Media Molecule’s latest game, LittleBigPlanet, was based upon three simple ideas: play, create, and share. With the adorable little Sackperson as your in-game persona, you can play through 60 pre-made levels, gathering new outfits to make a look that’s totally you, stickers to decorate the world with, and a variety of materials and objects that are used for the next part: creating. LittleBigPlanet provides all the templates and materials a motivated player needs to create his or her own level. Recreating a classic video game, or making a functioning calculator is all possible and fairly easy to do. As Stephen Fry, your cheerful guide throughout the game, says, “in LittleBigPlanet, if you can dream it, you can make it.” Once your masterpiece is complete, you can upload the level and share it with the rest of the world. Best of all, this can all be done with family and friends through a combination of local and on-line, drop in/drop out co-op.
I want to get this out of the way upfront and state, for the record, that LittleBigPlanet is fun. Absolutely and incredibly fun. I haven’t played a platformer that was this charming or elegant, while at the same time being somewhat challenging, in years. With that out of the way, I want to focus on the two key aspects of the game: play and create. The actual play mechanic of LittleBigPlanet is almost exactly like the classic platformers of old. After the first few levels, I had that same feeling of just barely being unable to reach the next ledge and that little bit of slide when you land from a jump that I had when I played Super Mario Bros. Given the proliferation of levels on-line that are some variation of a classic Super Mario Bros. level, I’d say others felt the same. Progression through the levels involves collecting Score Bubbles, some of which contain the aforementioned outfits, materials, and new stickers, and overcoming a few puzzles, hazards, and baddies along the way. Should those hazards and baddies get the better of you, there are waypoints used throughout the level that allow a limited number of do-overs before you have to start the whole level over again. Of course if a particular level is giving you too much trouble or there’s a part you just can’t seem to get past, inviting another player to lend a hand can help. And when another person joins in, the game becomes even more fun… sometimes.
One of the biggest letdowns to LittleBigPlanet is that the “co-op” aspect of the game can waver back and forth between enjoying the levels and progressing through them with other players as a team, and racing through to collect as many Score Bubbles as possible in an all out, “every Sackperson for themselves” style of play. Media Molecule has dubbed this particular feature “coopetition” and while it can be fun -- after all a little competition can be a good thing -- it really feels out of place in a game like this. As a result, joining a random play session on-line with some fellow players, is pretty much like flipping a coin: either the players are just playing to enjoy the scenery and explore all there is to explore, or they’re engaged in a tense points race to see who gets bragging rights. It’s easy to leave a particular play session that doesn’t fit what you’re looking for, but it doesn’t instill a lot of confidence that the next one will be better. Fortunately, with the level rating system, you can do a search for levels that are tagged as being “co-operative” to reduce the chance of being tossed headfirst into a competitive race.
“Coopetition” is also likely the reason behind the second letdown: tethering. No matter if you’re playing locally or on-line, players are essentially forced to stick together. If an errant Sackperson wanders away from the rest of the group and is off-screen for more than 5 seconds, they die. Sure they’ll come back at the next waypoint you hit, but that means that’s one less chance the group has of completing the level. An argument could be made for not including split screen with local (although I’m not sure what it would be), but having this kind of mechanic for on-line play where each player has his or her own screen is just baffling. Hopefully, this will be a mechanic that might someday get patched and become more of an option instead of a required feature.
Teaming up with another player to make your own level can actually be one of the more cooperative experiences in LittleBigPlanet, assuming you both have the same vision in mind. Creating a level takes some practice, but once you get a grasp of all the tools and objects that are made available to you as you complete the levels, it’s fairly easy to accomplish. It’s also fairly time consuming, no matter how much practice you have. This is where having a buddy can really make a difference. While Rome wasn’t built in a day, two players working together can create a Rome themed level (complete with a dancing Nero, if they so chose) in less than a couple of hours. Both players have access to the same objects and materials and can work simultaneously in placing them around the level. Thus, if one player is working on making the Colosseum, the other player can be working on the Parthenon. While the screen does allow you to zoom out to a significant enough degree that you don’t exactly feel tethered to the other player, if you want to get up-close to do some detailing, then the other player has to come over to you to fit on the same screen. Again, a split screen would work wonders here.
I mentioned earlier that I haven’t played a platformer like LittleBigPlanet in a long-time. Frankly, that statement should be amended to say that “I have never played a game like this.” There is something so indefinably charming, completely fascinating, and utterly engaging about this game that seems to bring out the creative side in players. Scrolling through the dearth of levels already posted by a community, some of which were made within less than a week of the game being released, you can find levels that break the traditional platform genre and introduce elements from other archetypes. In the time I’ve spent with the game so far, I’ve seen at least half a dozen levels that were nothing more than people using the game’s tools to recreate well-known songs in a Mario Paint-type fashion; I played a game of Tetris; I solved a murder mystery; I visited Silent Hill and ran from Pyramid Head; I was Batman. LittleBigPlanet is just a week old but already it’s beginning to show just how creative a gaming community can be when giving the opportunity. The best part about this game, though, was knowing that I could play each of those levels with a friend or work with them to make a world unlike anyone has ever seen, with all the unique and creative elements that we can imagine.