There's a feeling that an awful lot is riding on LittleBigPlanet. Some have called it the saviour of the PS3. Others have labelled it the most creative game of all time. It's even being held aloft as the poster boy for a new wave of user created gaming. For some it's just the game that is going to breathe life into the near-dead 2D platforming genre. So yeah, it's fair to say that LittleBigPlanet had the potential to destroy the dreams of an extremely vocal online community and hurt the company that invested a lot to bring the game to market. Thankfully developer Media Molecule has delivered a game that succeeds on most counts, fails in only a few and offers enough to be enjoyed by just about anyone.
For those not in the loop, LittleBigPlanet is a real-world physics-based 2D platformer that sees you take control of Sackboy (or at least a sackboy), a cloth-based anthropomorphic character that can leap about in glee (or sadness if you press down on the d-pad to alter his facial expression). One tap of the jump button will cause him to perform a skip-like jump that more or less skims the surface. Hold the button down and he'll jump higher. Your sackboy (we say 'your' as you're able to customise his attire and accessories to your desire) can also hold on to things by holding R1. This lets him move objects or swing on things, which come into play in the many levels Media Molecule has included.
Although focussed very heavily on user created content, LittleBigPlanet includes a story mode that spans the globe. Each themed area (The Savannah, The Temples, The Islands, The Canyons, The Wedding, The Wilderness and more) consists of a handful of levels which when completed open up the next in the story. Collect keys to open secret challenge levels and return to each to level in order to set a new high score (orbs collected earn you points) or to collect the many hidden items.
As in many platformers there are items scattered about the levels, but here they're not used to give your character new abilities or temporary enhancements, but simply added to your box of goodies. A menu, called popit, holds the secret to LittleBigPlanet's uniqueness. Bring this up and a new world of console gaming is unleashed. During the story mode you're simply able to stamp the world with stickers (often to release hidden items) and customise your sackboy, but everything you collect can be used in the level creation tool - something we'll get to a little later.
Compared to the very best 2D platformers (we're talking about Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island, and even the recently released Braid if you want a modern comparison) your sackboy's jumping doesn't feel quite as precise as you might want it to be. We found ourselves forever over doing jumps, slipping off ledges and generally getting into trouble at the hands of the controls. Added to this is the three-tier system the levels use, allowing sackboy to move in and out of the screen. For the most part this works almost seamlessly, with the game figuring out where you want to be, but at other times it can cause real problems, ending in annoying and occasionally infuriating death.
This is made all the worse by what can only be described as a terrible checkpoint system. Checkpoints are well positioned throughout the story mode levels, but the lives system (usually only three lives per checkpoint) can cause headaches. For the most part LittleBigPlanet isn't a hard game, which makes tricky sections something of a shock and a pain. We actually really liked the parts of the game that asked us to perform incredibly hard feats of platforming, but the game seemingly wanted us to hate it. Fail enough times and you'll run out of lives, forcing you to replay the whole level. Replaying levels isn't hard, with most being pretty easy to run through once you've seen them, but when you're having to do that over and over again because of one obscenely tricky jumping section (which isn't helped by the floaty jumping) it tests your patience to near breaking point.
Playing with friends is a great way to get maximum enjoyment out of the game, with four sackboys creating moments that wouldn't happen if you were playing alone. There's also a decent competitive scoring system running as you make your way through each level, ensuring you're always trying to get as many orbs as possible. The problem comes when the levels get trickier. We found that the sections that required millimetre perfect jumps to be nigh-on unplayable with friends, down to the way the camera shifts about and has a tendency to focus on the wrong part of the action. It's a real shame as multiplayer with some friends around the same console is great fun when it works (it should be noted that we haven't been able to test these levels online with other players).
When the levels work LittleBigPlanet shows its brilliance, with creativity on show here that shames the majority of titles hitting the market this year, but there are too few levels in the story mode that reach this high standard. It won't take you long to beat the 20 or so levels (with a further truck load of challenge levels unlocked if you collect keys) and unless you really want all the items only a few warrant repeated play. Thankfully a lot of people will want to get all those items, as without them you're limiting what you can make in the level creator - arguably you shouldn't have to hunt every item down if you just want to create levels, but it's a design decision we can live with.
Judged as just a technically impressive, artistically brilliant platformer LittleBigPlanet would rank high on the PS3's best games list, but not terribly near the top. It's not until you factor in the level creation tools that the true depth, creative brilliance and longevity of the game shine through. Let us first point out that this isn't a tool for everyone. If you have no artistic flair you're not going to be able to create great levels - and Media Molecule has excluded features like using digital camera snaps (PlayStation Eye photography only) and user-generated audio that would have pleased more casual creators - but if you're willing to invest the time and have a little flair, this could be the only game you'll need to play in some time.
LittleBigPlanet looks simple, but the level creation tools have been made almost entirely for the hardcore to get hold of. As much as Sony might market LittleBigPlanet as a game for everyone, this aspect isn't going to get much love from your non-gaming partner, mother or little sister. If you've dreamt of making your own games (ideally 2D platfomers with floaty jumping, but there is room for some creative game design) the tools here will make that dream come true. It's complex stuff for sure, with the well delivered tutorials from Stephen Fry only really introducing you to the basics, but stick with it and truly great things can be achieved. The test server our review build connected to could only see a few handfuls of levels, but even these showed the kind of creativity that's hopefully going to be in even more abundance once the game hits stores.
Of course, if you don't care for level creating you can simply play the levels that others have created. Sure, a large number will be terrible and you'll only finish a handful, but you'll often find small moments of brilliance within what appeared to be a complete mess of a level - we can see cooperative level creating online being a big bonus for creative types once Media Molecule patches in the unfortunately excluded feature. A clever tagging and heart system lets you see what others think of levels too, so it's relatively easy to find levels that are worth your time.
LittleBigPlanet may well save the PS3 (if it indeed needs saving), it may be the most creative game of all time, it could well usher in a new era of user-generated gaming, and has a chance of bringing about a 2D platforming renaissance, but all those things are down to you. The game Media Molecule has created won't do these things alone, but if gamers create the levels we think they're capable of, we might be looking at one of the most important games this console generation has seen. As it stands it's an entertaining platfomer, highly polished training tool and potential gateway to greatness. We're hoping it will end up being much more.