LittleBigPlanet 2 walks a careful line. At first blush the idea of second game seemed antithetical to developer Media Molecule's supposed mission of making LittleBigPlanet a platform for iteration rather than a franchise to sequelize. It's not that hard of a pill to swallow (honestly, who could resist more LittleBigPlanet?), but a full-blown sequel seemed like an idea forged through Sony's bottom line and not Media Molecule's intentions. After a spending a significant amount of time with LittleBigPlanet 2 I am pleased to say these suspicions, though justified, are proven not to stand up to the end product. I am convinced that LittleBigPlanet 2 was an inevitability and could not have been conceived through title updates or downloadable content. It earns its 2 while simultaneously making good on 1; a careful line, indeed.
Not that you would be able to tell from playing the first few levels. A fairly delicate introduction resets the dreamscape stamped in our brains by Stephen Fry's unmistakable baritone and reminds us that we're once again entering a world of imagineering. From there we're guided by our new friend Larry da Vinci through his Hideout, which serves as a means to introduce (or reintroduce) players to LittleBigPlanet's particular, if not peculiar, brand of platforming. You know the drill; three planes of movement blend together with familiar 2D platforming and are supported by a grab button, a love-it-or-hate-it floaty jump, and endless points bubbles to collect.
Nothing has changed...yet. As da Vinci's Hideout gives way to Victoria's Laboratory a new theme begins to emerge, one that suggests multiplayered platforming is not the only pillar on which LittleBigPlanet 2 stands. Through its 30 mainline levels and almost as many bite sized mini-levels, LittleBigPlanet 2 evolves into something else entirely. It dabbles in twin sticks shooters, flirts with racing karts, runs the gamut with DDR-like button pounding and, for good measure, tosses in some good old fashion rocket launcher-jump-pad-deathmatch-melee. More surprisingly, it does all of this while maintaining its unmistakable Sack-thing charm. Flipping gravity might remind you of VVVVVV and bashing your friends in bumper cars could call to mind Mario Party, but the package in which it's delivered is remarkably consistent, giving way to the impression that LittleBigPlanet 2 is still a world unto itself.
However, that's not to say LittleBigPlanet 2's persistent genre teasing has left its platforming heart without fresh blood; new mechanics appear in almost every level. The Grappling Hook is the most relatable, and its swinging motion is put to great use once the learning curve is cleared. The Grabinator renders Sackboy's hands capable of picking up large objects and throwing them across the screen. Conceptually the Grappling Hook and Grabinator may seem overly simple and obvious upgrades to LittleBigPlanet 2's architecture, but their impact (for both playing and creating) can't be understated; even something as simple as jump pads can make all the difference in LittleBigPlanet 2's level structure.
That stuff is great, but LittleBigPlanet 2 has better cards in its hand. Sackbots pop up halfway through the game and simultaneously eviscerate the groan-inducing stigma of escort missions. In one level they fear you and in another they follow you, and they're completely adorable the whole way. Challenges managing them feature some predictable bits of "mind the gap" or leading them to getting vacuumed into hamster tubes, but others burst with creativity I'm not willing to spoil. Another new device, the Creatinator, is a clever name for a projectile-spewing thing mounted to Sackboy's head. Contextually it can be used as a water cannon to tend to fires, but it can also be outfitted to spit out the weird crap you build inside Create mode. Want to shoot a Spock’s flaming, googly eyed head out of your face? Go forth and prosper.
LittleBigPlanet 2's ace is its Controlinator. Introduced to wild and occasionally mindless success in the first level of Avalonia, the Controlinator is the catch-all solution to a myriad of LittleBigPlanet's shortcomings. Contextually it places Sackboy in a chair and grants control to a new interface. Mechanically, I don't really know where to begin. By allowing the player to remap the controls and play with a set of movement and action variables, the Controlinator enables input otherwise impossible with a plain 'ol Sackboy. Similar intricacies were sometimes hacked (for lack of a better term) into LittleBigPlanet, but handing improved reigns to the player, while simplifying them at the same time, unlocks the door for customization and then leaves it wide open.
In Avalonia the Controlinator is demonstrated with great success by granting control of (among other...things) a mechanical bunny. Its hopping ability is clear, but it's also outfitted with a turbo button of sorts that allows for ground pounding and some more maniacal, often hilarious implementations. The Controlinator’s potential diversity also begs appreciation, as a few levels later you'll find mock arcade cabinets where you can play Breakout and Pong clones. In any case the Controlinator makes up for Sackboy's weaknesses by effortlessly challenging the player; if you don't like how something works, feel free to do it better.
Pushing through Media Molecule’s prepackaged content shouldn't take more than a half dozen hours, and a few more for completion sake, but the density of the experience makes it worthwhile. Each level has a different challenge, and the lovable cast of weirdos tasking you with said challenges keeps the bonkers atmosphere attractive. It's as odd to say this as it was unexpected to experience it, but at the conclusion of the story I was left sitting on my couch smiling at the end-game sequence. It's more goofy than sentimental and it doesn't drown the player in cuteness (ala Locoroco or Kirby's Epic Yard), but it's so darn earnest and endearing that I couldn't help but grin in appreciation.
And it should go without saying that the whole thing is constructed with multiplayer in mind. Optional gated sections for two, three, and four players return, but they're joined by smaller levels specifically build to pit you and your human friends against each other. It is a natural progression, of course, but what surprised me was how well the context worked with cooperative play. My lady friend is a competent gamer, but that didn't stop significant, how shall we say, unfriendly verbal exchanges over the course of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Few platformers keep us both engaged and lucid, but LittleBigPlanet 2's madcap framework created an atmosphere we both enjoyed. This is, of course, anecdotal, but it's related to what the player wants out of the experience. A year after its release LittleBigPlanet’s treasure chest of levels was my go-to game with the girlfriend, and I can see the sequel occupying the same shared mind space. That sort of quality is valuable to me, and I imagine it could mean something to other players.
It should come as no surprise that the hidden agenda of Media Molecule's levels is to stealthily inspire the player the build their own creations. Tools instantly became toys and my mind was constantly racing with what I could do with them, so much that during the hours where I was able to pry myself away I was blueprinting concepts in my head or on paper. Given, the stuff that I was able to build was mostly insane rocket powered expletives fit only for my own amusement, but in the hands of a talented auteur with a legitimate grasp on level design, LittleBigPlanet's 2's tools will light up the eyes of anyone previously obsessed with the prequel's Create mode. Media Molecule’s packed-in levels were (allegedly) constructed using the same tools available to the player, which should inspire confidence in anyone with a focused idea who is otherwise terrified of executing on their blueprint.
Tangible evidence hasn't been released just yet, (the servers for LittleBigPlanet 2 won't be flipped until the game makes it to retail) but last fall's beta provided tremendous insight toward what might be found down the road. In what's always phase one with creation tools, players of various skill levels did what they do best; they recreated their favorite games. Portal, flOw, Geometry Wars, and countless others all made an impressive appearnce. With more time, talented players will start creating new instead of approximating familiar, and thanks to a revamped search and evaluation system, it's hopeful that the best levels, rather than the trophy-spewing garbage, will rise to the surface (not to mention the fabulous lbp.me, which is a great official resource). Further down the road, RPG and RTS concepts aren't out of the range of possibility, and thanks to the handy new level-to-level portal, might even be part of the same experience.
Create mode remains tricky, but some optimization to the interface, a more organized collection of tutorials, and all around better tools make creating more accessible. In short, Media Molecule has evaluated the ridiculous and awesome things people were doing with levels in LittleBigPlanet and created tools that allow the player to express their ideas without all of the needless busywork. This not only benefits your meter, the constant measure of how much "stuff" can fit in a level, but it also adds simplicity to formerly complex tasks. Better yet, it paves the way for ever more intricacy for the people who seem to enjoy going past the tool’s supposed limits. Time spent plumbing the depths of microchips, circuit boards, movers, and AI options require more time than I have words, but it’s not difficult rabbit hole to fall in to.
Pre-release it's unfair to speculate how it's all going to shake out. LittleBigPlanet 2’s long term viability is favorable but objectively unknown. It will almost certainly get better with age and, like the strength of recent Call of Duty’s, thrive on the activity level of its community. The only hindrance is this obviously can't yet be judged, leaving time as the absolute authority. This still leaves room for multiple approaches to the game’s content; not only do you get what you put in, you also have the option of getting what everyone else puts in to the game.
LittleBigPlanet 2's charming presentation is a known quantity at this point, but the sequel doesn't disappoint. Visually the game paints with a wider patchwork pallet while also managing to go way off base and, for example, do things like pay homage to 80's arcade classics. The stitched-together mishmash of strange artifacts and food items maintains its allure, and Media Molecule’s levels avoid the familiar water/fire/ice worlds with settings that feature Wonderland-esque desserts, super clean futuristic camel habitats, and orbital sack-thing battlegrounds. LittleBigPlanet 2's music, like LittleBigPlanet before it, remains its secret-best asset. There isn't anything as instantly memorable as Café Tacvba's Volver a Comenzar, but the mix is a little more eclectic this time around. Squarepusher’s Planetarium and Röyksopp’s Vision 1 add credibility while the unmistakable minimalism of Baiyon’s contribution instantly calls to mind PixelJunk Eden. I was a little sad to hear Ladytron's Ghosts last in line when the credits rolled rather than thematically tied to a level, but it's a silly complaint. In the Create space there's also a nifty music sequencer, suggesting that Media Molecule really did their best to try and think of everything they could hand to the player.
While not technically part of the game, it would be a disservice to ignore LittleBigPlanet 2's legacy features. By allowing access to the servers hosting levels created with the original LittleBigPlanet’s tools, Media Molecule made good on their intentions of always supporting their first game. Furthermore, whatever content you unlocked in LittleBigPlanet is instantly available in your Popit when you first play LittleBigPlanet 2 (unfortunately, if your LittleBigPlanet save file is copied or a backup, as mine was since my original PlayStation 3 had died in early 2009, then LittleBigPlanet 2 will refuse to import your stuff).
Want to hear more about LittleBigPlanet 2? Check out the newest episode of Flap Jaw Space: The Digital Chumps podcast this Tuesday January 18th. Grab it here or on iTunes.