I got my greedy paws on a key for the LittleBigPlanet (LBP) beta, which I had the opportunity to play over the last weekend. All in all, I'd have to say… not bad. (Bonus points if you know the movie in which Lisa Luder said those words.)
"Not bad." Which is not the praise that Sony and Playstation 3 owners everywhere would like too see bestowed upon this key video game, a unique entry and selling point as we go into the fourth quarter of 2008.
Although I had mixed feelings during my time with the beta, it was after discussing them with (our very own) Brad that they solidified into something I could concretely describe. Is LBP a game I want to spend $60 and countless hours of my limited free time exploring? I'm a generally creative guy. I like to sing, write music, draw or write in my free time. (Depending on my artistic mode and inertia at any given moment.) This game initially spoke to me as a good outlet to make things that I can share with the PS3-owning world. Yet after playing the beta for a while, I have some doubts.
At its heart LBP can be classified as a physics-based platforming engine with unique art direction. It will live or die by both physics and style. I fully applaud the whimsical art direction. I thought the physics were fiddly; the jump physics in particular were too floaty for my taste. It was often hard for me to control my jumps as precisely as I wanted. That's a personal preference, and other players may like the buoyancy of a sackboy (the taxonomy of player characters in LBP). But I found it hard to jump with finesse and control; and although my reflexes aren't the best, I've been platforming since before the NES. Even Luigi in Super Mario Bros. 2 had more accuracy. (Maybe I exaggerate with that one…)
Level creation is implemented through an ingenious popup menu system that will make it easier for the non-hardcore crowd to get started, as well as fitting nicely with the console controller. They name it the "poppit." Levels are created by "drawing" with materials, placing triggers and trigger recipients, tweaking item options through poppit menu pages and decorating with in-game stickers. Depending on a gamer's ability to grok this system on its own terms, I'm sure some level design magnum opii can be created. I applaud the usability.
That said, I think creation of good, playable levels that aren't quickly cobbled gimmicks is going to be a time investment. Like having a part-time job whose payment is online kudos. The fact that this sharing is available is cool, and extends the game's life. Finding good levels was a bit of a hassle. The rating implementation is user friendly, with set categorizations that look like that refrigerator poetry magnets. But this also makes the search a bit of a crap shoot at the mercy of other gamers' previous tags. There were a lot of user levels available in the beta, but I found only two that stood out as good playable levels. My favorite was titled "Hollow Bastion."
IGN gushes over LittleBigPlanet here. To quote Chris Roper in his introduction: "…it's absolutely fantastic, an instant classic … There are a handful of things that can be cleaned up or fixed by way of patches that are a little annoying at the moment … but they barely mar the surface of an overall game that is nothing short of brilliant in terms of both its design and implementation."
I like IGN, and Chris Roper usually sounds like a savvy guy. His review mentions many of the same issues that I have with the game, but dismisses them as irrelevant and grants the game a 9.5. I was a little surprised. Judging from the actual body of the review, I would have thought around 8.0, which is still a darn good game. I have to wonder if the author fell into the trap of journalistic enthusiasm. This is something I've been guilty of myself in the past, and even many "big name" reviewers have later admitted that they bought into the hype. It's something we as reviewers need to keep in mind when critiquing a game.
Admittedly, having access to the full game may make a difference. Although there was a lot to do in the beta, and many items for experimenting with level creation, there is no question that the final product will give the end user even more options and flexibility. Perhaps enough to negate some of my issues from the beta. Level sharing and quality can't be truly judged by anyone, until we see what kinds of levels are created and shared, after the retail version is available for a while. I do wonder if user interest will stay strong long enough for truly clever, must-play content to be generated by end users.
I'm curious to see how LittleBigPlanet sells when the retail version is released. It's definitely something that could appeal to a larger mass market. It's different; and journalists love to talk about it. That will give it a big push. I admire what the developers have done with LBP from what I've played, and I wish them the best. I know there will be a lot of gamers who enjoy the craftsy look-and-feel (and gameplay) of LBP, and who will be willing to make the time investment to get the fullest LBP experience. I don't know if I'm one of them; I think I'd rather invest that kind of time in a real-world craft. Ultimatley, only time will tell if LBP has legs to keep it going after the initial burst of enthusiasm.