maanantai 24. tammikuuta 2011

REVIEW - LittleBigPlanet 2 (2011)

Genre(s): Platform / Multi
Released: 2011
Available on: PS3
Developer(s): Media Molecule
Publisher(s): Sony Computer Entertainment
Players: 1-4

The sequel to one of the best video games in history never seemed very crucial to me when it was first rumoured. We had a game that got a new patch and tons of DLC each week - it grew and grew all the time, so did the community and its amount of different levels took about six months into the game's release to increase into ridiculous amounts. LittleBigPlanet was a game that never ended - what the hell would we do with another apple from the same tree? Well, first of all, LittleBigPlanet did have its limits. Secondly, idiots and untalented people ruined the thrill of the community. Thirdly, when LittleBigPlanet 2 was formally announced, it was made damn sure that players would not expect the same game all over again. The trailers showed fully functional shoot 'em ups, role-playing games, strategy games, whatever you could imagine, made with the new and improved level editor. Can it be true? Has a platform game really been overhauled into rather a platform for games? ...Yes. With LittleBigPlanet 2, Media Molecule once again tests human imagination, and this time, they're aiming for the borderline. Be you a casual player or a total freak for the creative side of the game, you will love LittleBigPlanet 2. To be totally frank, the foretold year of the PlayStation 3 begins with a bang: its best game thus far.

The captivity of negativity

Stephen Fry : Narrator
Colin McFarlane : Larry Da Vinci
Judy Sweeney : Victoria von Bathysphere
Barry Meade : Clive Handforth
Jules de Jongh : Eve Silva Paragorica
Ewan Bailey : Dr. Herbert Higginbotham
Jeremy Mayne : The Negativitron

An intergalactic vacuum cleaner called the Negativitron sucks in half of Craftworld. Sackboy is saved by members of a resistance group calling themselves the Alliance, and then trained to be a member himself, to do battle against the calamity from outer space.

I can't emphasize enough how I didn't believe in LittleBigPlanet 2, not even in the possibility of a sequel when the first game came out. However, every bit of info that leaked about it after the game was formally announced was better than the last. Finally, I decided to pre-order the game, win or lose. Not really my style, but somehow, I just knew the game was going to rock. I created only one crappy level in the era of LittleBigPlanet, level editing just didn't interest me. LittleBigPlanet 2's vast array of options practically forces you to be interested in it. Actually, this review was delayed because me and my friend spent the last night faithfully recreating the legendary first stage of Dr. Wily's castle in Mega Man 2 to a toyish LBP form. It's perfectly possible, right down to sequencing the music. We got to the halfway mark, and so far, the level looks awesome. If creating a platformer's not good enough for you, try creating a shooter in the vein of R-Type or a simple arcade game in the vein of Pong. This is all perfectly possible, too. Oh, and if you're just a casual player with still no interest in creating levels yourself, you've still come to the right place when you slap in this baby; the story mode rocks. It's more rewarding, more alive, more diverse, and more challenging than the one in the first game.

Your buddy stole your grapple? Not to worry,
stick a grappling hook up his ass and see if
he tries something like that again.
The game looks awesome in the LittleBigPlanet sort of way - it's a bit more multi-dimensional and your character does some death-defying turns in the air while jumping off a bouncy platform. It's a very dynamic game from all standpoints. Even all old community levels are filtered to fit the new scheme. The characters are no longer combinations of a few blocks: they move, they have different facial expressions, they're very much alive. The whole new Sackbot engine is what's used to bring more flesh into these characters, as you will see when and if you get to level editing.

The soundtrack's still chocked with elevator music, but there are some fun remixes of classical tunes such as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Beethoven's 5th. The immensely popular Finnish metal band Nightwish contributes a boss theme, an instrumental version of their song "Whoever Brings the Night", which is perfect for the situation. Daniel Pemberton has a couple of new tracks up his sleeve, which are bound to make an impression of some sort. What's shit is that most of the new music in the game cannot be remixed in level editing, for reasons unknown. If you carry over the stuff from the first game, that's all still available for remixing. The custom soundtrack, which came along as a patch for the first game at some point, is carried over and it enables you to rock out to the music on your HDD, inside the confines of your pod or during level editing.

The most important audiovisual difference between the first and the second game is that there are cutscenes, during which the NPC's really speak instead of just spewing out huge amounts of insane mumbo. Once again, I'm not familiar with the original audio track - in the Finnish version, they apparently replaced the good old narrator with the guy who does the Finnish voice of Buzz, which is first of all quite distracting, and admittedly the guy's voice annoys the hell out of me, especially during long tutorials and the dozens of reminders which pop up every now and then in every sort of situation. The Finnish voice actors have very different lingual skills - one speaks very clear English while one can't pronounce English at all - and it's amazing what different ways are found to fuck up a simple word like "Craftworld". The names of the characters are articulate mysteries right up until they appear as text on the screen. I'm thinking of changing the in-game language for good - I believe the Brits do a good, quirky job and tell the already good jokes that much better. So, the Finnish translation doesn't affect the rating one bit. Just wanted to take this opportunity to bash it some.

The beginning of LittleBigPlanet 2 plays out very much like that of its predecessor. However, soon enough it's made very clear that the similarities are brief, and in only just to allow new players, as well as those who choose not to carry over their old profile from the previous game to get (re-)acquainted with the basic controls, and grab tools and items that were crucial to level editing in the first game. The main emphasis is on the new features, all the way. The Metal Gear Solid Level Kit introduced the Paintinator, and the Pirates of the Caribbean Level Kit introduced water - in LittleBigPlanet 2, some sort of a gun and water are, of course, basic elements. Water isn't very common, in fact it only appears in one race challenge during the story mode - but guns and other special items are available in almost every level. The Paintinator is available in level editing, but the weapon of choice in the story mode is called the Creatinator, which can shoot everything from plasma balls to standard, touch-sensitive bombs. Special items include a grappling hook, which probably needs no explanation, and a pair of gloves that enable Sack to haul and throw items made of light materials. In further addition, we have a Controlinator, used for controlling mounts, each of which has some sort of special ability - a worker bee capable of carrying heavy loads, a dog so cute it's almost icky but that has a bark from hell, and a rabbit with very destructive feet, to name some examples. Oh, more? Here goes.

Sackbots are these wooden copies of Sackboy, that can become quite a formidable army when well utilized. In level editing, they can be used for creating more realistic Sack characters than just the one you control, or more realistic NPC's as opposed to those in the style of the previous game. They are quite an important part of the story as well. In many levels, you need to rescue a group of Sackbots from certain doom. The more you are able to guide to the very end of the level, the more prizes and points you get. In the several score challenges of the game, it's the very same thing - the better score, the better prizes. It's not just for the sake of high scoring this time around, which is very neat and it makes the score challenges a lot more interesting and replayable. Anyway, back to the Sackbots - how easy it is to guide them depends on their assigned behaviour. If scared shitless, they just run away from you. If they like you, they follow your every move. If they're completely oblivious to just about everything happening around them, you can always use a seductive doll to get their attention. Manipulating the bots' movements in different situations and levels is puzzling and fun, it plays out kind of like with the namesakes in Lemmings or the Mini-Marios in Mario vs. Donkey Kong. In the later stages of the game, YOU will be the one helping THEM to get rid of enemies and obstacles, which brings in yet another cool angle on how the Sackbots can be used in your own levels.

Boss fights were definitely a part of LittleBigPlanet, but they weren't very climactic and the same strategy could be used from the beginning to the end. I loved the Metal Gear REX fight in the Metal Gear Solid Level Kit, as it had multiple, clearly cut phases. I liked the Kraken in Pirates, too. In LittleBigPlanet 2, each boss fight is just as good as those ones. Clearly inspired by people's new-found fascination with epic boss fights, Media Molecule worked to make each boss fight a spectacular deathmatch.

A game of intergalactic pool, anyone?
During the later half of the game, Media Molecule demonstrates how a platformer can be turned upside down and suddenly made into a 2D shooter, even in retro style, or an arcade game, or just about any game, just like that. The question of how LittleBigPlanet would feel in zero gravity is also answered. I feel they could've demonstrated it all just a bit further than just a few story levels. Of course, we have the versus levels, which allow you to get it on with your friends in multiple sorts of shoutfests such as a very generic game of basketball or space pool, or a version of the developers' other hit Rag Doll Kung Fu, with a rocket-launching Creatinator standing in for martial art skills. The versus levels are a great idea, but again, it's all about demonstrating different possibilities when it comes to Media Molecule's own levels, not necessarily the best that can be accomplished with the level/game creation tools. Although there are some gems among the in-game versus levels, most of them are a bit too simple and boring, not near the quality of the story levels. If there's a way to sum up LittleBigPlanet 2's flaws, it's that Media Molecule perhaps trusts players a bit too much... and the so called "simplicity" of their level editor.

The game offers a quick recap on the old features of the level editor before slapping us around with gigantic gauntlets of new information. I'm deeply annoyed by the fact that it's once again quantity over quality, even moreso: the new radar system spans something like six or seven new types of radars, and there's a whole bunch of new, complicated tools that might definitely prove useful in the hands of a keen and skilled, and preferrably experienced user, but a casual player might not stand a chance in making a decent level with them. The narrator carelessly uses awkward terms and keeps squeezing in totally irrelevant jabs in the wrong places, as if he's deliberately trying to confuse the player. The editor's save feature once again fails from time to time, leaving us cursing whenever a tool's settings are all fucked up even if we double checked they were fine the last time we saved, and small parts of large constructions keep falling and effectively demolishing the whole wretched thing, just because we forgot to glue that tiny fragment of a particle in place.

However, playing around with the level editor's fun and most of all, extremely intriguing. After we got to work on the Mega Man 2 level, I finally figured out what's so great about it all, and like I said, another 12 hours in and we're gonna be the proudest level creators on this side of LittleBigPlanet. We're even thinking of doing a series of these "retrocreations", time will tell. For now, I'll be happy once we get this one done - it takes a LOT of work, especially when you're working with a damn perfectionist who wants to map the whole area once every five minutes to see if there's a pixel-sized mistake somewhere.

To point out a couple of more flaws before letting my love for the game handle the rest of this review - I'd have to take the usual problem of the grappling hook into account. It's been a problem (at least for me) in just about every game that has some sort of a substitutional feature: your character is prone to target the last grappling point instead of the next, no matter what kind of a hurry you are in and no matter how hard you keep raping the analog stick to the direction of the next grappling point. Without necessarily spoiling anything, this can turn out one LittleBigPlanet-sized problem in the very last boss fight - it can literally spell doom for you if Sack fails to target the correct spot even once. Also, some of the Creatinator ammo lacks precision, especially the cakes - and what's funny is that they're called something like "precision ammo". You can hit an enemy's brain straight on, but chances are, nothing happens. Same goes for the cakes you can throw at enemies by hand. I hope they patch these small, but very annoying flaws as soon as possible. If and when they do, we'll have a perfect story game on our hands. I'm quite serious.

"Have you met by cousin Robbie, who works
at Konami?" Hrr...
Let's talk about general difficulty first, then the Trophies, since the Trophy system in the game is quite unique. If you want to "ace" the game, in other words survive the game without dying, gather every single prize bubble there is, and finally plat the game, you don't just run through it - you're in for hours upon hours of true challenge. The enemies aren't much to deal with, but the game is filled to the brim with fiendish obstacles and puzzles - one race challenge in the game is one I still haven't been able to figure out, I haven't even played through it yet, and I have one versus level (?) that hasn't even been unlocked. There are many levels that need to be played through many, many times before you can hope to have found everything, and even levels that need to be played through in several different ways to be fully conquered. Getting through the challenges of LittleBigPlanet 2 once is not hard, but truly completing it is.

As for the Trophies, LittleBigPlanet 2 is not a game for Whores unlike the first one. No Trophies for hearts, so every below-mediocre level author out there can forget about those childish "H4H" rants. Also, simply completing a set amount of community levels, or creating levels exclusively to pass around free Trophies don't work anymore. The Trophies are still very much based on your actions within the LittleBigPlanet community, but most of them take some true dedication to the game and truly productive level editing. We all were there to see the shit that poured into the community in the first game's heyday, now I think people will think twice before making their five-minute efforts public and spamming them with heart-related comments. Media Molecule's clean-up program seems to work; almost every new level or short movie made with the cutscene editor I've seen emerge in the last week have, at the very least, been playable (or watchable). And man, can some people use the music sequencer or what? Special props, once again, to user "jjmac13", whose rendition of the classic Dr. Wily Stage 1 tune we're gladly using in our level - and which also inspired us to begin working on it.

LittleBigRetroShooter. Awesome.
The thing with Trophies is that a base retail has an undefined limit to them - currently, the record is 57, set by Heavy Rain. LittleBigPlanet 2 has 47 of them, but in addition, it has Pins, also unlocked by certain achievements. Every Trophy unlocks a Pin in LittleBigPlanet 2, but there are hundreds more of them than just those that have a corresponding Trophy. These Pins are meant exclusively to raise the player's spirit, and what you consider your three best Pins can be attached to your profile avatar within the LittleBigPlanet community, to show off your skill level and experience with the franchise to other players. There seems to be no end to these Pins and it's always comforting to hear that cue whenever you've unlocked one. Not quite as great as gaining a Trophy, but nice.

I'm ending this review rather quick. Why? Because we have work to do, damn it! The level's almost done and we've not even started to discuss the mechanics of the Mecha Dragon! I don't have PlayStation Move, I don't have PlayStation Eye, but even without their features which are considered essential by some, I consider LittleBigPlanet 2 to be the most captivating and best experience I've had on the PlayStation 3 yet. LittleBigPlanet 2 is a bigger, better, and even more lasting version of the killer app that its predecessor was. It's unbelievable how they could improve the basics by such a great deal, I simply don't believe it can be done again. So, for now I can't foresee the release of a LittleBigPlanet 3. But, since this game was released, and it turned out this good, I think I'd better quit doubting Media Molecule's imagination and talent.

Graphics : 9.8
Sound : 9.2
Playability : 9.7
Challenge : 9.3
Overall : 9.6


GameRankings: 93.22%

The events take place in Craftworld. Craftworld was the working title of the first LittleBigPlanet game.

All retail versions of the game include the free PSN game Sackboy's Prehistoric Moves, which was developed by Media Molecule in 2010 to test and demonstrate PlayStation Move in a LittleBigPlanet environment.

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