The time is at hand, the moment has arrived, and the game is quite literally afoot. After two years of impatient waiting, the first part of Sony’s two-pronged attack on this console generation is finally upon us. Like Home, LittleBigPlanet carries a weight of expectation that few games could ever hope to justify. Even Peter Molyneux – a Microsoft stalwart for as long as we can remember – has stated that this is the moment PlayStation 3 has been waiting for; when the Sony faithful will finally be rewarded for its loyalty and patience with a game that will be the envy of the entire industry; a stiff two-fingers to Microsoft, and a warning for Nintendo that the real race starts now.
However, as with any wait of such agonising length, there has been ample space for doubt to creep past our defences and linger in the back of the mind. LittleBigPlanet is, without question, the most important PlayStation 3 release to date, and we include the venerable Solid Snake in that estimation. Sony built an entire brand on the diversity of its videogames, consistently feeding the idea that, whoever you are and whatever your tastes, there will be something on PlayStation to push your buttons.
LittleBigPlanet is endemic of that belief, but two years is a long time for a sensible person to wait without questioning the nature of the reasons for their excitement. The surprisingly banal Too Human is a perfect illustration of the sort of problems that an extended period of development and too much hype can mask, and there was always the chance that Media Molecule was hiding a dirty secret of its very own.
Did that sound convincing? As critics and (sort of) journalists, we’re supposed to pay lip service to objectivity, but never have our attempts at an even-handed appraisal rung so very hollow. The truth is, we first played LittleBigPlanet almost two years ago and our paths have crossed several times since, and it has been nothing less than a pleasure on every occasion. The sheer imagination and verve that seeped out of each exquisitely rendered polygon left us in no doubt that Media Molecule had a masterpiece in utero.
It’s with a total absence of pleasure that we proclaim LittleBigPlanet to be the sublime shot in the arm that PlayStation 3 desperately needed, because we knew it all along. And if you look deep inside yourself, you probably knew it too.
The best place to start is generally at the beginning, but with a game like LittleBigPlanet restrictive concepts like a beginning, middle, or an end lose all meaning. Indeed, if Media Molecule’s finely crafted plan works as intended, this could be the first game in history that needn’t ever reach a conclusion. One of the guiding principles of this console generation is the advancement of user-generated content; LittleBigPlanet is that idea distilled into a form that every gamer can understand, from belligerent retro devotees and fly-by-night casuals, to those permanently camped on the medium’s bleeding edge.
It is difficult to see why anyone without an internet connection would buy LittleBigPlanet. After all, the raw potential of its community can only be fully realised online. However, there is a pleasingly substantial Story mode that offers ten hours of high-end fun to those unable to participate on a global level. The entire game is narrated by the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry, which gives the whole experience the air of an especially entertaining episode of Playschool. “It’s time for you to make a scene,” he warbles. “And no, not like the hissy fit you threw in the bakery when they ran out of croissants.” This stuff may be lost on gamers in the US and Japan, but Fry’s digressions complement the game perfectly, and will be music to the UK audience’s ears.
Even if you’re biding your time for the online community to bed in, the story mode is useful as both an extended tutorial and a preparation for building levels. The various challenges are spread across the surface of a patchwork globe, with each new location offering several stages, a handful of mini-games and a climactic boss fight. The first few levels are necessarily simple, but it takes longer than expected for the game to really kick into gear. Only once you’ve reached the flying airship in the Japanese-influenced levels does the joyful detail of Media Molecule’s vision begin to sink in. However, if you pay
The environments are crammed with evocative objects and obstacles, all tailored to their specific country or theme – in Mexico it’s all exploding barrels, mine carts and evil banditos, in Alaska it’s huskies pulling sleds and ethereal snowmen. Everything you see will be hidden as a collectable somewhere in the level, and can be used with the creation tools if you’re lucky enough to find them. Even those without the urge to scour every corner will walk away with plenty of new stickers, decorations and materials to use. After a single playthrough we’d gathered around 50 per cent of the collectables from every level, which equated to anything between 20 and 40 items each.
As a result, there is a definite incentive to return for deeper exploration, but the Story Mode is still most useful as research for your playground. There isn’t a single decoration or sequence of traps that doesn’t highlight a new technique that could become part of your arsenal. We found ourselves returning to levels not just to collect more items, but to observe the intricacies of Media Molecule’s design, taking notes and making sketches as we went. If that sounds like a lot of effort, read on, because LittleBigPlanet is a game whose greatest secrets are kept from all but the most dedicated.
The exuberant invention of the story mode also highlights its single biggest flaw. All of the preview footage – showing the creation tools in action at triple-speed – has resulted in a widely held assumption that LittleBigPlanet will be accessible to all, and to a degree that’s true; relative to the complexity and power they offer, the creation tools are about as accessible as anyone could reasonably expect. However, with every material and action governed by unfailingly coherent physics, there are far more variables to consider than the breezy exterior would suggest. Quite simply, if you left a ten-year old with the LittleBigPlanet creator for an afternoon you’d be more likely to return to a mass of randomly scattered dolls’ heads and sponge cubes than anything resembling a playable level.
Leaping around the evocative, multi-layered playscapes provided by Media Molecule can give a warped impression of what’s within the grasp of the average, or even experienced, gamer. In our first five hours with the creation tools we managed to construct little more than 30 seconds of moderately entertaining gameplay, and that’s being generous. We fully expect some to emerge from LittleBigPlanet disappointed that it didn’t imbue them with the mercurial genius of Shigeru Miyamoto, able to shoot logic puzzles from the tips of their fingers. Unfortunately, some things simply can’t be taught.
Above a certain degree of complexity natural talent is a valuable asset, and those without an instinctual grasp of game design will need to invest a lot of time to get results. You may never scale the glorious heights of imagination found in the story mode, but don’t be dissuaded. With potential for months, if not years of pleasure, the dozen or more hours it takes to become accustomed to the details of the gameplay mechanics and creation tools is a small price to pay.
The breadth and depth of what you can do is staggering. Pistons, hinges and rubber cord can be minutely altered to create rows of stabbing knives, swinging pendulums or dancing monkeys; brains can be attached to inanimate objects and given orders; buttons can be wired to emit deadly foes of your own design. If you want to be greeted by a wallpaper-covered cat whooping like a baboon, the game will oblige. If you would like to be followed by a maniacally laughing Barbie Doll on wheels screaming “Kill Me, Kill Me, Kill Me,” well, that’s pretty weird, but LittleBigPlanet will provide.
Listing the array of possible processes here would be futile, and it is reasonable to assume that more will be added on a regular basis. There are enough ready-made obstacles and backdrops, skilfully designed characters, objects and stickers available straight out of the box to keep anyone going for a few months. But clear a weekend and there needn’t be anything in your world that isn’t conceived exclusively in your own imagination, and refined by your own hand. There is a rare sense of satisfaction to be gained from such personal endeavour, but that won’t be available to everybody.
However, it would be wrong to undermine LittleBigPlanet’s achievements because most people will lack the aptitude and patience to design a fun and challenging level. Those are frailties on the part of the audience, and Media Molecule has delivered a beautiful, complex and, dare we say it, important game. Whether you choose to paint a masterpiece or simply wait for the work of those with raw talent to filter through, this is all we were promised and more. LittleBigPlanet may not prove to be the ultimate saviour of Sony’s title defence, but Media Molecule has given the entire industry good reason to see PlayStation 3 through the green mists of envy. And not a moment too soon.