Over the past year alone, we've seen some excellent examples of 2-D and 3-D platformers on all systems. LittleBigPlanet is technically a platforming game, but that was only a part of it. The appeal was that LittleBigPlanet gave you nearly unprecedented creation tools on a home console. While the tools were a little difficult to work with, they allowed players to create and share their own levels with other gamers. LittleBigPlanet 2 is the logical extension of the first game, focused around adding and improving pretty much every feature of the original. Rather than being a simple expansion, LittleBigPlanet 2 is designed as more of a replacement for the original than a stand-alone sequel. It manages to capture everything fun about the first game, but it also improves on its flaws.
LittleBigPlanet 2 isn't particularly heavy on the plot, but what's there is rather amusing. A monster called the Negativitron is ravaging the universe, sucking up the various creations and basically wrecking things. The only thing that can stand against him is the Alliance, a ragtag bunch of sack puppets who must work together to protect the world from being sucked into oblivion. The star of the bunch is Sackboy, a tiny mute mascot character who does all the heavy lifting while the other members of the Alliance yell at him from behind the scenes. The humorous quips and solid voice acting keep it enjoyable. It serves as a great example of what LBP 2 is capable of when it comes to storytelling. Players may not be able to get Stephen Fry to do cameo voice work in their games, but that doesn't prevent them from telling enjoyable stories.
On the surface, LBP 2 doesn't look much different from the original, so it's possible to mistake the game for an expansion pack. Most of the gameplay and physics are pretty much the same. If you didn't enjoy how Sackboy moved and controlled in the original game, you're probably not going to feel very different here. Since the game is designed to take advantage of almost all the levels from LittleBigPlanet, it makes sense that things shouldn't vary too much.
Most of the new features come in the form of abilities and gameplay additions. You can get a grappling hook that allows Sackboy to swing from objects or a Grabbinator that allows you to lift heavy objects and throw them around. You can also exploit Sackbots, AI-controlled little helpers who can be customized in a variety of different ways. Each of the levels in story mode is designed to show off some of these new features. One can't really say that LBP 2 matches Mario or Donkey Kong as a platformer because it's clearly an engine first and a game second. The creativity and effort of the level design is good enough to make up for the mechanical flaws. Every level seems to try something new to keep the player interested and show off LBP 2's abilities. Even if you just want to hop into the creation engine, it's worthwhile to play through the campaign at least once because it offers some remarkable ideas that you might not think of otherwise.
The story mode is a big of a mixed bag. Without argument, it is a step up from LittleBigPlanet's story mode. There is more variety to the levels, due in no small part to the improved tools available to the creators, and the cut scenes and characters are charming and funny without overstaying their welcome. Despite the variety, though, not every level shines. Some serve more as examples of what <I>LBP 2's robust creation engine can do instead of being levels that I'd want to replay. In particular, I found a lot of the grappling hook segments to be awkward and uncomfortable. Adjusting the length of the hook on the fly never felt particularly natural to me, and I was glad when levels didn't use the ability. On the other hand, the most creative levels in the game stand out quite well and are plenty of fun to play. The only complaint I can give is that nothing feels perfectly natural, since the game design is all about figuring out the cleverest way to do things using the limited tools. When it works, it's very impressive, but you have to be willing to compensate for the fact that all but the simplest actions involve some jerry-rigging and creative design. The impressive aspects of the creation engine far outweigh the nagging control complaints, though.
The more robust creation engine is where LBP 2 really shines, and it's where the game's real value lies. The original level creation system wasn't bad at all, but its limitations were pretty apparent after a while. LBP 2 doesn't reinvent the wheel but adds a variety of new features to compensate for the original's shortcomings. The addition of Sackbots allows the player to modify and create his own little helper robots. It may sound trivial, but clever Sackbot usage can do a lot of really neat things, such as allowing multiple playable characters or unusual control design. Browsing through people's created LBP 2 masterpieces shows functional fighting games with selectable characters — and that alone should highlight the sorts of things that LBP 2 could offer. The addition of circuit boards allows players to arrange more complex behaviors for most objects in the environment, thus allowing for more involved game mechanics while using less of LBP 2's limited level space. My favorite feature is that levels can be linked together, so you can now create entire games. You can even create cut scenes to give it some additional flair.
The best aspect of the LBP 2 creation engine is that it's so easy to use. It's unlikely that I'll ever devote the time and effort to figuring out all of the game's idiosyncrasies, but even the casual time that I spent playing around with the engine was a blast. Most of the things you want to do in the game are very easy to figure out. Everything is made as simple and user-friendly as possible, and pulling off seemingly complex stuff involves a bit of thought and use of the intuitive interface options.
While playing through user-created levels, I saw some incredible features that I couldn't even fathom were possible with the creation engine. This encouraged me to try new things and figure out how the users had developed these amazing elements. It almost feels like a puzzle game after a certain point: You know that there is a solution, and you just have to stumble across it. It was so easy to get lost for hours in the level design and circuit editing of LBP 2.
The creation tool and level design still don't really allow for the development of interesting enemies. Most foes in both the pre-designed and player-created levels have been awkward and jerky. The boss fights are OK, but they feel like moving environmental objects instead of actual enemies. That actually applies to most of the enemies in the game. Instead of being something that compensates for Sackboy's movements and abilities, they feel like simple obstacles. The end result is that LBP 2's best challenges and designs are a result of level design instead of the enemies that populate those levels. It's possible that creators will figure out how to make LBP 2's enemies shine, but at the moment, it feels like the weakest aspect of the title.
The problem with the impressive creation features is that it is difficult for us to judge how far it could advance at the time of this writing. LittleBigPlanet developed over years of people figuring out the engine's quirks, and the games that were released later in the title's lifespan dwarfed the early ones. LBP 2 has much more potential, but it is going to take time for people to grasp how it works. As such, we can't say how limited the creation tools will turn out to be. Serious flaws and workarounds are not going to become apparent until much later in the game's life cycle. At the moment, though, the possibilities are staggering. Even with only the limited time that people have had with LBP 2, we've seen some staggeringly brilliant user-created content. Everything from shooting games and puzzles to RPGs and mysteries are available from the game menu. Not all of them are good, but many of them show enough potential that it's tough to see another game on the market that offers as much theoretical value as LBP 2.
LittleBigPlanet 2 may be a single-player game, but the heart is in its creation features and the possibility of user-created levels. The single-player mode shows you the many possibilities and gives plenty of food for thought. The early created levels are already exceptional, and they're sure to grow more so as people master LBP 2's multitude of new features. It's easy to write off LBP 2 as overpriced DLC, but it is a replacement for the original, since it takes everything that made LittleBigPlanet good and fixes most of the flaws. It's a rare example of a sequel that completely eclipses the original. LBP 2's true worth won't become apparent for many months yet, but even if you pick it up today, the addictive level creation tools and endless amount of developer- and player-created levels make the game well worth your money.
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