LittleBigPlanet 2 is a starkly different experience depending on if you play it offline or online. Offline it fails to live up to its predecessor’s varied and challenging story mode, despite the many new additions to Sackboy’s arsenal. However, once you’re connected to the LittleBigPlanet servers, the game takes on a completely new dimension and proves that it’s got all the right ingredients to be the best community-based experience on the PlayStation 3.
The story mode in LBP2 is downright disappointing. It’s all over in about 4 hours and is far too easy. There’s no adjustable difficulty so the only real challenge to the levels is working out how to reach all the collectables (i.e. stickers, decorations, materials and outfits) and trying to get the highest score possible. I remember the first game being much more challenging, especially towards the end, and feeling longer. LBP2 has six worlds with about five main levels each. These can all be completed in 5 to 10 minutes, ensuring that the game’s story is over before you’ve even had a chance to fully engage with it.
The basic storyline in LBP2 has a Star Wars vibe about it. Craftworld is on the brink of annihilation due to the cruel acts of the nefarious Negativitron – an inter-dimensional vacuum cleaner who has begun sucking up Sackboy’s neighbourhood along with its inhabitants. You join a crew of eccentric characters known as ‘The Alliance’, whose mission is to bring down Negativitron once and for all and thus save Craftworld from certain destruction.
The story mode in LBP2 bears a few improvements over the original. The production values are higher this time round and this translates into fully voiced, well-crafted cut-scenes and a humorous, tongue-in-cheek script. The dialogue is over-the-top and filled with pathos, but this is clearly intentional and adds to LittleBigPlanet’s unique, quirky identity.
On the flipside, the themes for each level are not nearly as imaginative or wide-ranging as the original. Most of the environments are indoors and aren’t very memorable, whereas in the original LittleBigPlanet you blazed a trail around the world, visiting exotic locations like Africa and Japan. In the sequel there’s a factory setting; a cake-making laboratory and a futuristic environment (think of Star Wars’ TIE fighter hangars); to name a few.
The levels might not be as varied as in the original but they’re still visually attractive and filled with all sorts of impressive effects, such as jam cakes being vaporised. The level design is weird and wonderful, and this gels well with the game’s offbeat personality. However, I found the gameplay in story mode to be uninspiring and flawed, especially when compared to LBP2’s competition. In recent years we have been spoiled with quality platformers like New Super Mario Bros. on Wii and DS, and Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2. Comparing these excellent titles to LBP2 demonstrates that Media Molecule still have a lot to learn about crafting a stimulating, enjoyable and rewarding gameplay experience.
There were many moments in LBP2’s story mode when I found myself zoning out because I was required to repeat the same action over and over to progress through the level. For example, there are a couple of shooting sequences in the game, such as when Sackboy controls a bee and needs to blast his way through the level. These sequences drag on for a bit too long and the difficulty level is too low to make them an exciting experience. There are also a few gameplay issues during platforming sections. Sackboy runs a little too slow for my liking, so it would be nice if there was some sort of ‘dash’ button like there is in Super Mario games. He still controls in a ‘floaty’ fashion, and new equipment like the grappling hook don’t control intuitively.
For example, the final boss battle requires you to frequently use your grappling hook to avoid being eaten up. There’s no way to aim it – annoyingly, it attaches onto the nearest grabbable surface whenever you fire it. This gameplay oversight made me die an unenviable number of times during the final fight, and each death felt unfair and undeserved. Here’s hoping Media Molecule patch this in the near future.
Like its predecessor, there are mini-levels to unlock in each world. These are typically designed for co-op or versus play, and range from basketball to rodent racing. You can play these fun diversions locally or online with your friends, or alternatively join a game in progress and play alongside other PSN users. It’s truly amazing how many people are playing LBP2 at any given time, especially since it’s a newly released title. There were at least 20 000 people online whenever I played LBP2, and about 100 people playing each level of story mode. So you should have no trouble finding people to play through the levels with or compete against in the game’s versus stages, although I recommend playing locally with friends if possible because the online multiplayer has quite a bit of lag.
The biggest draw for most people who enjoy the LittleBigPlanet series is creating their own levels to publish online and playing other people’s efforts. LBP2 excels in this area, providing millions of user-generated levels for players to experience, and a rich toolset to create with. The 3 million or so levels created in LBP1 are accessible in the sequel, and feature enhanced lighting, anti-aliasing and visual effects. When you search for a level you have the option of filtering the results, so you can specify if the level was created in LBP1 or LBP2, for example.
There are many other search filters you can tweak on top of this. However, the search function is not as accessible as it could be. There’s no simple way to rearrange the results by tags, rating, or number of times hearted (i.e. liked) or played. So searching for ‘Final Fantasy VII’ yields dozens of results, and it’s quite a process to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thankfully, there is an official website, www.lbp.me, which makes the process of finding worthwhile levels to play a lot easier. You can even queue levels for your PS3 to download next time you boot up LBP2.
This website is a welcome tool for LBP fans because there are thousands of ‘levels’ on the server which aren’t even playable. The new tools in LBP2 allow you to create your own cut-scenes so there are a ton of short films currently being published which use this functionality. Expect to see a plethora of homages to such superheroes as Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk, as well as (mostly nonsensical) original plots. There are also levels dedicated to recreating famous musical numbers, as well as ones which teach you how to achieve a certain ‘look’ for Sackboy (e.g. Kratos) by using stickers the author places in that level.
The new creation tools at your disposal greatly increase your design choices, and all come with comprehensive tutorials to facilitate the learning process. You can now alter the gravity in your levels, so Sackboy no longer has to feel like he’s platforming on the surface of the moon. There is also a level link option so the more dedicated creators can upload a full-length game to the server if they so desire. You can record voice-overs for your cut-scenes, as well as insert any other custom sound effects you may need. Music is now easier to create than ever before thanks to a new tool called the music sequencer.
Then of course there’s the ability to create non-platformer levels, such as top-down racers and shooters, RPGs, adventure games and any other genre you care to think of. Whether a Guitar Hero clone can be created using the LBP2 tools remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t put it past all the talented PSN users out there to pull it off. Many of the best user-created levels are in an unfinished state right now, such as a brilliant ‘remake’ of Micro Machines V3 for PSOne. There’s also a Heavy Rain inspired game which looks very promising from the single level that’s been released so far.
The true genius of LBP2 is bringing fairly sophisticated game-design tools to the PlayStation community and supporting everyone’s efforts with a great system of interaction, encouragement and reward. Some of the more popular levels already have hundreds of comments, and there’s a category accessible from the main menu called ‘MM Picks’ which features a list of outstanding levels published recently, according to the developers.
Another thing worth noting about the creation aspect of the game is those levels designed to advertise a product. Just this last week an official Toyota Prius level was published, which is linked to a competition where the best Prius-themed level will earn a Sony 3D Bravia TV for its creator. I expect to see many more commercial levels like this one in the coming months, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other companies do with this concept. I’d definitely like to see some official movie themed levels being published!
Before you start creating your own level you’ll need to collect bits and bobs from story mode. Unlike LBP1, there’s no option to import someone else’s save game and use their acquisitions to construct your levels. Another thing to take into account is that you’ll need to finish 5 levels of story mode before you can even begin playing other people’s levels or designing your own. I found this a little restrictive but thankfully it will only take about half an hour to unlock these other modes.
There’s not an awful lot to say about the audio and visual aspects of LBP2. I expected a bit more in the graphics department but what’s here still looks great. The textures are crisp and colourful, and the lighting, effects and anti-aliasing are all improved over the original. There’s no 3D support, which is strange considering its inclusion in other upcoming Sony first-party titles like Killzone 3 and Uncharted 3. Many of the sound effects are carried over from LBP1, while the music is mostly original. The tunes in the game are eclectic and match the eccentricity of the other elements found in story mode. However, they’re not particularly catchy or pleasant to listen to. I’d choose the Mario games’ ditties over LBP2’s tunes every time. On a side note, you can only make use of custom soundtracks when you’re in create mode.
LBP2 doesn’t have a chance to shine if you stick solely to its story mode. This mode is essentially just a mechanism to show you how all the new features of the game work, and get you chomping at the bit to dive into the online community of players and creators. It is here that the real depth of the game lies, and the online component of LBP2 should keep you thoroughly entertained and engaged for years to come. It’s inspiring to see what people can achieve over time using the tools at their disposal, and to be a part of the development process by serving as both critic and game tester for their creations.
Forget PSN, XBLA and the iTunes App Store for a moment, and instead turn your attention to some of the fantastic user-created levels in LBP2. All the great game designers had to start somewhere, and LittleBigPlanet 2 serves as the perfect Petri dish to incubate the next generation of talent.