Thanks to its many media appearances around the globe, LittleBigPlanet has gone from quirky indie darling to a flagship title for Sony's PlayStation 3. We named it our game of the show at E3 2007, and since then it's gone on to wow the crowds at events in Leipzig, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. But during all of Media Molecule's globe-trotting antics, the Cambridge-based developer has never shown the game off in its home country. Thankfully, they decided to address the oversight by inviting us to a central London location for a hands-on with a brand-new build of the game.
LittleBigPlanet has its fair share of bugs at this stage, but it's clear that the developer has all the basic elements in place. The game is officially in a pre-alpha stage, although a highly limited beta test has also begun to test the online code. Nonetheless, the version that we played was apparently completely new and stable enough for us to play in four-player mode. Working alongside three other games journalists was an absolute joy, and we witnessed much of the game's early potential transforming into a sublime multiplayer experience right before our eyes. LittleBigPlanet is a game that's impossible for you to play without grinning like a child, and we had an immense amount of fun customising our character and playing cooperatively in the world.
The first part of our hands-on was spent customising our character, Sackboy. Sackboy is an immensely charismatic lead, seemingly modeled on the sort of gangly teddy that your grandma might have knit for you as a child. In the full game, you'll have to play through to unlock the full wardrobe of accessories for Sackboy, but our demo had everything available to us from the start. Using the "poppet" menu system, we could turn Sackboy into a raggedy old doll, a lizardlike creature, or even a Hellgast from Killzone. Sony stressed to us that the latter might not make it into the final game, but we had a lot of fun mixing up our appearance from the odd accessory to a complete physical makeover.
LittleBigPlanet has a simple set of controls for its platforming elements. Your character can jump only a relatively small way into the air, but he can hold on to certain objects if you press and hold the Sixaxis' R1 button. You can use this to pull or push objects along the ground, or to grab hold of things in midair before using your momentum to swing around. It's unbearably cute to see Sackboy running his legs through the air as he holds on to a swinging object, and this, if nothing else, will encourage everyone to play around with the physics in the world. One section that we played featured a set of seesaws that needed traversing in order to progress, but the shift of balance required all four players to work together in order to progress--and many problems will have multiple solutions.
Although the game only requires a few buttons to play, there's much more that you can do with the PlayStation 3 pad to interact with the world. If you shake the pad itself, Sackboy will move his body around at the hips, almost as if he's trying to replicate that famous Elvis dance move. You can also use the L2 and R2 buttons to wave individual arms around, using the right analog stick to control the speed and direction of his hands; move the stick from one direction into another at speed and you can smack another player right in the face. You can also use your character to emote how you're feeling. Press up on the D pad between one and three times and your Sackboy will display a different level of happiness, and pressing down will show sadness. You can also use the right analog stick or the motion sensor to add your own dance moves to whatever emotion you're displaying.
When the full game is released, up to four people will be able to play locally or online in any combination of the two. While the game does require teamwork, the idea is to collect as many orbs as you can to unlock more content. The catch? The development team has placed orbs in some hard-to-reach places, and teamwork is required to collect many of them. One memorable puzzle featured a huge, bowl-shaped container full of orbs suspended in the air. To get the orbs out, players had to grab the edge and surface of the bowl, and use forward momentum to spin it round to then allow the orbs to tumble floorward. This results in a hilarious situation where we all tried to help free the orbs while also trying to drop to the ground to claim them all. You can keep track of your collection by using the size guide at the top left of the screen--the bigger your character, the more you've claimed.
As well as giving us a playable demo, the Sony producers ran us through some of the game's creation tools. The clear intention is for players to create levels and then share them on the PlayStation Network, with player ratings and popularity tracking helping to sort the wheat from the chaff. The game will ship with enough levels for what the developer calls a "full-length single-player game," but there's the potential for practically unlimited new levels for those who can head online. While trawling through the tools and building a level looks like it may still be a time-consuming process, the physics system allows you to follow through on fun ideas in a matter of minutes, something that they were able to demonstrate during our demo.
The first example that we saw was a tank, although as it doesn't fire any projectiles, it could just as easily have been a car. You can build whatever vehicle you like using standard blocks--what makes it move is the way that you place the wheels and the axles along the bottom of the vehicle. Place the axle off-centre and the tank will shake up and down, but keep it central and the passengers are in for a smoother ride. In LittleBigPlanet, you can build anything you want and try it out moments later.
A piston example was even more interesting. Again, creating a chamber was a simple act of cutting a hole in the centre of an oblong-shaped piece of wood, after which a specific piston-shaped piece was slotted into the centre. The whole thing was then tilted to a 45-degree angle, while steps were built leading up to the chamber so that Sackboy could jump into the chamber. From here, the developers suggested creating a target to fire Sackboy into, at which point someone else suggested creating a fiery pit as an obstacle underneath. None of this proved to be a problem for the developers to show off, and they soon had their fiery death trap ready to play around with in-game.
While you have to wade through quite a lot of parts in order to build something in LittleBigPlanet, we can already see the potential for people to create things that the designers probably haven't even thought of. Solid shapes can be constructed and then eroded as you like, and everything is subjected to the same set of physical rules. There's undoubtedly a huge amount of physics work going on behind the scenes, as everything in the gameworld behaves in a manner that tallies with real-life experience. For example, if you place a spongy substance on the ground and then drop wooden blocks from a great height, you will see the blocks bounce realistically and leave a temporary imprint on the sponge.
Media Molecule's intention for all this isn't just to let you play with physics, though; it is for players to create challenges that can be shared online. You can set time limits for completing individual sections in each of your creations and offer rewards to people who pass the test. For example, you could set a time limit of one minute to complete a run and offer some sort of accessory as a prize. The only thing you have to do is create a start and end gate for your challenge, and then leave a message to instruct people on what they have to do. These instructions come in the form of a mouthpiece that can be found in your inventory--all you have to do is write some commands that will be seen in speech-bubble form.
The music in the game has mostly been created in-house, although there are some tracks from commercial artists such as The Go! Team. The soundtrack reacts dynamically to what you're doing in the game, layering itself with new instruments as you progress. Like Sackboy himself, the soundtrack is rather cutesy, but there are some nice touches if you listen closely. Ghetto blasters dotted around levels act as cues for new instruments in the soundtrack, and by the end of each level you'll be playing with full musical accompaniment.
LittleBigPlanet is looking as promising as ever, and we've no doubt its take on user-generated content will be the beginning of a new trend in the games industry. Along with Spore, it's pioneering the way in which players are interacting with gameworlds. Sony is aiming to release a beta test to journalists in the coming months, and even hopes to include some of their creations on the final Blu-ray disc of the game. Expect to hear more about the game in the run-up to its planned September release date.