- Reviewed on: PlayStation 3
- Also available for: none
- The Good: Charming to the Nth degree - sack-person avatars are almost ridiculously endearing. Highly accessible, regardless of player prowess. Easy to learn, yet wonderfully powerful level creator.
- The Bad: At the time of writing, Sony's servers have been struggling under heavy loads, resulting in unreliable online play. We've been told the development team is currently working on a fix.
- The Verdict: That rare video game with the power to intrigue and enchant almost anyone who plays, LittleBigPlanet is one of the most innovative and refreshingly pleasant titles of 2008
Sony's most important game this year isn't some gritty military shooter or months-long RPG, but rather a delightful little platform adventure game, which stars an unassuming stuffed burlap bag who runs around worlds composed mostly of everyday objects, such as boots, skateboards, and cardboard boxes.
Unlike games featuring mutants, aliens, guns and gore, LittleBigPlanet has a pretty good chance of being enjoyed by just about anyone who tries it. It combines extraordinarily accessible game design -all you do is move, jump and grab stuff - with a ridiculous amount of charm and an unexpected level of artistic sophistication (the game's digitally recreated household objects are absolutely spot-on). The result is something that ought to appeal to members of just about any culture, gender and age.
That's just the sort of game Sony needs to help grow the PlayStation 3's audience beyond just hardcore gamers, to include people who fancy themselves casual players - and perhaps even those who don't consider themselves any sort of gamer at all.
An adorable new video game icon is born
When LittleBigPlanet boots up for the first time, players are greeted by British comedian Stephen Fry's welcoming voice (which sounds much the same as it has previously in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy audiobooks and film). He introduces a sack person, the cute little creature we control.
A basic sack person looks rather like the sort of teddy bear Tim Burton might have had as a child. He is a plain brown plaything made of cloth that has black buttons for eyes and a zipper on his chest to hold in his stuffing. Sack people can be dressed up and customized in all manner of ways, but they never lose the feeling of being shoddy-but-lovable fabric toys.
According to myth, sack persons represent our dreaming selves in the game's fantastical world, which is supposed to be a conglomeration of the many trillions of figments that make up humanity's collective imagination.
But their appeal goes deeper than just cuteness. They are among the most empowering avatars ever tendered players. Through a series of simple button taps, we can make our sack persons happy, sad or angry, look in any direction, and individually rotate each arm a full 360 degrees. We can even grab other sack people and tug them around.
These abilities may seem inconsequential at first, but they provide an entirely new way of communicating during group play. No headsets or awkward text-chat boxes are necessary when an avatar can look at or point to objects to demonstrate interest, show an angry or happy face to express approval and dissatisfaction, or simply grab and pull other players over to the place you want them to be.
It's a wonderfully clever mechanic - especially in online play.
Co-operative gaming for the masses
By mentioning web-based gaming, I've probably just struck fear into the hearts of casual players everywhere, people for whom the concept of playing online conjures up images of chubby nerds chattering about clans and ping speeds.
But playing LittleBigPlanet online is just as simple and engaging as playing it by yourself or with other people in the same room. When selecting a level, just choose "Play online," and the game will begin with your avatar standing among one or more human-controlled sacks.
Played in groups, the game becomes much more rewarding. You can have one sack person pull on a wheeled object while others ride it, use your combined strength to topple an obstacle with ease, or even engage in a bit of virtual tomfoolery by pushing each other around as you compete to collect the game's glowing orbs.
Most importantly, though, multiple sack people are often needed in order to retrieve hidden goodies. You might, for example, need two avatars to stand on a pair of timed switches to open a gate to a hidden treasure of collectibles that would remain forever closed to a sack person exploring by his lonesome.
Build your own adventure
All this talk of goodies and collectibles. Why should anyone care about grabbing and hoarding virtual items? Perhaps because, unlike the collectibles found in most games, LittleBigPlanet's prizes - which are composed primarily of random objects we have already encountered as part of the game world - actually serve a purpose: We put them to use as we build our own levels.
Level building sounds awfully intimidating to most people (author included), but in LittleBigPlanet it's been made nearly as simple as playing with building blocks, thanks to an almost sinfully intuitive creation tool called the Popit menu, which gives players the means to change the size, orientation and position of any game object using only the controller's thumbsticks and triggers, before pressing the action button to lock it into place.
And that's just the start. We can create fully locomotive creatures and alter their brains to affect their behaviour. Dynamic objects (explosives, rockets, spiky bars) can be customized for player interaction via buttons and switches. We can even set when and where we want music to start and stop and adjust its intensity and tone in appropriate situations.
In fact, any level you see in the story portion of the game could theoretically be reconstructed by a player - assuming, that is, you've managed to collect all of the necessary objects and items while playing.
It takes time to create a level that others will want to play, but the point is that anyone with sufficient imagination can do it. Degrees in computer science and game design are not required. What's more, the act of level creation will be enormously enjoyable for many people, making it part of the game rather than a laborious precursor to it.
If you don't care to spend the time to make your own, you can always just sit back and enjoy the countless levels made by other players, which can be sorted, ranked, and recommended using a simple tool that allows us to select from clouds of words containing adjectives like "clever," "short" and "hard."
And keep in mind that this is one case in which you need not feel guilty about being a receiver instead of a giver - there are literally hundreds of thousands of aspiring level designers out there who want nothing more than for you to try what they've created.
Fun shall overcome
One of the marketing mottos accompanying LittleBigPlanet's release is "fun shall overcome." I can't think of a more apt way to describe the effect that I anticipate the game will have on anyone who gives it a chance - especially non-gamers who approach it reluctantly.
At the very least, LittleBigPlanet will likely have some measurable impact on the kind of people purchasing PlayStation 3 hardware this holiday. Much as moms and dads have been wooed by the social potential and simplicity of the Wii, it seems probable that parents who catch a glimpse of LittleBigPlanet will see in it a similar cuteness, co-operative spirit, and all-ages appropriateness that might make them consider picking up both the game and Sony's console as a gift for the whole family.
Viewed from a wider lens, LittleBigPlanet moves the industry one step closer to being seen as a medium capable of offering products that appeal to everyone. It is the flag bearer for any interactive entertainment that would seek to amuse not just those limited groups known as hardcore and casual gamers, but rather that larger pool of people known simply as the world.