Remember Day & Night ? It was the Pixar short that played before Toy Story 3 in theatres last year. It chronicles a spat between two fellows whose bodies act as windows to scenes of day and night. It is almost impossibly clever; the sort of entertainment that leaves viewers in awe of humanity's creative potential. I bring it up now because I experienced a similar sense of giddy enthralment over our species' wondrously inventive nature while playing LittleBigPlanet 2, Media Molecule's follow-up to one of the most imaginative games ever made.
Players again take on the role of a sack person; a cute and floppy little fellow over whom we have complete expressive control. The universe in which he exists is supposedly sprung from the collective imagination of everyone on Earth. Fittingly, it's filled with all manner of inspired creations, including cardboard rockets, camel tanks, and a fellow with an eraser for a body and a notepad for a head whose animated face is composed of scribbles.
A series of kitchen-themed stages sees players navigating around enormous dangling teacups and shooting climbable pastries from a "sniper trifle" before taking on an enormous guard turkey named Copernicus. Another area has us rescuing and controlling the movements of mindlessly adoring (and adorable) sackbots by activating a sack-in-the-box out of which the image of an attractive female sack automaton springs.
The world, our burlap boy's abilities, and our objectives change frequently and dramatically throughout the game. I found myself on the back of a caterpillar rushing headlong through a horizontal maze one moment and navigating the treacherous innards of a crazy old professor while shooting his malleable brain with white blood cells the next.
By the time I reached Avalon Centrifuge's Advanced Armaments Academy—a futuristic stage in which players ride a giant robot bunny with a deadly hop, control a mechapup with a sonic bark that can move the world, and pilot a speedy cyborg rodent called the Hamstertron 2000 whose blisteringly quick antics are everything that modern Sonic the Hedgehog games should be but aren't—I found I was engaged in forms of play that were unlike anything I'd ever before encountered in LittleBigPlanet...or any other game, for that matter.
The goal of the story mode is to defeat Negativatron and his minions, the meanies, who are out to make life hard for the denizens of Craftworld. But narrative is completely beside the point. One doesn't play LittleBigPlanet 2 in hopes of finding some sort of meaningful allegory filled with deep characters, but instead to experience creative sparks come to virtual life in an interactive playground.
And the best part is that this spirit of creativity is eventually conferred upon us, the players.
Like its predecessor, LittleBigPlanet 2 lets players create their own levels using an enormously powerful game editor. In fact, this tool is now so sophisticaed that players can design complete games with multiple stages. Truly, anything Media Molecule can do, so can players. Studio co-founder Alex Evans told me last fall that he actually used the original LittleBigPlanet community as a talent pool from which to hire new gamesmiths.
That said, making a good game isn't easy. A revamped set of dozens of tutorials—delivered once again by the immensely listenable Stephen Fry—is intended to simplify the learning process for newcomers and at the same time apprise veterans of new features, such as a robust music editor that allows users to create their own soundtracks and sound effects. But as well crafted as these tutorials are, becoming a master LittleBigPlanet 2 game maker will likely take months of practice and hard work.
I'll admit that LittleBigPlanet game design isn't my strong suit. I can make simple little platformers with see-saws to play on and fire pits to hop over that my daughter enjoys, but I haven't the time, patience, or artistic wherewithal to design my own game objects or figure out how best to employ the switches and triggers required to make really neat things happen.
Thank goodness, however, that other people do have the time, patience, and artistic means. More than three million user-designed levels were generated for the original game, and thousands more have already been designed for the second. I've tried side-scrolling shooters, racing games, a simplified version of a famous action sequence from Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and a painstakingly recreated boss battle from Final Fantasy VI. If a better outlet for individuality and inventiveness exists in the world of games, I'm unaware of it.
Despite having completed the story, mucked about with the editor, and tried plenty of user-created content, I can't help but feel that I could and should have put in more time with the game before writing this review. But, of course, that's part of its beauty. It doesn't matter how much time you invest in it; LittleBigPlanet 2's creative tools and nearly limitless supply of community generated content combine to ensure that we will always only have barely scratched its surface.
Platform: PlayStation 3
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Media Molecule