Reviewing a LittleBigPlanet game at launch is a little like rating The Beatles’ entire catalogue based on everything up to Rubber Soul: the pieces are in place, but the real magic is yet to come. A community centric sequel such as this deserves time to properly mature, but expectations demand that we put pen to paper now. The question is: does Sackboy still have the spark to ensure that his third home console adventure's a charm – or has the Imagisphere’s once overflowing well of ideas finally run dry?
Well, while the whimsical nature of PlayStation’s most popular patchwork property may not be especially surprising six entries in, it’s certainly still endearing; from the alliteration loving use of language all the way through to Stephen Fry’s exuberant enunciation, maker Media Molecule’s unabashedly British hallmarks are all over this – even if Sheffield studio Sumo Digital has taken up the reins. Beneath these surface similarities, however, there are plenty of changes for franchise fans to get excited about – especially if you invest energy into the creation aspect of the release.
First, though, let’s focus on the core campaign, which sees our burlap buddy whisked away to the realm of Bunkum by a slightly unhinged light bulb named Newton. Voiced by House himself Hugh Laurie, the antagonist is the kind of misunderstood maniac that tends to populate all forms of kids’ fiction these days, and while his story doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting, it does provide enough incentive for Sackboy to go in search of three soon-to-be fabric friends: Oddsock, Toggle, and Swoop.
The title is structured around these textile tough guys, with each inhabiting a different world. Unlike previous instalments, though, you won’t be working through these environments in a linear fashion; instead, a core hub level is employed in order to house links to branching sub-stages – a clear response to the way in which a handful of egotistical creator curators designed galleries for their personal tour-de-forces in previous editions. It doesn’t really change the experience a whole lot, but it does give you some control over what order you’d like to tackle things in.
It also gives the developer an ideal opportunity to showcase the title’s new quest system, which is all logged inside the Organisertron. Accessed by holding down the triangle button at any time, this brings up a list of your current tasks, which can be tracked with waypoints and more. The stages are never so enormous that you really need to employ this utility, but, as with previous entries, the campaign largely serves as a demonstration of how these tools can be used; it’s not hard to imagine the community concocting homemade role-playing games a little later down the line.
That’s not to say that the pre-made stages are a simple showcase and nothing more, though – there are some staggering moments over the course of its six or so hour running time. The best bits are perhaps reserved to the opening worlds, where you stealthily sprint through a casino straight out of a Hollywood film – and repair a milkshake machine to the infectious sound of The Chordettes. The amount of variety on display is frankly astounding: one minute you’ll find yourself in outer-space, and the next you’ll be climbing a dragon that’s flying through the sky.
The most impressive thing is that the developer dreams up different gameplay tricks for each individual stage. While there are fewer minigames this time around, there are way more mechanical contraptions to marvel at. For example, the Velociporter is LittleBigPlanet’s answer to Aperture Science’s innovative artillery, and enables you to teleport between different portals. Couple this with the Blink Ball – a kind of emitter that allows you to bounce your body up to hard-to-reach places – and the campaign goes beyond the standard run-‘n’-jump platforming that you may be familiar with.
And that’s without even acknowledging the new characters, who change the rules of the release. Oddsock, for example, is the series’ best analogue to Sonic the Hedgehog – a nimble, four-legged creature that can sprint at extraordinary speeds, and even wall jump. If the ‘floatiness’ of the franchise has bothered you before, then you’ll feel much more at home with this hero, as his super-tight physics best resemble a more traditional platforming protagonist. Swoop, meanwhile, is all about aerial control, possessing the ability to both fly upwards and plunge back down to the ground.
Elsewhere, Toggle is perhaps the most mechanically interesting of the new additions, as he’s capable of shifting between stout and slim states. This enables some really interesting physics-based puzzles, which see you quickly morphing between the different guises in order compress switches and glide across water. Even the established Sackboy has picked up a few new tricks, including the ability to climb up walls a la Super Mario World – and carry various bits of gear in a kind of weapon wheel known as the Sack Pocket.
Throughout the story you’ll unlock various bits of equipment – including a vacuum and rocket boots – but what’s really neat about this is that you’ll be able to make your own gear for people to unlock in your levels, and then keep a record of this so that it can be used across different stages. As is always the case with this series, you’re going to need to invest some serious time before you’re able to make anything like what’s seen in the core campaign, but all of the tools that you’ll need to replicate the pre-made levels are present, and it’s pretty much inevitable that the community will start outdoing Sumo Digital in time.
Excitingly, home grown creator curators will have a lot more space to work with this time at least, as arguably the most important improvement in this sequel is the increase in level layers. While previous entries limited you to just three planes, there are a whopping 16 to be filled here, giving the title a kind of 2.5D appearance at times. BioShock Infinite-esque rails can be constructed allowing you to quickly travel between the foreground and the background, while new bounce pads can be employed to toggle the layer that your character’s currently standing on. You can even enhance the amount of data that’s stored in your level with the dynamic thermometer, which essentially streams in new objects as you encounter them.
These additions all result in much more dynamic looking and feeling levels – especially when combined with the aforementioned Velociporters and slides, which are more or less exactly what they sound like. With up to four players on the screen, this increase in activity can make the action a little more chaotic than ever before, but this is a minor niggle, as the acrobatic animations and increased air control make some of the title’s breakneck platforming sequences supremely satisfying – even if you’re still not quite going to find Super Mario-like precision here a lot of the time.
Of course, everything in your own levels can be tweaked to your own personal liking; from the intensity of bounce pads to the overall gravitational properties of your stage, there are a dizzying number of customisation options open to you. One of the big new additions here, however, is the introduction of PopIt Puzzles, which provide more practical tutorials than have been available in previous instalments. While these may seem a little tedious to veterans, they’re an essential learning aid if you actually want to understand the basics of how levels are made.
They’re smart, too, because they’re presented as puzzles. For example, the game may ask you to tweak the properties of a simple motor in order to progress, but spend a little more time tinkering, and you’ll be able to reach an out-of-the-way prize bubble, which gives you incentive to actually experiment – and subsequently helps you to understand why certain tools are important in the first place. The only flaw in this format is that replaying the educational stages to scoop up any secrets that you may have missed is dreadfully dull.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is that you can even use this fusion of play and create in your own levels, and there are some gameplay focused examples of how you may want to do this in the main campaign. One instance sees you building a car using parts that you collect, and then bringing your concoction into a rather simplistic side-scrolling race. In truth, this is one of the title’s weaker pre-made stages, but in possessing such a wealth of ideas, it was always inevitable that some would ultimately fall short.
It’s fortunate, then, that the presentation is of a consistent high quality throughout. While the visuals certainly won’t blow you away, they are extremely sharp – and even stages created in the original LittleBigPlanet look much more detailed when played on the PlayStation 4. There are a wealth of stickers, decorations, and objects for you to use, each forming the basis of the title’s zany art direction. The soundtrack’s the real star of the show, though, somehow seamlessly fusing 50s pop, disco, and rock – an extraordinary mismatch that ends up working as a cohesive whole.
If variety is the spice of life, then LittleBigPlanet 3 should come with three chilli peppers printed on its box. Sumo Digital has somehow managed to pack Sackboy’s sixth outing with a stream of fresh ideas, and while the campaign will leave you longing for more, the series’ established community should keep you well supplied thereafter. With a string of new tools on offer, creator curators will have a blast exploring all of the possibilities available here – and while you’ll certainly need dedication to get the best out of them, the lazy among you will more than get your fill via the output of more industrious players over time.