When we reviewed LittleBigPlanet back in 2008, we did so with more than a little faith. True, that review disc came with a substantial amount of potential, but its success was out of Sony’s hands. Sure, LittleBigPlanet was a charming and stylish game, with a tool kit and some ideas of how it all might be used, but no one really knew if it would work. More than any other console game in history, LittleBigPlanet’s success or failure rested with a community of gamers that no one was sure even existed.
But now, more than two years, three million sales, a couple of BAFTAs and over five million user-created levels later, that faith has been fully vindicated. Without being too hyperbolic about matters, it’s safe to say that, with time, LittleBigPlanet has become one of the defining games of this generation.
And we thought that one LittleBigPlanet would be enough. Mark Healey, Media Molecule’s Creative Director, said as recently as 2009 that there would be no need for a sequel, and that the developer would continue to support and develop LittleBigPlanet with a series of updates and DLC. This happened for a while – but then early last year, Healey changed his mind. Media Molecule’s plans for LittleBigPlanet were too LittleBig to fit into a game update.
It’s easy to see this sequel – or evolution of the LittleBigPlanet idea – as a reaction to how the community has used that original toolset. Many of the new tools aim to supplement current creator activity, some to expand, and some are there, seemingly, to boggle the mind of lesser creators, destined only to appreciated and fully realised by the hardcore.
Again Media Molecule has created its own levels, this time entirely within the LittleBigPlanet 2 creation kit. It’s all reasonably entertaining in its own way but when compared to the last game’s set of original levels – and indeed many of LittleBigPlanet’s user-created levels – it feels almost too tight, too accomplished. There’s something to be said about the original game’s lo-fi cut-and-paste charm, and this set is strangely lacking in personality – although, it has to be said, games™ will always have a soft spot for Avalon, the game’s self-styled rock n’ roll scientist.
Anyone looking for £49.99 worth of game here will be disappointed, but then that would be missing the point. As with the first game, these levels serve as a way of introducing the main creation tools, and show examples of how they might be used in a game situation. It’s a necessary function that probably explains why imagination hasn’t entirely been let off the leash, and sanity and structure have been retained. It’s here that Media Molecule plays teacher, its hope being that some of it students will go on to be brain surgeons or rocket scientists. And some to be plumbers – but not Italian ones; that particular copyright belongs to someone else.
And so to the real meat of LittleBigPlanet 2. When talking about the new creation tools, there are so many new and game-changing ones (literally), it’s hard to know where to start. And we’re certain that’s how many creators – especially beginners – will feel when they first broach this new toolset.
Sackbots are automaton versions of Sackboy that can be programmed to act and react in many different ways. They can be told to follow or flee; they can play the role of friend or enemy, helper or foe. They can play bit parts or starring roles – they are animated mannequins that can be programmed and used in pretty much any way a creator sees fit. They even be controlled directly by Sackboy using the Controlinator.
This device, more than any other, has the potential to open up LittleBigPlanet creation to other genres and, potentially, to enable creators to invent entirely new ones. With it, direct control of any objects at all – Sackbots included – can be given to the player. No longer must every level feature Sackboy as its central and only controlled character. This, of course, has been hinted at by some of the more resourceful of LittleBigPlanet’s creators, but now it has the official seal of approval and that brings benefits, namely that it’s easy to implement and has much more flexibility.
The other huge leap forwards is the inclusion of microchips. These can be attached to pretty much anything and programmed with a series of logic gates. Logic gates, as you know are the gateway to ‘real’ programming. With simple AND, XOR, OR and other things we don’t fully understand, complex AI can be born, and that means ‘real’ games.
There are other, smaller gameplay devices that could have massive potential for creation: the Grabinators enable Sackboy to lift and throw objects, the Grapple Gun enables him to attach and swing from appropriate surfaces, the Creatinator (a hat worn by Sackboy) can be programmed to emit just about whatever the creator so wishes. There’s also a music sequencer, and new functionality to the camera tools that enables the creation of cut-scenes complete with fades, pans and other movie-making devices. In fact, if you so wished, a level could be just a series of cut-scenes with no ‘gameplay’ at all. Basically, Media Molecule has thought of everything.
But when you make something more complex, there’s a danger or excluding a greater number of people from the fun. The trick is to find a balance between complexity and user-friendliness. Make the toolset – or the use of the toolset – too complicated and many people will simply be put off. Media Molecule, along with the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry – has done a decent job of explaining functionality, but not why you might use these tools. We’d like to have seen some more examples and in-game tutorials. For example, showing people how to make a basic shoot-’em-up or a top-down racer. After all, an educated community can only be good for the game.
So will we need to place as much faith in LittleBigPlanet’s community as we did the first time round? Well, no. For starters, there’s a massive leg-up this time, with the vast majority of LittleBigPlanet levels compatible with LittleBigPlanet 2. All that DLC content, materials and stickers and pretty much everything else from the first game is usable in this second. You can even import your game profile into LittleBigPlanet 2 and effectively continue where you left off.
Of course, the same is true this time round – without its community, a game like LittleBigPlanet cannot exist. With Media Molecule’s efforts to tailor additions to the toolset to the community needs, we can only envision resounding and continued success for LittleBigPlanet. Already the recent beta showed that the community has lost none of its flair for pushing and downright disrespecting the boundaries. Using a slimmed down version of this final toolset, creators have been able to make levels that immaculately recreate Micro Machines and flOw, there’s a level that does a fair job of recreating Wolfenstein 3D (yes, in pseudo 3D), and there have been numerous experiments for in-game menu systems, single-player co-op games and turn-based RPG combat – all of which are now only possible with LittleBigPlanet 2’s tools.
We’re confident that people will move on from recreating existing games (and genres) and then the real fun will begin but, for now, it’s a good place to start. After all, copying some of the most successful games and genres of all time is a great way to teach yourself game design. And who knows where financially risk-free LittleBigPlanet 2 development might lead in the future?
We can’t wait to see what LittleBigPlanet 2 has evolved into in a month or three, when we can truly measure the impact that these tools will have had on an already ultra-creative community. We predict that it’s going to be like setting off an atomic bomb. LittleBigPlanet 2 will see an explosion of hobbyist game creation that could – in an even bigger way this time – send shockwaves around the industry. Duck and cover people, Sackboy is back. And in a world obsessed with identikit sequels, that is something worth believing in.