Little Big Planet 2 Hands-On
Media Molecule unveils its widely rumored sequel, which is not just a platform game, but a "platform for games," according to the developer.
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The original Little Big Planet was a resounding success, selling 3 million copies, spawning 2.3 million user-created levels, and reaching number three in Metacritic's top PlayStation 3 games. So where now? "We thought, 'Oh lordy, how do we expand on this?'" said Alex Evans, cofounder of developer Media Molecule. The answer was to make Little Big Planet 2 not just a platform game but "a platform for games" according to Mark Healey, another founder of the company. Healey and his team have figured out a way to allow creators to build and share much more intricate mechanics than before, empowering them to invent "entirely new genres" according to the team. We'll have to wait and see if that eventually happens, but one thing's for sure--Little Big Planet 2 introduces a wealth of new content to the universe.
While the second game is essentially very similar to the first, the Play, Create, Share ethos has been expanded in every way. The game's key creative innovation comes in the form of microchips--in-game circuit boards that can hold a series of gadgets to allow complex mechanical actions. The example the team gave was the first game's infamous calculator--the ingenious user-generated level that re-created a giant numerical device, which can now be condensed onto a single chip. That chip can then be shared or given away as a prize for completing a level and then incorporated into other user creations. "There will be a new type of LBP creator--the electrical engineer," said Healey.
Healey went on to demonstrate just how important microchips are to the game. He loaded up a simple level featuring a vehicle and then edited the microchip attached to it. He demonstrated how the vehicle's controls were directly mapped to the PS3 controller. He associated the motion sensor within the controller to the vehicle's left and right controls, simply by joining the elements on the circuit board to the car's motor and did the same for the X button and the horn. Once set up, the vehicle was controlled simply by tilting the controller--which looked much easier than the lever-and-button models from the first game. "I can't stress how powerful that is," said Healey.
These new microchips not only apply to objects in the game, but also to characters. Sackbots are new AI-controlled characters based on the game's mascot, and they can be preprogrammed with multiple actions, depending on what you want them to do. On the most basic level, they can follow the player, allowing you to create levels where you have to escort Sackbots to the exit of the level. Indeed, one of the few levels shown by Media Molecule was called Pipe Dream, where you had to save loveable mini-Sackbots from within The Factory of a Better Tomorrow.
However, the Sackbots have much more depth than this. You can make them patrol certain areas and electrocute players if touched. You can scale them up and make them do a zombie walk, creating an army of giant, shuffling, undead Sackbots. Finally, you can create remote-controlled Sackbots that you can walk into deadly situations and giant Sackbots that you can jump into and pick up large items. "I'm sure it's only a matter of weeks until someone creates a Lemmings [game], for example," said Healey.
The other big potential that Sackbot has is the ability to tell stories. Media Molecule showed a couple of examples--the first was a cutscene from the level Pipe Dream, where the evil owner of the factory was using innocent Sackbots for labour. The second was a user-generated music video, which had Sackbots large and small dancing to a song from the game. Art director Kareem Ettouney showed how you can record actions--in this case a short dance--and then apply that recording en masse to a group of Sackbots. You can then apply lighting, choose the camera angles, and record voice-overs through the PlayStation Eye camera, creating an MTV-style music video. "We're excited to see Lady Gaga do her next music video in LBP," joked Ettouney.
Media Molecule claims that its level designers and testers have used the new tools to re-create Space Invaders, side-scrolling shooters, even real-time strategy games like Command & Conquer. "The community managed to use tricks to make shooters--you can now make them feel really, really good," promised Healey. He showed us an example of a rodent racing game, where you had to beat AI-controlled enemies playing from a top-down perspective. A new holographic material can be laid over the screen to keep track of player scores or offer messages like "Player One Wins."
During its presentation, Media Molecule addressed the criticism from players who felt that Sackboy was too "floaty" and sometimes difficult to control. There's a slight problem in that the team members want all levels from the first game to be playable in the second, so they are unable to change Sackboy's physical properties as it would break those creations. However, there is a way around this problem in new user-generated levels at least; you can create Sackbots with different physical properties. In theory, you could have an entire level played using a Sackbot whose physical attributes are tailored to your liking. This could mean Sackbots with greater gravitational pull to the ground, or on the other hand, the ability to jump great distances.
Our demo also allowed us to play Little Big Planet 2's story mode, which will offer six new themed worlds. Ettouney and his team created a new visual aesthetic by "looking at periods of history where creativity was on fire." The result is new worlds that combine two different themes or periods. Davinci's Hideout is the first, combining what Media Molecule describes as "techno renaissance" or a mixture of hi-tech and classical European design. Victoria's Lab is steampunk meets tea party, while The Factory is informed by propaganda posters and bright neon lights. Avalonia is "fluffy hi-tech"--think a Chris Cunningham music video mixed with cuddly animals. Finally, Eve's Asylum is designer organic--art nouveau as done by Frank Lloyd Wright, while The Cosmos is a hand-made arcade--old games re-created using materials, such as plastic and felt.
Perhaps more importantly, Evans promises that the campaign will be longer than the first game's--although by how much we don't yet know. Healey teased that the game will start out as a platformer, but it will evolve as it progresses--Media Molecule hinted that it will end with LBP versions of arcade classics. One of the levels we got to play, called Tower of Woop by David Inchi, incorporated both a grapple hook and bounce pads, meaning it was much more vertical than any level we'd played previously. The grapple hook could attach to most things, including other players, and you could combine the tool with bounce pads to reach obscure places and earn unlockables.
According to level designer Victor Agren, the game engine has been rewritten to incorporate these new technical additions, as well as add a better visual sheen to the game. We were shown a video of LBP1 levels running in the new engine, and the improvements were immediately noticeable. Sackboy and background objects cast detailed shadows, while the overall look is more vibrant thanks to an improved colour palette. Even better, all these improvements will apply to user-generated content created in the first game, so your creations will be given an immediate improvement when LBP2 launches.
The new share tools have also been improved and expanded, now integrating across a variety of platforms. Within the game, a new stream of updates will provide activity information on your friends and people you've hearted, such as what they've created or recommended. You'll also be able to use the PlayStation Eye camera to scan QR codes and download new items and levels. We've no idea where these QR codes will appear, but the commercial potential is obvious.
Even more exciting stuff happens when you're away from a PS3. We were shown a video of a Web browser plug-in that will allow you to watch videos on YouTube and then add those levels to a playlist so that they're queued up to play at home. A unified Web site at http://lbp.me will act like URL shortening service bit.ly, giving every new level a link that can be shared on networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, with every click adding to its popularity rating. You'll also be given your own space on lbp.me according to your PSN ID, such as http://lbp.me/gamespot. The site isn't live yet, but it will act as your dashboard, allowing you to view photos and add levels to your favourites list. You'll also be able to go to other people's profiles to add their levels to your queue.
"Our goal is to melt all of your brains," said Evans at the start of his presentation, and given the wealth of new content and features Media Molecule showed off, he just about met that goal. However, the team is still promising more--new gameplay features that just weren't ready are likely to be unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The team is preparing LittleBigPlanet 2 for release before the end of the year, so we'll be sure to bring you more on the game when we have it.