LittleBigPlanet Hands-On

Halfway through yet another replay of the sole LittleBigPlanet demo level on display at Sony's recent Gamers Day event, producer Kyle Shubel pauses for a moment, addressing the three others players and the crowd of hopeful onlookers gathered around them. "Sorry I'm not talkative," he says, grinning. "This game changes every time I play it."

Generally, most demonstrations of upcoming video games, especially those led by a member of the game's staff, present a very limited portion of the game with few possible outcomes. Armed with a outline of the feature they hope to discuss, these demonstrators repeatedly play through same section, perform the same actions, and recite something close to the same lines over and over again to highlight those features to an ever-changing crowd throughout the day.

But not Shubel, who later that day is still wearing that same, enthusiastic smile. It's not because he's found an easy out by showcasing the title's highly anticipated in-depth character customization and level creation abilities--that functionality isn't something developer Media Molecule is ready to show. No, Shubel is simply playing through the same set of environments and puzzles over and over again--the very same level shown when LittleBigPlanet first premiered at GDC, in fact--accompanied by three new players every time. Those three new players are what make the difference--three new people who have never played the game before, who will interact differently than the previous group, who won't approach the various puzzles and their multiple solutions in the same way.

For example, one segment puts a large block in the middle of the path, halting the players' progress. Next to the wall, a section of the nearby linked bridge has broken off, and, grabbing one side, Shubel begins to fold the pieces, attempting to stack them on top of one another and give himself the height necessary to clear the obstacle. Another solution, he reveals, is to backtrack a little and grab onto a large spinning cog. Releasing one's hold on the cog at just the right time flings the character across the screen, and a player can also swing from the neighboring clouds if their character doesn't have the momentum to clear the obstacle.

With the producer showing off that other solution, I keep folding the bridge segments, and eventually push up two of the wooden platforms, with a third piece on top--much like a table, albeit a very shaky one. As I jump off the top of the piece and clear the obstacle, the force of my jump causes the carefully stacked structure to collapse in my wake. "I've never seen [those pieces stacked] like that before," Shubel remarks.

Another section of the level equips players with jet packs. To bypass this portion, one must grab pebbles from the ground and use the jet pack to place them on a high-up lever, which will open the door once enough weight is placed on it. With the pebbles of varying size, players have a few strategies available. Most obvious is for every player to grab the smaller pebbles and repeatedly stack them until the door slides open. By working together, the group can instead lift the rather sizeable boulder located off to the side, which itself provides enough weight to trigger the level.

In addition to providing a number of different play strategies, the various solutions of LittleBigPlannet's scenarios also help it stay accessible when played by only one or two players. Shubel is quick to note that this particular stage was made using the level creation toolset that will be available in the final version of the game, and that Media Molecule is designing the included levels to provide a picture of what is possible with those tools.

However, while one or two players may be able to navigate a level, they may not be able to conquer all of its challenges. Certain optional puzzles will require three or four players cooperating and working together to solve. At one point in the level, a number of small stacks of blocks litter the floor. Most players just push them over and continue along their way, but if a group of players took their time to push the blocks even higher, they would find a hidden cache of the in-game currency, Sponge.

In a nutshell, Sponge is what allows players to buy new parts for their levels and characters. So while players may be working together to navigate the levels, they're also competing against one another for the round balls of Sponge scattered throughout the level. As with everything else in the game, Sponge has its own set of realistic physics, so if a key piece of Sponge disappears from a stack, the rest of the pieces will roll and bounce accordingly. It remains to be seen how the game will regulate Sponge placement in user-created levels.

Though I wasn't able to toy around with the in-game character customization or level creation, LittleBigPlanet looks to provide a large number of parts for players to personalize not only themselves, but other characters as well. A trailer shown earlier at the event had one character placing a cardboard box on the head of another, and then adding two eyes and a mouth to it. One character during the demonstration was wearing dragon costume, complete with a long, flowing tail. Other possible accessories include a motorcycle helmet, a stylish handle bar mustache, a headpiece made of sunflower petals, a top hat, even a monocle. The level pieces should also share a similar variety--whereas this particular level is modeled after an English garden, the set of pieces included within the final version will span a number of looks and themes.

Despite the possible complexity of its physics-based puzzles, LittleBigPlanet controls quite easily. Only three commands are required to get through the game--movement via the left analog stick, jumping with X, and grabbing a nearby object by holding R1.

That said, players have some more non-gameplay control over their on-screen characters. By literally rotating the controller itself, players control the angle and movement of their characters' heads, with fast back and forth movement resulting in rapid head-banging. Holding down either L2 or R2 toggles independent control over the respective arm, with the left arm controlled by the left analog stick and the other on the right. "We could do the YMCA here," Shubel jokes.

While that degree of movement may provide for some amusing poses, players can also perform various actions against other players, such as smacking them upside the head--an ideal time to trigger the sad mood with the d-pad. In addition to hilarious facial expressions, mood affects the actions and animations available to a player. For example, a sad character won't walk--they'll sulk. Mood also changes how other characters interact. A happy character will hug a sad character instead of smacking them, and two happy characters will high-five.

Already highly polished and easily accessible, LittleBigPlanet now ranks as my most-wanted PlayStation 3 title. More than just a quality side-scrolling platformer with physics-based puzzles, the freedom and simplicity of LittleBigPlanet's actions along with the subtle effects of its physics provide for an ever-changing multiplayer experience--even if you're playing the same level over and over again. Combined with the prospect of user-created content distributed through the PlayStation Network, LittleBigPlanet has all the potential to be a not-so-little hit for the PlayStation 3.

Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet is expected as a retail release in early 2008. A downloadable demo is slated to be available from the online PlayStation Store this fall.