Is LittleBigPlanet 2 the most unassuming sequel of all time? Maybe. Arriving shortly after Christmas with surprisingly little hype and fanfare, it doesn't claim, like the original, to revolutionise gaming as we know it. In fact, it seems happy to feel like a continuation, not a new model. The presentation, from the Stephen Fry voiceover to the cheesy “Take Hart” music to the lovable, hand-crafted visual style, is as familiar and as comfortable as an old sofa.
Our hero, the hand-stitched, stuffed-up Sackboy, looks the same as ever and - to the chagrin of some players - has the same, slow, inertia heavy movement we either loved or hated before. You can still dress the little chap up or sling stickers all around the level, and those with existing costumes, props and stickers from the first game can happily import it to the second. "Like LittleBigPlanet?" the sequel seems to be saying, "well, here's more of the same. Enjoy."
In fact, it might be a while before you realise how much better the sequel actually is, probably because the key features aren't the usual checkbox items that you get in most video games (bigger levels, smarter baddies, more bad-ass guns) but the stuff that's bubbling beneath the surface. LittleBigPlanet isn't loved because it's a decent 2D platform game, but because you could take all the stuff in that decent 2D platform game and use it to make your own worlds. This LittleBigPlanet's biggest fans did with zeal, producing not just beautiful add-on levels, but such weird curiosities as working calculators, computers, shoot ‘em ups, movie parodies and intricate, Sackboy-torturing contraptions. The important bit wasn't what was on the disc, but what other players would do with it.
LittleBigPlanet 2 gives this creative community so much more to work with. New toys like the Creatinator, which can be used to produce fully-controllable moving vehicles, and the programmable, AI-controlled Sackbots, won't mean much to the majority of us, but to hard-working creators, they're gold. The same goes for the Creatinator, a customisable helmet which can be used to fire specific substances, or the doorways which can be used to link several levels in a chain. It also goes for the various programmable chips and sequencers which, as smarter people than us understand, make it much, much easier for LBP aficionados to produce more dynamic and exciting games.
With LittleBigPlanet, there was always the feeling that you could create something really incredible if only you could put in the hours of hard work. LBP2 doesn't cut down on the work, but it does cut down on the hours, and while many us still won't be producing anything more complex than sandbox levels where we can toss in objects, ramps and vehicles, then invite a couple of mates to jump in and muck around, you can guarantee that more committed creators now have everything they need to make something stunning. And we don't just mean stunning platform game levels; from shoot 'em ups to racing games to Diablo-style RPGS, it looks like LBP2 can make just about anything.
The good news, however, is that you don't have to create anything to make LittleBigPlanet 2 worth your while. The team at MediaMolecule has used these exact same tools to make LittleBigPlanet's Story mode a spectacular showcase for what LBP2 can do, and - coincidentally - one of the smartest, most imaginative platform games to appear without a “Mario” in the title.
For a start, LBP2 has a running narrative, complete with cinematic cutscenes, fantastically nutty characters and a plotline that ensures a continual steam of weird and wonderful levels. Platforming in LBP2 still has that same sense of physicality that it did in LBP, with almost tangible interactions between Sackboy and the world, but all the new tools and gadgets give the game a more diverse and playful feel. With springboards, chutes and high-speed raceways, certain levels have a touch of the Sonics about them, while toys like a grappling hook, the “grabinators” and the water cannon are used to power brilliant stretches of puzzle-solving action. Throw in the sackbots, which have to be herded or cajoled safely from one end of a level to another, and LBP2's story mode almost has a surfeit of great ideas. We can't say this enough: if you only looked at LBP2 as a 2D platform game, it would still be a great example of the breed.
And as time goes on, the game shows off a Meryl Streep-like versatility, transforming from a platformer to a Nemesis-style scrolling shoot ‘em up, a Jeff Minter-esque arcade game, an oddball top-down arcade blaster and a whole stuffed sack of other variations. No level outstays its welcome, and the cool stuff comes so thick and fast that dull moments are few and far between. Plus, after LBP's fiendish difficulty spikes, LBP2 has a classic, manageable difficulty curve. What's more, it's genuinely spectacular at times, resembling what might have happened had Oliver Postgate been given a million dollars to transform The Clangers into Star Wars. It's unique, strange, effortlessly cool and often very funny.
It's also worth noting that few platform games have embraced multiplayer quite so effectively. Whether your friends are online or local, the regular levels work brilliantly, and the specific co-op and versus levels are consistently good for a laugh. LBP2 can be a great game to play, especially with kids.
The cumulative effect of all this goodness is that LBP2 is a veritable factory for smiles, constantly rewarding you with more Sackboy duds, more classy décor, and just more stuff you can use to build levels. It's not a sequel that will convert those that hated the first game, but it's one that showers blessings on the faithful while delivering on LBP's potential. Best of all, it's a game that leaves you feeling that the best is yet to come.