How do you a review a game that has the world resting on its shoulders? Has the LittleBigPlanet that looked delightful a year ago evolved under Sony's marketing microscope - and is that change for the better or worse? For once, the hype doesn't matter. This is an important game, and not just because those with a vested interest in the PS3 tell you it is. This isn't because it is a big-money push to dominate a key genre (a la Xbox 360 poster-child Halo), but rather because it is a genuine attempt to do something new with a less-fashionable, but still hugely fun genre. For once Sony's marketing and PR big-wigs have been on the money in thrusting their full weight behind sackboy's emergence.
But what is LBP, at its core? It is very easy to wax lyrical about the lofty aspirations of the user-generated content aspect of the game (I no doubt will, later), but at its centre LittleBigPlanet is simply the most delightful and original platform game of recent years. Playing the singleplayer portion of Media Molecule's opus leaves you in little doubt about the mechanic at the heart of the action. Pure and simple; running and jumping. Oh, and a bit of hanging and dragging, too. Moving across the screen through environments brimming will activity, players will guide their sackboy or sackgirl on a mad-cap adventure that will take in physics-based and more traditional platform-style conundrums, strung together by unique one-of-a-kind worlds that are simply a joy to explore.
The ever-charming Stephen Fry is on hand to talk you through the basics of the game, introducing you to the moves you'll need to use to progress through LBP's levels - or simply pointing out things you can do that will help you have fun. Running and jumping is the cusp of the evolved-platform gameplay, but so to is hanging (useful for traversing particular areas, or clinging on for dear-life in some of the giant machines you'll meet later on) and dragging (key for reaching certain areas by moving items, or for unblocking the path ahead). All this motion is beautifully animated in a manner that would make Pixar proud, and the fun-filled but believable physics are among the best I've seen in any game, of any genre. The way the moving of objects, and the manner in which physics impacts this, is key to the gameplay is wonderful to behold - and at times you'll catch yourself grinning like a transfixed toddler at the playfulness of it all.
If sackboy is the new star of the PlayStation 3, it is ironic that our cuddly friend will struggle to steal all of the limelight during the game itself. Playing the singleplayer game (and later, dabbling with the levels created by others) it becomes apparent that LittleBigPlanet is all about the landscapes, the worlds, the levels... whatever you wish to call them. "Playgrounds" might be a better word for the vivid, child-like landscapes on offer - and it is with glee that you'll send sackboy careering through these sandpits, awash with multi-levelled, multi-textured titillation. Everything looks and feels wonderfully tactile, and the designers' imagination is displayed in the boundless variety of the environs. In singleplayer you'll tackle stages with Medieval, African, Aztec, Mexican, American, Oriental and Indian motifs - and while I have my favourite regions (the Indian-style settings are works of art in their own right), every part of the globe you explore will offer a feast for the senses.
A word on the controls - which can take a little getting used to, despite Stephen's snappily delivered explanations. While the game looks like a traditional 2D platformer (albeit an aesthetically astounding one), the landscape is in fact in "2.5D". This is because the player can also move through three levels of depth in the environment, and the mastering of how you move between these 'plains' will be key to smooth progress at times. It isn't perfect, in fact I occasionally found myself getting ever-so-slightly frustrated as sackboy found himself on the wrong plain, repeatedly, sometimes resulting in his untimely demise. Still, this element isn't enough to sully anything whatsoever, and only serves as a minor chink in the otherwise incredibly polished veneer of LBP.
The singleplayer will probably see you through the best part of ten to fifteen hours of fun, give or take, although it perhaps seems like less - simply because of the variety on display. Each stage will see you battling the environment (and evading its variously styled clock-work villains - jump on their 'buttons' to despatch), before taking on a slightly more challenging boss-type character (I liked the Sumo in Asia, but there are a variety of original foes), who will usually have some kind of weakness to exploit. Again, these are not typical platform bosses, as artistic endevour, physics, and cunning gameplay devices combine to make for some frankly ridiculous (in a good way) encounters. It is in these battles that having a friend or two along on the adventure really helps, too, as during harder struggles a bit of support is most useful. With this in mind, the drop-in, drop-out co-op really works a treat; Media Molecule ensuring there is plenty of content for more than one player to appreciate (co-op exclusive areas on certain levels, for example).
You may have noticed that I've got this far and I've barely managed to touch on the user-generated content side of things - this isn't because this side of the game is in any way inconsequential, but rather I was hoping to highlight through my earlier ramblings how good the game is before you even reach for this extra layer of detail. Strewn throughout the game's levels are stickers to collect (these will give you bonuses if applied in the right places), and there are a myriad (no, really) of items to collect as you progress, beyond the innumerable point-giving orbs. The collection of items will give you goodies with which do decorate the world, and sackboy himself, as well as gradually unlocking 'stuff' for using in the level creation portion of the game.
The level of sackboy (or girl!) customisation is very high indeed, and you'll find yourself evolving your fabric-hero on the fly simply because of the casual joy there is to be had trying out combinations of outfits, and the other accessories available. The possibilities are endless, and all this does of course add yet further colour to co-op bouts as well. You can even decorate your 'pod' (sackboy's home from where you'll access the game's various options) with decorations you've garnered in play. Nice touches include the ability to control your sack-person's arms by holding the controller's triggers; great for showing-off after putting in a sterling performance on a particular stage, while his expression can be tailored to a range of emotions as well. You can even make him bow by tilting the controller (the Sixaxis is also used for 'shaking loose' jetpacks). None of this is groundbreaking of course, but it adds lashings of charm and personality to the proceedings.
Of course, the real longevity of the LittleBigPlanet experience is likely to come from the user-generated levels - and it is on this side of things that matters do get quite involved. Finding new user-generated worlds is a doddle... creating something half-decent of your own certainly isn't. Lucky, then, that there's already a plethora of content for you to investigate, from a variety of creative (and potentially insane) people. The offerings available now are impressive, so it'll be interesting to see how good the landscapes created can become as people invest more and more time in the terrifyingly comprehensive creation tools available.
Stephen Fry is once again at hand to talk you through the possibilities, but such is the complexity and breadth here that even Fry's dulcet tones can become tiresome as you struggle to get to grips with the toolset at your disposal. This creative set isn't in any way flawed, far from it in fact, it is simply the case that many players just won't want to put in the hours necessary to make passable content of their own. That said, with lashings of content likely post-launch, and the potential here for an avid community, we're still hopeful that even those overwhelmed by the complexity of level creation will find plenty of new experiences. Those with a penchant for modding, meanwhile, are likely to be enthralled by the power Media Molecule place at their finger tips (we've already seen the first level of Mario and Tetris created using LBP, and this is probably just the start).
So... where does it all end? Well, this is the nice part - and something of a journalistic get-out-clause - we just don't know. LittleBigPlanet is one of the most inviting game world's ever imagined, the concept is a masterstroke, the implementation slick. Media Molecule are also promising enhancements still to come, and alongside epic amounts of user-generated content (assuming players do invest the time the game banks on them investing) the sky really could be the limit for the diminutive sackboy. Beyond a few control niggles and the obvious challenge of the content creation tools (which are perhaps not as approachable as the sandbox, power-to-the-people theme struck might imply), this is a game that can take you to new and exciting places like few others before it. We're buying into the LittleBigPlanet phenomenon; we're buying in big. So should you.