Apparently the trick to making a successful kids’ movie is making one that the grown-ups like too. It’s the magic ingredient of Pixar’s recipe for money-cakes and why it’s now common practice for adults to admit to other adults, openly and without fear of ridicule, that they watch cartoons in a cinema. That, or the infantilisation of our culture, driven by consumerism’s tendency towards that sole prerogative of the infant – instant gratification.
Media Molecule tried to replicate the Pixar recipe with its cutesy platforming game LittleBigPlanet. While they didn’t exactly make fantabulous Pixar money-cakes, they produced cash-cookies that were munchable enough.
That explains the financial motivation for LittleBigPlanet 2 but as a game, LittleBigPlanet shouldn’t need a sequel unless there was a plan to change some of the playing mechanics. One of LBP’s drawcards (besides Stephen Fry) was a toolkit that allowed people to make their own levels and upload them for all to play. It’s a self perpetuating game, why not just let people play user-generated levels ad infinitum?
Anyway, now we have LittleBigPlanet 2 (LBP2). LBP2 looks lovely. Of course it does; it has the same art-n-craft, playing-around-in-the-kids’-rumpus-room aesthetic that made everyone go “Awwww” for LBP.
If you were kidnapped by violent vocabulary minimalists and forced at gunpoint to describe LBP2 with just one word, you may run with “charming”. Unfortunately, like a hyper-competitive little girl in a beauty pageant, it’s trying so damn hard to be charming that it almost backfires. Then you realise you’ve spent the last five minutes picking a hat to go with your Sackperson’s new gumboots and planting stickers on the virtual walls.
As to the level design, it seems the developers were keen to add toys into the box without taking anything away.
The new toys include a bunch of extra vehicles to get around in and tools to use. At some points you fly around in little planes doing side-scrolling pew-pews. At other points you get a grappling hook, or you have to pick stuff up and throw it at a baddie’s weak spots. For Mrs Threepaper and me, these extra toys provided a welcome variety to the levels that kept us interested enough to finish the game — had LBP2 just been more of the basic platforming from the first game, I’m not sure we would have persisted through the annoying bits.
The annoying bits erode LBP2’s charm. Media Molecule hasn’t smoothed over any of the rough edges from LBP. There is still a limit on the number of lives you are given at checkpoints. Once you have burned them up, you have to restart the whole level. More infuriating are the imprecise jumping mechanics. Sometimes when you jump, you will keep running after you land; sometimes you will land plant on the spot like a gymnast. Sometimes you won’t jump far enough. These outcomes have only a passing relationship to how you are controlling your Sackperson.
This inexactitude has carried over to the new toys. In particular, the grappling hook has potential to be a griefer’s delight, due to Media Molecule’s ingenious decision to make it possible to grapple your Sackpartner. The aiming for the grappling hook is so wonky that you will always have plausible deniability if you do happen to yank your co-sack into some lava, however I suspect this will test the depth of a few relationships. While it can be amusing, at no stage is it necessary to grapple each other to progress through a level.
If you play LBP2 in small bursts in couch co-op mode and there’s a lot of goodwill in the room, LBP2 is great fun. The mechanical sloppiness is frustrating but surmountable. What you’re really enjoying is the experience of co-operative gameplay and the relief of not have conflicting demands on the TV.
As a single player experience, LBP2 is harder to recommend, simply because if platformers are your bag, there are plenty of others to choose from where the controls are less of a lucky dip. Had I been playing on my Rory Sloane in single player mode, or (don’t laugh) online, I would not have finished the single player campaign. Given that Media Molecule has foisted a full-priced sequel on us while forgoing the opportunity to address the mechanical flaws in LBP, I’m inclined to be a little harsh with the digits. Charm can only get you so far.