For a game that has only been kicking around in the public consciousness since the Game Developers Conference last year, Little Big Planet takes a novel approach to hyping an entertainment product--simply let the concept speak for itself. Freedom is an amazing motivator, and at every one of its public showings--GDC, E3, Tokyo Game Show, Leipzig's Game Convention, and Sony's own London Gamers' Day--crowds of gamers and media have been enraptured by this unique product.
At a recent Sony Computer Entertainment Australia event we got several hours of hands-on time with the game. The team at developer Media Molecule is in the final stretch, putting the polishing touches on the 50 or so levels that will ship on the game disc. We explored a little of the single-player campaign but spent most of our time mucking around with the level creator, attempting to build something from scratch.
First, we created our own Sackboy, which acts as your in-game avatar. You have the creative freedom to go as minimalist or over the top as you like. Another journalist sitting nearby during our hands-on time re-created Final Fantasy villain Sephiroth, complete with miniature wooden sword. We went for a more subdued Solid Snake for our onscreen character, with a camo suit and cardboard-box headgear.
LBP is an incredibly social game, so it makes sense that the team at Media Molecule is including trophy support to let gamers show off to their friends online. No doubt the extra month the team picked up by delaying the launch from September to October is allowing more time for tweaks. While it's unlikely you'll need the incentive to customise your Sackperson, switching out a few items of clothing was enough to unlock a trophy in our play. Rewards play a pivotal role in LBP, and throughout the game you'll come across bubbles containing unlockable items. Collecting these will grant you new costumes, premade items that you can place in your own levels, and objects that can be used in the creation of custom levels, such as backgrounds, music, and templates. You'll even have the option to create custom items and share them with your friends and with strangers by offering them as prizes for completing your homemade levels, for achieving a certain score, or for finishing within a certain amount of time.
The early part of the single-player game is ostensibly a glorified tutorial, giving you an indication of what you'll be doing in the remainder of the game. Here you get a chance to familiarise yourself with the three planes of depth--the foreground, middle ground, and background of any given level--that you'll need to traverse between using the analog stick. Your Sackboy is also clever, so jumping between two planes will see you land safely where you intended. The standout feature of this first level is a sticker puzzle that requires you to open your pop-it item menu and locate the three matching stickers that you must paste onto a wooden canvas. Even with sloppy pasting, as long as you hit part of the target you'll pass this obstacle, unlocking a bridge to let you continue. The sticker beast--who looks like Henry the Eighth wearing sneakers--follows you until he reaches a trigger point, which causes a collectible item bubble to be released. Once you pick it up, it unlocks a new costume element for you to try on. Level two was much the same, but it mixed things up a tad by including ramps, destructible bridges that you can fall to your death from, a spinning wheel, and a rideable skateboard. There is also a miniature wooden horse vehicle that you can use as a makeshift ladder to reach a wayward bonus bubble.
Little Big's pop-it menu system--brought up by pressing the square button on the controller--is how you'll get to all the action, be it "hearting" items to indicate what you and other players like, customising the way your Sackboy looks, or getting to the many menus for creating and editing items. You'll navigate the menus using the left thumbstick and skip between the pages of item categories using the L1 and R1 buttons.
Little Big Planet imposes very few restrictions on you as the creator, though it's worth mentioning that even with a relatively small palette of objects and materials at your disposal, it can be a daunting experience. Having so much creative control and being able to complete goals using many different approaches is a bit like being given the keys to the city and then told you can do anything. Where do you even start? Our first hour was spent considering what we wanted to make and then attempting to make a prototype of a couple of ideas.
Because LBP is so heavily physics driven you'll need to think a few steps ahead and at times work in reverse to build platforms for other items to sit on. Luckily there are two functions you'll want to immediately familiarise yourself with. Moving up on the D pad disables your stage's physics to allow item placement, and when necessary, you can secure objects to the ground by holding the X button. Pressing down on the D pad engages the hover mode, which you'll use to zoom around your level untethered. One or both can be disabled when you're ready, and you can try out your physics playground in real time to make sure everything is working as intended. On the left-hand side of the screen is a large red thermometer to indicate the maximum number of objects that can be placed per level. It's not nearly as restrictive as it sounds, and inserting items included on the disc has only a small associated memory footprint since they simply get saved as vector coordinates for the game to reassemble on another user's console. Custom items, such as images captured using the PlayStation Eye camera and then placed in your level, will attract a higher space charge, although the sheer size of the levels we saw being made in both height, width, and complexity shouldn't leave too many of you wanting for more space. We began our demo with only a modest material list spanning cardboard, wood, rubber, metal, sponge, stone, glass, and dark matter. But between these and the freedom to pick and alter shapes, you'll be able to start building your jumping puzzle, trebuchet, or skateboard ramp in no time.
The modular nature of LBP extends beyond the items you can drop into levels and includes the levels themselves. Variables such as the lighting or fog in a level can be tweaked independently, turning an outdoor day environment into a spookier nighttime setting ripe for ghosts and ghouls. Likewise, many items have their own tweak submenus, accessed by holding the square button when using the pop-it system. The menus let you adjust relationships, radius trigger distances, sounds, and more using sliders.
Little Big Planet's late-October birth on the PlayStation 3 is beginning to loom, but even with the home stretch to go, from what we've seen and played so far, we have faith in the development team at Media Molecule to ship a cracker of a title. If you're not all that impressed with the levels on the disc come launch day, you can always make your own version of LBP.