In a year when gaming has revolved around shooting aliens, shanking zombies, and slaying dragons, there's something wonderfully refreshing about playing a knitted Sackperson and running around inside the imagination. Or, as is the case in LittleBigPlanet 3, on the new planet Bunkum.
The exclusive PlayStation series has always aligned its madcap adventures with a certain sense of Britishness that adds to its verve. Bonkers voice acting, led by narrator Stephen Fry and, in LittleBigPlanet 3, featuring Hugh Laurie as Newton, the sort-of bad guy.
It's adventurous fun that proves the platform genre is still relevant, and, for LittleBigPlanet's third outing, more complex than before thanks to the addition of multiple playable characters and a drive for co-operative play with up to four players.
But is LittleBigPlanet 3 a stitch shy of Nana's perfect knitted jumper, or another welcome addition to the quirky and often beautiful series?
Once your brain has got over the inherent oddness of the live-action intro preceding the game, things get altogether less cringey (we needn't say more than: dude on a skateboard, what's that about?).
LittleBigPlanet 3 lays out its stall in typically gorgeous fashion. Running in 1080p on the PlayStation 4, every thread and detail in this cushy wonderland can be seen in all its glory. It's a game that has cartoonish charm, yet far from out-and-out childishness has underlying appeal for all ages. Don't be fooled into thinking this is one just for the kiddies: LittleBigPlanet 3 isn't an easy peasy walkthrough.
The story mode takes on a slightly different approach than in the two predecessors. Although there's still a linear path from prologue to end credits, the three main "books" - Manglewood, The Ziggurat, and Bunkum Lagoon - have core hub levels that link into additional levels.
In mini-RPG fashion there's an on-screen mission selector to help guide your exploration to the next level, or to seek out newly discovered doorways to complete 100 per cent of the game's offering.
Each new book will deliver a new playable character in addition to Sackboy: Oddsock, who can run fast and bound off walls; Toggle, who is big and heavy to smash through objects, depress platforms or sink in water, but can, via a tap of the left trigger, toggle into a small version able to slip through gaps and run faster; and Swoop, the knitted bird, who is capable of flying, carrying objects and swooping down at a rapid pace to avoid various nasties.
Each character's special ability gives additional diversity to the usual play dynamics and there are dedicated levels for each character to make the most of - and these probably the most fun levels out of the lot. We would like more Oddsock levels, though, as he is blatantly the most fun to play - especially when running up walls and on ceilings if at the right pace.
It's not possible to switch through the four characters at your whim, though, as the levels are crafted with each specific character in mind at any one moment. But that doesn't feel rigid in single player as it sounds: it opens the game up to and keeps the storyline engaging as you look forward to those new moments.
These new characters also open the door to co-operative multiplayer. The idea is nice, but despite up to four players being able to use multiple abilities it's not really any more evolved than it was in the previous games. Enjoyable, yes, but the lack of a fully formed co-op play mode in addition to the single player game doesn't exactly exist: there are some "x2" and "x4" areas where multiple players are needed to push buttons to obtain items, but that's about all.
Far from just relying on this quartet of characters though, Sumo Digital, the game's production house, has also provided Sackboy with a variety of additional tricks to progress. From The Pumpinator to push and pull objects or rotate wheels; Blink Ball to fire teleportation balls; Boost Boots for double jump; and Hook Hat to slide along railings from the top of your woolly little head. They each add an extra layer, but there's a lot more to take on board than the run-jump-and-grab moments of before. Perhaps a little too much.
How long is a piece of string?
The three main books total 28 levels, or 32 including the Prologue section, meaning it's a shorter game than its predecessor - but still a fun one from front to back. We completed the story in a number of hours in one afternoon, but to beat every level and gain every possible sticker and collectible from within the game will take a lot longer, giving that typical LittleBigPlanet replay value.
Indeed, it's probably the most fun LittleBigPlanet yet. Yes, there's some inevitable repetition - seeking out the marbles to unlock each new playable character means sitting through some yawnsome moments - but there are other isometric view levels and the variance offered by the new characters adds to the overall engagement.
There are also additional avenues to maintain your interest: Popit levels and Community world creations. The former are creation puzzles where you'll need to build, manipulate and destroy the gaming landscape to succeed - which sounds like fun but, actually, is as dull as dishwater given the constant layers of Popit menus that you'll be thumbing through.
Community creations, just like in the previous title, allow you to build and play other user-generated worlds, or edit others. This section is widely unpopulated ahead of the game's release, but for our money we're nonplussed by it just as we were before. The idea of creating complex worlds is fun, but it's time-consuming, difficult and somewhat boring. That's why we stuck to the masterful layout of the story mode and created levels - we're old skool like that.
Tears in the fabric
In addition to some of the questionable play modes (although it's a matter of taste, albeit a departure from the platform genre), we also found the story's learning curve and difficulty level somewhat wobbly. It's not as progressive as the previous two titles; very quickly into the game we thought some of the trickier elements occurred. Hence this clearly not being a game just targeted at youngsters.
In addition, and despite some great voice acting, there are some irksome elements such as the whiney tones of the flying princess. Some of the animation is glitchy and doesn't sync, but we're hopeful that a day one patch will fix this when the game arrives in the UK on 21 November.
Furthermore we experienced a couple of crashes, with the game failing to revive our character and hanging on a single screen. That meant a full restart and, in turn, playing the level from the very beginning once again - complete with non-skippable cutscenes to add to the irritation.
LittleBigPlanet 3 has lost none of charm that has made the quirky series stand-out since its conception in 2008. The third game instalment looks gorgeous and, despite some animation glitches and other frayed edges, it plays like a dream if you're a platformer fan.
It is a shorter single player experience than its predecessor, but also a more complex one given the multiple tools and characters on offer. Those additions make it a fun journey that avoids falling into the repetitious trap so common in platform games, albeit a game with a learning curve less progressive than we'd have anticipated given the multiple characters' abilities and tools on offer.
It might look like a kids' cartoon, but LittleBigPlanet 3 is every bit the grown-up game too - and a ruddy good one at that. Oh, there we go, getting all silly and British again.
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