Few could argue that LittleBigPlanet was a spectacular game – it pushed creativity further than most console games could ever dream to, building a community of inspired, often breathtaking user designed levels that went well beyond the pigeonhole of ‘platformer’. Media Molecule’s second attempt tried to emulate this diversity – with some success – but once again it was the end users that showed what the engine was truly capable of.
LittleBigPlanet PS Vita, once and for all, confirms that the brand’s Story Mode should take second fiddle. In some ways, the experience seems to have have lost its verve: away from the kookiness and delicious unpredictability of LBP 2’s out there characters and with a return to an almost entire focus on running and jumping, Sackboy’s latest seems awkwardly straightforward. A mere handful of diversions break the pattern (a tripled wheel outing is a particular delight later in the game) but they’re sadly all too rare.
Instead, LBP PS Vita plays out with a far too gentle difficulty curve, not really troubling the experienced player until the last of a handful of worlds. Instead, by relying heavily on textbook platforming and now slightly tired old tricks – swinging from yellow foam circles, stacking draggable cubes to reach higher levels, pulling switches, a grappling hook – this game ends up feeling much like any of the others. Is that an issue, or it is just a case of sticking to formula?
Innovation is there, sure, but it’s only innovative to LittleBigPlanet and in a world where the touchscreen itself feels second nature, some of LBP’s tricks don’t really connect: blue blocks suggest the player can drag them with his finger, blue circles beg to be tapped, green ones require a flick from the back of the Vita.
It’s tactile, but a tad imprecise, everything still bound by the physics employed by the game and not always responsive or immediate. Things will get stuck on others, drags won’t always register and when you’re asked to tap and move Sackboy simultaneously it can feel a little overplayed.
Contrived, even. Instances of the game that force Vita-specifics can hint at something clever and surprising, but they’re overused and repeated; even tilt control – used in a few different instances – reminds us how woolly such a control method can be. Checkpoints are generous, but this just helps to demonstrate how a game’s flow can be cruelly interrupted by spikes of frustration, making ‘aceing’ a level an exercise in patience as much as one of practice even if the overall difficulty level means rushing through the game doesn’t take very long at all.
And sadly, somewhat forgettable characters and a plot arc that jumps wildly via at least one case of deus ex machina don’t contribute much to the story mode, and it’s one that’s over before it really gets going. It’s more enjoyable with friends, of course (and some areas are still held behind multiplayer access walls) but it’s unlikely to be repeated once completed. It’s not without moments of sheer brilliance, but overall it’s a slightly dispiriting use of some amazing technology.
That technology, an engine that – from the credits at least – appears to employ some of the brightest minds in the industry, is astounding. Sure, it’s not running at the Vita’s native resolution (although the overlaid UI is, a happy compromise) but it’s capable of absolutely incredible visuals. Pixel for pixel on par with the latest PlayStation 3 ‘Planet, and often surpassing it in terms of both scale and detail, LBP PS Vita looks wonderful. Probably the Vita’s best looking game.
It’s deliberately diverse, rich and colourful, with moments of twisted ingenuity and consistent, awe inspiring art. Each world is thematically solid and perspicuous, with individual levels distinct and yet wholly cohesive. There are stand-outs: a lethal, challenging roller-coaster ride through a garage, a haunted house with some proper scares, an eighties movie star with a love of retro videogames, and a carnival adventure with some really smart tricks.
And yet despite the options available to the designers, it’s in the game’s side missions – again locked away until the player stumbles across mid-level keys – that the developers finally let go of the reins. Score challenges are one thing (and are generally superb slices of fun) but there are also versus levels to uncover, and they’re as simple as two-player touch-controlled ice hockey but a real, shining example of what this iteration of Media Molecule’s endlessly flexible tech can really do, even if it’s now in the hands of (more than capable) others.
Likewise, a separate world on the map, unlinked and left largely for the player to discover, contains nothing but old school arcade games, gradually opening up as progress is made elsewhere. They’re full games, complete with save states and scores, and flex and twist the engine into something approaching unrecognisable. “Tapling” you’ll no doubt have played (or at least seen, from the beta) but there are others, and they’re as entertaining as you might have hoped -a retro, vectorised Thrust-clone being a personal high point.[drop2]Some good, some bad, then? That’s probably a reasonable summary. The point is that aside from a few rare moments, most of the story mode is overly familiar and missing the spark that the first game had, but it’s interspersed with some lovely tricks and novelties. Players wanting more of the same will be right at home, of course – and that’s probably the plan, but anyone wanted to really see what the Vita’s myriad of inputs could do to a game like LittleBigPlanet will need to venture off the beaten path.
Naturally, the real notion is that the story mode is a means to an end, a way to populate your Pop-It and fill your bag full of materials, stickers and goodies; as it always was. And once into the Create mode, the game takes on another lease of life entirely – the Vita’s touchscreen perfect for building levels, whatever their genre. If the main campaign was the only element here we’d probably advise caution; but it’s not, it’s merely a taster. And elsewhere Double Eleven and Tarsier have worked wonders.
Playing around with Create only serves to remind the player that LittleBigPlanet is all about you, and what you want to do with the tools provided. In this Vita mode, which is easily the equal of its bulkier big brother, crafting levels, designing elements and driving the AI is a breeze, and so – thankfully – is the ability to publish levels, rate and comment on others, and browse through the inevitable piles of user submitted content that’s sure to follow.
With the right mindset it’s possible to design a level in LittleBigPlanet Vita that not only doesn’t feel like a platformer, but also doesn’t feature Sackboy at all. The touch controls are there for the taking – ably demonstrated in some of the main game’s side challenges – and thus the promise of what the community will come up with is hugely exciting. This latter aspect is massively important to LittleBigPlanet, and it’s impossible to not factor that into any critique.
- Limitless potential for the creative and those keen to sift through the community uploads
- Lovely graphics
- Some interesting minigames
- The gameplay’s starting to feel a little formulaic
- We’ve seen much of this before
A slightly tough one, then. We’re not saying that the story mode here is any worse (or better) than previous titles in the series – it’s easily on par, but it’s also rather stoic in its mechanics and a few more diversions would have elevated it beyond its PS3 contemporaries. But as a platform for your own imagination (and one generously compatible with much of LittleBigPlanet 2’s DLC) it’s unmatched, and as limitless as you’d want it to be.
Without the community aspect and the clever side games, this wouldn’t score nearly as highly. But as a whole, and with the potential for some absolutely brilliant things in the future? It’s a great package – expect big things.