you can get. The X button jumps, R1 grabs objects, and that's about it. If you grab a jetpack, you can either shake the controller or tap one of the face buttons to remove it, but that ends your control mechanics (outside of the editor, of course).
While that sounds simple, and it is, it's the level design that makes the whole Story progression the fantastic experience that it is. The first set of levels is fairly easy and will look familiar to anyone who's followed the game at all. The cool thing though is that every other level in the game (of which there are more than 20 "main" levels) is completely unique. Each themed area has three main stages, and while those generally use a lot of the same art assets and look very similar, what you're doing there in each individual area is very different. The jungle areas have you swinging from monkeys, climbing giraffes and riding on buffaloes. The Metropolis stages have you navigate sewers, hop between subway cars and drag race. There's a wild west set of levels that rely on plenty of explosives and mine cart rides, and every other section is just as varied (if not more so) than these.
Really, Media Molecule has done an amazing job of giving you something cool to do in one level, then switching it up and giving you something completely different for the next without ever really repeating ideas throughout the entire game. It's all platforming, sure, but the variance within that frame does nothing short of pushing the limits of the genre.
While you could run through the game in a matter of five or six hours if you simply blazed through everything, you'd be missing a large chunk of the fun. Each level contains a ton of collectable content kept within prize bubbles, with much of them either hidden away or contained in places that will require you to explore and think to figure out how to reach them. The hidden stuff ranges from stickers and decorations that you can use at any time to full-fledged objects for the level editor, as well as clothing and materials with which to outfit your Sack person.
One cool twist here is that most levels have a few "blank" canvas spots where a certain sticker needs to go, and if you have said sticker and place it there, you'll unlock a bunch of content. So you might play through a level, notice that you don't have what looks like an elephant sticker, and then come back once you've found it a couple of stages later and unlock even more content.
While searching and scavenging for prize bubbles will net you most of the game's unlockable content, you'll also earn a fair bit of stuff by completing each of the areas without dying. It seemed to me that this always resulted in clothing and accessories for my Sackboy, with some of them being well worth the trouble (like a pirate hook or a wooden sword). Along with the hidden objects, rewarding you for completing a level with one life (which honestly is pretty easy for the first half of the game) does very well to encourage you to come back for more.
But that's not even close to the end of the replay incentives. Clothes, stickers and objects are great to find in the plentiful prize bubbles, but if you come across a key and can figure out how to reach it, you'll unlock new challenges to play. These challenges are essentially mini-levels that generally have a very straightforward goal. One of the first challenge stages simply has you jump over a rotating tie for as long as possible while it speeds up. Later stages have you negotiate through spinning wheels situated over fire pits, run through rotating boxes with little to no safe spots, and there's even a bobsled race near the end of the game.
To further expand your time within the story mode, multiplayer play is greatly encouraged on practically every level of the game. You'll come across sections that require two (or in a couple cases, three or four) other players in order to nab all the goodies. Fortunately, even if you don't have any friends, finding others to play with you online is as simple as choosing to "Play Online" instead of by yourself at the start of each level. Bam, instant multiplayer game.
While it's generally fantastic all the way through, the Story mode does end in a somewhat disappointing manner. The story doesn't really make a whole lot of sense throughout the game, but when you begin the last area you sort of get this idea about where the story could be heading, and that it would be awesome and interesting on many levels if it were true. It's not though, and the Story mode just sort of ends and then encourages you to go and make your own levels.
As I mentioned, there are a few disappointing spots with the game, and the ending isn't the only one. One somewhat small gripe I have is with regards to the control response, and how your Sack person moves overall. The game is very heavily (if not entirely) based on physics, and I think that left a few corners on what should have been a razor-sharp control scheme. Player acceleration (and perhaps deceleration) isn't as quick as it could be, which means that keeping your Sackboy alive between two electrified bars while the ground below you shifts around can be a little tricky. Likewise, in-air direction change can be a little iffy at times with you sometimes having more or less inertia than it looks and feels like you do, making your character occasionally over or under-respond to what you want him to do.
As I said though, my gripes with the control mechanics are relatively small ones. My biggest complaint for the game comes with regards to its use of layers, or more specifically, how and when the game decides your Sack person should change between them.
There are three layers to the game at any time -- the background, foreground and a middle section between the two. You can move between them on your own, but the game will also switch layers for you when necessary. Examples of this would be that if you jump up from the middle or foreground, and there's a ledge in the background layer, you'll automatically move back and land on the ledge. Or, if you're on a layer and it runs into a wall while another layer continues, you'll get moved to said layer and keep on truckin'.
Usually this works well, to the point that you probably won't even notice it happen all the time. But, there are instances where it doesn't do what you want it to do, and these points stick out like a sore thumb, especially when it means your death.
For example, sometimes you'll want to push or grab an object, and the game could either think that you want to run past it and change layers on you, causing you to run right by it, or you may grab something else on a different layer instead of the one you're on. In other instances, you may want to just jump over something without changing layers, and the game will push you back and up onto a ledge.
These examples aren't as bad as jumping off a ledge, assuming that the game will stick you on the right layer to land on a bridge, and then watching your Sack person drop past it and burn to a fiery and crispy death. It's rare that this happens, which perhaps makes it even more aggravating as you start to trust the game to help you out, and then it winds up failing on you.
Everything I've talked about up to this point has to do with playing the game. But that's only the first part of the title's catch phrase: "Play. Create. Share." Along with being able to play stuff, the other half to the experience is being able to create your own content for you and others to play. To a minor extent, this includes placing the stickers and decorations that you create into levels as you play.
However, the full level creator is where is fun is had. You're given a full suite of tools to create, destroy, edit and manipulate pretty much anything you see fit, in pretty much any way you see fit. The tools at your disposal are simultaneously robust and easy to use, and the whole package is cohesive enough that once you start messing around with the basics, you'll immediately ramp up to tweaking nearly every setting in every object with ease.
If you want to know how powerful it is, look no further than the Story levels in the game. If you see something in the included levels, you can recreate it yourself in the editor.
A basic creation tool lets you "draw" any material you like in whatever shape you want. You can start with a number of basic shapes (square, circle, star, etc.) and then just draw anything you want as you would in, say, Photoshop. You can then move on to the tools suite and use things like string to attach two objects together (like to create a swinging vine), a mechanical bolt to spin an object (to create wheels, perhaps), triggers of various sorts (to cause things to happen when you get near an object or press a button) and much, much more.
Creating complex objects is generally a breeze. When you place an object onto the scene, simply tapping X will let go of it. However, pressing and holding X for a couple seconds will "glue" the object onto whatever it's touching. Using this basic premise, you can start with simple shapes and slowly build something complicated and massive, oftentimes even before you know it.
Once you've created an object, you can then select it and save it in your library for use again later. So if you create your Fire-Breathing Monster Truck of Death and Destruction, you can save it as quickly as you can drag a selection box around it. What's awesome is that you can then stick any object you've made inside of a prize bubble in your level so that others can earn your creations and then use them in their levels.
One very important bit about the editor is that it is "live", meaning that you can interact with your scene at any time, and that whatever you do has a direct effect over its state. So if you create a hill and then make a cylinder at the top, it'll roll down the hill. Then when you play the level, it'll start at the bottom. You're able to switch between "play" and "pause" modes in the editor, however, which is an incredibly powerful ability. You can create a bunch of pieces in the air while the level is paused, attach them together at your leisure, switch to "play" and then watch gravity (and perhaps its AI) take over and see what happens.
This is awesome in that you don't need to make any sort of hard switch between editing and playing (though you can if you wish), but it does have its drawbacks. The big one is that since the level is always active when not paused, you can find yourself having to pick up and reset pieces of your level. For example, if you have a rocket car and then ride it to the side of your level in the editor, you'll either need to hit the "undo" button to put it back, or manually pick it up and move it over again.
In a level that I have been working on, I created a rock slide by making a trap door above the viewable part of the scene, and when the player got near a ledge, the trap door would swing open and the rocks on it would come flying past the screen. At one point while editing my level, I accidentally (and unknowingly) triggered the trap door. Later, I had to go back and not only reset the door, but manually pick up all of the rocks and put them back on top of the door. The rocks weren't on the foremost layer, so this meant moving the stuff in the foreground, picking up and replacing the rocks, and then putting the other objects back. In short, it was a pain, and I made sure to never do it again.
Fortunately, as I mentioned, you do have a rewind (undo) button, as well as a fast-forward (redo) button. This means that you can do plenty of experimenting and then just jump back to your last point (though this only works while you remain in the editor it seems -- testing your game in an actual play session will clear your action history). It also helps with mistakes, like triggering something that you didn't mean to, or forgetting to pause the editor before building an object as you watch gravity take over and it falls to the ground.
If creating an entire level from scratch sounds daunting, there's help. Media Molecule has included a number of templates for use in the editor, which means that rather than starting with an empty screen, you'll already have a background and lots of land set up for you. Obstacles, traps, creatures and so forth can then be placed into the level to give it your own twist. It's a nice starting ground for learning the ropes before you begin your original creation.
While the editor is incredibly impressive overall, it's not perfect. First off, in order to use anything in the editor, you need to watch the tutorial for it. You'll either participate in or watch a ton of tutorials, which actually do a fantastic job of teaching you the ropes. However, they're a bit much, and while each one is relatively short, the total number of them amounts to a good hour or so of learning time, so you start wishing that the tutorials would cut to the chase and cut out the witty banter.
Additionally, when you first start out in the editor, you only have access to a few options. This is to help keep things from being overwhelming. As you go through the tutorials for those tools, others become available, and so on and so forth until you have everything. The problem here is that things unlock in an unintuitive order, and even if you have a very specific level you want to make, you'll have to watch a bunch of other tutorials and hope you've chosen the right "path" to unlock what you need. For example, in order to unlock bolts and string, I had to do the tutorial on sound objects. Including sound is usually one of the last things I do in most any project I work on, so I was planning on skipping that bit until later, except that I couldn't even screw two objects together yet.
The number of tools at your disposal is pretty fantastic, and they're very easy to use and tweak, but they don't always do what you need them to. For example, I couldn't figure out how to create a trigger that only works once. For my rock slide bit I mentioned earlier, I tried to place an emitter (which spawns any object you choose) that would create rocks, and then have it create three of them when I set off my invisible trigger. That worked, as you can set an active maximum number to spawn. But, when I left the trigger, and then went back to it again, another three would fall out. I couldn't get it to work just once, and then never again.
Likewise, some trigger types don't work with some objects. A piston can be set to have a minimum and maximum number so that a platform or object will extend a certain distance. A trigger can be set to "fire once", so if you step on a button, it'll cause the thing it's attached to do its thing once, but then stop until you press the button again. However, the "fire once" trigger option and pistons can't work together. I wanted to create a trap where you would step on a platform and a proximity trigger would cause the piston to fully extend and then stop at full length (read: the ceiling). But because "fire once" wasn't an option, the player could jump off and the platform would stop moving without reaching the top, or it could hit the top and then come back down part of the way. In either case, it wasn't the (seemingly simple) effect I was going for.
Likewise, you can't set respawn states for objects. If you set a trap and the player triggers it and dies, when they respawn it'll still be that way. If you create a bridge that falls away as you run across it, and the player dies, they'll have no way to try it a second time unless you create some sort of bridge-respawning system yourself. The answer to this would have been to have saved states, where you could tell the editor how an object should always start, and flag that it should be reset if the player dies or hits a trigger.
While these are all design elements that I wish were different, there are also a few bugs that will crop up every now and then that I hope will eventually be patched. One is where if you have three objects glued together, and then you detach one of them, the third object will also become detached. This doesn't always happen, but it occasionally will. I've also had the opposite happen where I glued two objects together, and then other objects that were touching one of the glued bits also became glued to it when I didn't want them to. These "bits" were the rocks and trap door from my rock slide, and when I hit the proximity trigger the whole background went flying off the screen. It was amusing, but confusing as well.
Note that despite all of my complaints, I hold the level editor in the highest regard. Never has a console game been this tweakable, and certainly not from right there within the box. It's not perfect, but it's extremely easy to use and even complete beginners can put together full levels in very little time. Huge kudos go out to Media Molecule for creating something of this caliber.
So that takes care of the "Play" and "Create" bits from the tagline. The last part is "Share", and like the first two elements, Media Molecule has practically hit this out of the park. After you create a level, you can then choose to publish it. Once it's up, it's open for everyone else to play.
After playing a level, you're able to give it a tag of some sort from a slew of predefined words. This is great in concept, except the implementation here isn't perfect. The game gives you a handful of random words, and if none of them apply, you pick an option that says just that and it'll give you another handful of words. The problem is that if you know exactly what you want to label something as, you need to keep asking for more words until it shows up. Conversely, some people won't want to page through words and will just pick something on the first screen, whether it's appropriate or not. You can just hit Circle and skip this part, but I've already seen tons of levels with massive ranges of tags that really don't belong together.
Once you find a level you like, you can "heart" it, which literally sticks a heart icon next it its badge on your screen. This is important for numerous reasons. Firstly, it's basically the same as bookmarking something -- you can go to your hearted levels at any point and replay your favorites. Beyond that, it also allows others to see what you like, so you can see what your friends are playing, or someone who likes your created levels can see what may have inspired you. But in addition to those, it also serves as a positive vote counter of sorts. If you upload a level and it gets played by 5,000 people, and half of them heart your level, you'll know you've created something great.
Perhaps the coolest part of the community stuff is how simple and smooth it is to get from list to list. For example, I could go to my Friends list and choose Greg's profile. I could go to his hearted levels, find a level I like, and then view the author's levels. I can then view said author's hearted levels, and see what he likes, and so on and so on. In other words, you should be able to get to Kevin Bacon's profile in six clicks or less.
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