Oh, LittleBigPlanet 2. What the hell am I going to do with you? You are a game that is difficult to quantify, much less qualify—larger perhaps than any single console experience out there, built as if by hand by extraordinarily, terrifyingly bright people and brought to life with a kinetic sensibility. An ode to joyous, chaotic motion, you are the toy box and the toys wrapped into one, the Rube to my PS3’s Goldberg. You have music in your soul. You are a spectacularly groovy game.
I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed here, so I’ll just do that which man has done for thousands of years when faced with the vast reaches of his own imagination: I’ll cling to what I know. In this case, that’s LittleBigPlanet 2’s predecessor, 2008’s LittleBigPlanet. I had to eventually concede that the phrase that best encapsulated Media Molecule’s first game was “admired more than liked.” I liked it, sure, in the way we all liked that goofy, bright kid in our fifth-grade class, the one with a whiff of homeschooling about him, who was perpetually building amazing class-projects and leaving school to attend renaissance faires. He was cool to talk about, but also a little overwhelming and not that much fun to actually hang out with.
At times it seemed as though the appeal of LittleBigPlanet wasn’t so much the actual game as it was the fact of the game. Its adorable characters and Gondry-esque world stood apart from the verisimilitude of Uncharted and Killzone, and its wide-armed embrace of user creativity was all but unprecedented on the console scene. There was a certain classiness about it; a Britishness, for lack of a better word. Perhaps that was due to the presence of narrator Stephen Fry (who returns in fine form for the sequel), but LittleBigPlanet had an inclusive, global sensibility that went beyond its world-tour story mode. It was a game that Barack Obama had no trouble including in his national STEM initiative, a PS3 exclusive that really felt like a PS3 exclusive. Apologies to 360 fans, but PS3 owners know what I’m talking about.
But the game itself… well, therein lay the rub. LittleBigPlanet was primarily a two-dimensional platformer, and despite all of its occasionally literal bells and whistles, it just wasn’t a particularly good one. The game was designed around its admittedly wondrous physics engine, but as a result the objects in the gameworld felt heavy and imprecise. Worse, Sackboy himself felt ungainly and frustratingly unpredictable to control, cute though he may have been.
Fortunately LittleBigPlanet 2 is much, much more fun to play than LittleBigPlanet. What’s interesting is how the designers at Media Molecule went about making that happen—rather than tighten up the game’s physics or redesign its platforming, they simply added more mechanics to the core game and in doing so circumvented many of the first title’s more frustrating elements. Unfortunately, that does mean that the platforming in LittleBigPlanet 2 is still a bit loose and can be frustrating in parts, but for some reason I didn’t mind it as much. It certainly helps that death feels far less punitive than it did in the first game.In any given level of LittleBigPlanet 2, Sackboy (now referred to by the non-gender-specific “Sackthing”) is granted all manner of cool powerups, from a super-strong throwing arm to a riotously fun grappling hook to a menagerie of differently powered, rideable animals. A surprisingly small percentage of the game is spent doing unadorned platforming, and the overall experience is undoubtedly stronger for it.
It’s during the plentiful mounted “vehicle” segments that LittleBigPlanet 2 really sets itself apart from its predecessor. Players are given all kinds of new locomotive abilities—a rabbit that leaps and crashes through the air, a spinning hamster-ball that sticks to walls, a wandering camel that shoots lasers, a flying bee, a zooming caterpillar, a barking dog—the upshot is that LittleBigPlanet 2 changes its gameplay gears with a surprising regularity. Peppered into the Mario jumping and stomping is a wide range of references to other classic titles—Sonic Spinball, Galaga, Contra, Bionic Commando, Shadow of the Colossus, Lemmings, Pong—all of which zip by without overstaying their welcome.