Friday, January 28, 2011

LittleBigPlanet 2 Review

This review was originally published on

With the original LittleBigPlanet, developer Media Molecule sought to create a platform for user-generated content, putting the same tools they used to craft levels into the hands of their users. Over two million levels later, the community of LittleBigPlanet continues to grow and amaze. For LittleBigPlanet 2, the creators haven’t torn it all down and started over. Instead, they’ve made calculated, thoughtful improvements and additions to the online integration, creation tools, underlying game mechanics, and crafted one hell of a story mode along the way. The sequel’s first impression might seem awfully familiar and doesn’t pack the same awe-inspiring punch as the original but its unrelenting charm will make you fall in love all over again. LittleBigPlanet 2 continues the first game’s legacy of impeccable style and unbound creativity.

Everybody’s favorite woven wonder, Sackboy, returns and its up to him, with the help of "The Alliance", to put an end to the Negativatron; a hulking purple vacuum-like beast that’s destroying the world. The story mode is more in-depth this time around and includes some hilarious characters such as Avalon Centrifuge, a would-be superhero with a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for hands-free microphones. The structure is mostly unchanged from the first game. Media Molecule levels serve as great examples of what’s possible with the tools at hand. Players collect prize bubbles and other objects which can later be used in the creation of their own levels.

LittleBigPlanet 2 has some new tricks up its sleeve. With an improved toolset, the ladies and gents of Media Molecule have created levels which range from bounce pad-laden platformers, cart racers, Galaga-style shoot-em-ups, and nearly everything in-between. The addition of new toys such as Sackboy’s grappling hook make for some interesting new gameplay concepts as well.

Along with all the new in-game objects and abilities, the game has an improved online experience. I usually play these games on my own and completed the first LittleBigPlanet flying solo. However, after being prompted by random players to join my game I gave in and accepted the request. It was then I realized, all this time, I was playing LittleBigPlanet the wrong way. Playing cooperatively with other players was a revelation. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie and satisfaction as my fellow Sackfolk and I bested some of the game’s more-challenging levels. For LBP veterans this isn’t exactly news but I found the fun-factor grew exponentially with every person added. Pure and simple, LittleBigPlanet 2 is a great game when played cooperatively and the pre-level prompts to join random players put co-op front and center. Sadly, during the game’s initial launch, a nasty bug often prevented online play possible as an infinite loading glitch brought the fun to a standstill.

While the story levels of LittleBigPlanet 2 are spectacular on their own, players who only play them are missing half the point. The other half of LBP2 is online, in an ever-growing community of user-generated content where creativity, variety, and ingenuity are seemingly endless. Admittedly, any pool of user-generated content is going to have its share of duds, spam levels, and things that are just plain broken. What sets LittleBigPlanet 2 apart from the others is its use of community resources both in-game as well as out.

A new website, offers a browser-based repository for players looking to find the latest and greatest community levels. It’s one of the best portals to support user-generated content and makes things like level discovery, reviewing, and search far easier. Players wishing Media Molecule had gone further when designing the sequel should note that represents a seachange in the way community content will be handled from here on out and is a stunning achievement in its own right.

Create mode is still a daunting task to anybody without a few weeks to burn. Learning the complexities of the toolset is difficult despite Media Molecule’s best efforts to simplify matters. To their credit, they have actually done quite a bit to make things more stream-lined and given level makers plenty of new options such as the Creatinator and other AI additions which broaden the creators’ canvas. Still, the steep learning curve will put off many players leaving the creation mode feeling somewhat exclusionary. Thankfully, the people who can make sense of it all are doing some incredible work and the best is yet to come. Unlike many games, LittleBigPlanet 2 is a title that only gets better with age as users dig through the tools and find new uses for them.

While I still found myself occasionally falling victim to the game’s unforgiving physics and awkward sense of depth, it happened much less than ever before. Despite a random bout of clunkiness, LittleBigPlanet 2 is a great experience. Everything in the game whether its Stephen Fry’s narration or the names of levels (“Currant Affairs”? Come on, that’s great.) is designed to reenforce the cute, cuddly, quirky, and witty aesthetic that Media Molecule seems happy to foster indefinitely. Even the loading screens which pop up with phrases like “Tying up loose ends” aren’t a big deal on their own but work towards that goal. It’s the sum of countless details like this which make LittleBigPlanet 2 one of the most lovingly and expertly crafted games of recent memory.

Monday, January 17, 2011

LittleBigSequel: Interview With SCEA Associate Producer, Eric Fong

This interview was originally scheduled for the January 2011 edition of Tek Lado Magazine. Following the closing of the publication I decided to post the article here.

Following the success of the original LittleBigPlanet, the team at Media Molecule has been hard at work packing as many features, tools, and balls of yarn into next year’s sequel. Sackboy returns to conquer another world of imaginative, challenging, and wildly upholstered levels. While the first game was a platformer at heart, LittleBigPlanet 2’s creation tools have seen lots of additions allowing players to make any type of game they wish. The mad Sony scientists have already showed off an LBP-style space shooter, kart racer, and just about everything in between. The game retains its strong focus on community content. User-generated levels from the first game will be available as fans flex their creative muscle with the sequel’s newfound features. SCEA Associate Producer, Eric Fong, unravels our questions about the game and what we can expect from this oh-so-charming sequel.

NL: Was there a point you realized a feature or idea was to big or not possible in the first LittleBigPlanet and a sequel would be necessary?

EF: For me, there wasn't any single moment, rather a growing feeling that players wanted to do more than just create levels - that they wanted to create entire games.

NL: Anybody who’s played the first LBP has a story or two about a crazy moment or level. During the development of LBP2, what have been some of the most creative moments you’ve encountered either from the team at Media Molecule or the community?

EF: We were at an event in Seattle, Washington showing off some of the new features of LBP2 and some random guy started messing around with the in-game music sequencer and created a REALLY good song in about 5 minutes. We're also in the middle of the online beta and one level in particular really impressed me - they were using the Creatinator and some basic logic switches to spawn entrance and exit points. They used this really simple gameplay mechanic to create a really fun level.

NL: Given all the new features and mechanics, has there been anything that’s taken you by surprise in terms of what the game is now capable of doing?

EF: Media Molecule created a space shooter that used an artificial horizon and gave the illusion of depth to 2D objects by adjusting its scale - that made my jaw drop. But what really blew my mind was the first person shooter created by a community member in the online beta - I'm still trying to figure out how they did all that.

NL: This fall, Sony launched the Playstation Move and it’s been revealed that LBP2 will take advantage of the new controller. How is the team integrating Move and how crucial is it to the experience?

EF: It’s literally a separate experience from the rest of LittleBigPlanet 2. There are specific Move levels that allow a Move player to manipulate the environment so other players controlling Sackboy can safely navigate the level.

NL: The first LBP was wonderfully narrated by Stephen Fry which turned out to not only be charming but very helpful during the creation tutorials. Are there plans to offer a Spanish narration, particularly for the tutorial, in the North American release?

EF: That’s something we've been wanting to do since LBP1. I see Latin America as being crucial to the success of the LittleBigPlanet franchise as well as the long term success of Sony as a whole. While not currently in the schedule, I would not rule it out entirely.

NL: One of the few criticisms of LBP was that some players felt the physics were too “floaty”. Has there been a change to any of the underlying mechanics? If so, how would this affect the user-created levels of the first game which will be playable in the sequel?

EF: Yeah, that's a tough one from both a technical aspect as well as from a design decision. Adjusting physics in a physics based game can have many unintended consequences (not just for the main game, but also for the over 3 million plus levels that have been published). It's also a tough design decision because there are a lot of people that don't have a problem with the physics, so who's right and how much should it change?