LittleBigPlanet was meant to be the game that got everyone playing together. It was supposed to be fun and accessible, but underneath its cute appearance lay a game that could make hardened games journalists cry. One mention of the 'Electric Wheel' in the office makes most of us curl into a ball and slip into a coma, hoping that the world will be alright again when we awaken.
To put it bluntly, at times the original LBP was bloody frustrating.
This has been rectified in a sequel that is not only more forgiving, but offers increased variety in gameplay styles, a better cast of characters, charming and technically brilliant visuals, and a suite of creation tools that let you make just about any type of game imaginable.
What divides most people's opinion of LBP is the floaty controls, which result in Sackboy lacking the platforming skills of genre favourite Mario. If you didn't like the way he loosely jumped about in the original, you're not going to like it here. What has been almost completely ironed out, though, are the frustrating checkpoints. LBP1 forced you to replay entire levels if you ran out of retries, only for you to then spend time getting to the exact same point and then die over and over again. Throughout the entirety of LBP2 I only ever had to return to the beginning of a level when fighting the final boss, which is kind of a mixed blessing. On one hand this sequel is a less stressful experience, but on the other it's also almost completely devoid of challenge.
Sackboy's efforts to defeat the Negativitron - an evil dragon-like robot that is travelling around Craftworld and sucking up all the creations - take him across a range of joyfully created levels, introducing him to a handful of quirky characters who work for a group known as The Alliance. The story might be fluffier than Sackboy's insides, but the madcap journey and amusing dialogue more than fill in the blanks. There's more of a spectacle this time, too, with vastly superior cutscenes that are both dramatic and expertly crafted.
It's a jolly good campaign that does its best to keep things fresh. Standard running and jumping platforming is, if anything, in the minority here, with Sackboy generally carrying some form of gadget or riding an animal. The grappling hook lets you swing about, the water gun puts out fire and a set of gloves allow you to throw movable objects. This might all sound trivial, but it makes for some of the most diverse gaming styles ever seen in a single platformer. At one moment LBP2 feels like a floaty Mario; at the next it's like Bionic Commando, or a 2D Ratchet and Clank. And all that is before you factor in the animals.
You can fly bees in stages that are closer in style to R-Type than Super Mario World; nip about on a caterpillar; fire a gun from the back of a camel; smash your rabbit's bum through blocks; and whiz about in a rocket-powered hamster. None of these animals or gadgets overstays their welcome, and each is used to solve puzzles and defeat enemies in a variety of ways. The grappling hook is the most satisfying to use, propelling Sackboy into the air if the release is timed correctly. This mechanic is used to great effect in a battle against a giant robot close to the end of the game, in what is the most epic set-piece seen in the series to date - although the final encounter did dampen my enthusiasm due to some stressful swinging.
Aside from the differing gameplay types, animals and gadgets, the newly-introduced Sackbots provide a Lemmings-like feeling to some of the levels. While these square-headed guys are initially scared of you, forcing you to shoo them towards the safety of suction tubes, they'll eventually love you - following you around levels and, if you're not careful, to their death. The stages that require a bit of puzzle-solving to ensure the lovable guys reach safety are among the best in the game, although as with the campaign as a whole, it's not exactly taxing.
LBP2, like its predecessor, can be played alongside three friends, whether online or on a single system. For me, while messing about and slapping each other can be fun, the game just doesn't work as a multiplayer experience when playing through the main story campaign. Where it does work is in the multiplayer areas inside the standard levels, and in the bonus stages which have been designed for versus play. Some are simple button-mashing games, but there are also unexpected treats like a LBP take on basketball. They're throwaway fun, made for messing about, and they're bound to entertain.
So, that's more or less the story part of LBP2 - a tremendously creative if slightly easy platformer with a good chunk of other gameplay styles thrown into the mix at regular intervals. It looks smashing, has more artistic style than any game likely to be released this year, and would still be worth buying if that was all the disc had to offer. But of course, this isn't the case. On the flip side of the professionally made story mode are the creation tools and the community service that goes with it. This, again, is where people tend to fall into two opposing factions.
One group will refuse to believe that there is any fun to be found in creating levels or playing levels created by mere gamers, arguing that they shouldn't have to make their own game. This argument is, quite frankly, a lot of hot air when the included campaign is of the quality I've described. It's early days, but a good chunk of levels already created by users are each, at worst, interesting enough to spend 10 minutes exploring. The best, on the other hand, are good enough to have been part of the on-disc content.
It is, without question, both hard and time consuming to make levels. This was true for the original LBP and will likely remain true until Media Molecule develops a way to directly transfer thoughts into in-game models. LBP2's creation suite isn't as quick to use as, say, the tools we saw in last year's ModNation Racers, but it is a whole lot more professional. I've already seen riffs on popular titles, racing games, shmups and even an FPS. True, if you don't focus on the highest-rated content you're effectively playing some of the worst games ever made, but the good stuff is there and will continue to grow in the months to come.
As a game, LittleBigPlanet 2 is a fun, more accessible sequel that entertains from start to finish with a flurry of creative new ideas. Anyone even moderately adept with a DualShock controller will have a good time, but hardcore gamers may find that the campaign is a little bit too much like a walk in the park. The real depth comes from the creation utilities, and anyone drawn in by the wealth of features is likely to be investing tens if not hundreds of hours here. These tools aren't for everyone, but even the artistically challenged will be able to enjoy the best the LBP community has to offer.