09 February 2009

Little Big Planet: The Wonderful Game That Disappointed

We've been finalling our game at work, so I'm a little behind on my posts. I played Little Big Planet on the week of 10 Nov 2008, so I haven't seen the new patch. I hope that it addresses many of my concerns.

I can anticipate the screaming and gnashing of teeth before I even say this, but this blog is for me to think out loud, so here it goes: Little Big Planet is good, but not great. It is a game that has a great concept--one that was frequently seen in the trailers and that is occasionally glimpsed in the game. You get some of your friends--local or online--and go through a magical world full of puppies and magic. Or whatever.

The thought of running through a little miniaturized world with several of your friends, co-operatively solving puzzles and experimenting with physics sounds like the ultimate game to me. However, while Little Big Planet (LBP) is capable of this, it doesn't deliver. The story mode can be played with up to four people and while that is fun, it certainly doesn't require four. There are some areas that are only reachable in pairs or squads of four, but those are only for bonuses. To truly show of its ability to entertain groups, LBP needs a stronger focus on collaboration. Of course, it is perfectly understandable that the story mode has to be completable by one person so it can't provide critical-path puzzles that are completed by large groups.

The game's solution to this is the user-generated content. The scope of this solution is quite daunting. The massive number of levels available online is quite promising. But when you play many of those levels--even the ones that the game seems to recommend in the "Cool Levels" section--you find that it is far from perfect. Fans of LBP will point to some of the better levels available and boast how few other games can offer such variety of play. While this is quite true, the phrase "jack of all trades, but master of none" is quite apt here. The true joy of playing many of these levels is merely to marvel in the brilliance of the creators as opposed to the joy of the experience (for example: Little Big Calculator, Little Big Guitar Hero, and Little Big Pong).

LBP offers many parts to build your levels, however Media Molecule couldn't offer the most important: design wisdom. Many levels are unpolished and don't work well with the game's mechanics. I found playing many of the user-created levels to be crushingly disappointing. And not because the levels are bad, but because they do not live up to my expectations for a retail game. Of course, these levels are free, however free does not excuse that the major reason for (me, at least) playing LBP is mediocre at best. While fantastic levels like Illumina Garden, GAF: One Final Heist, exist, most are sub-par and have glaring problems. These great levels also fall short on multiplayer potential. While they are great on your own, bringing in additional players doesn't add anything to the experience.

As I mentioned, the mechanics of the game are not taken into account by many of the designers. The way the characters jump and land makes LBP a poor platformer. If you play a game like Mario, the responsiveness and precision is apparent. The jump is repeatable and you feel in control. However, in LBP, jumps are floaty and landings tend to be slippery. This imprecision adds mounds of frustration into levels that do not take these limitations into account (which, unfortunately, includes most of the levels with any platforming aspects).

Finally, the biggest problem with LBP is the lack of a good method of finding new levels (Edit: Hopefully this has been resolved by the most recent patch). The "Cool Levels" section of the online level search offers no visibility into how it works. Presumably it is somehow based on the 1 to 5 star rating that users can give a level, but you can't see any rating information for levels. You do get to see the number of people who've played the level and the number of people who've "hearted" it (essentially, a kind of bookmarking feature so you can go and find levels again). You can also heart creators so you can easily find other levels they create, although you have no idea of the polish of their levels until you play them yourself. While this system may work well to create a large group of the avant-garde level discoverers, it also means that anyone who isn't interested in being the first to find cool new levels has to wade through all the muck to get to anything interesting.

There are some websites that act as workarounds or users who create (free) PSN accounts that act like social bookmarking, but these are still band-aids on a deep wound. LBP is a game that is supposed to democratize game design, herald a new age of gaming, and bring world peace. Instead, it will frustrate many people, bring delight and more frustration to others, and send me off to figure out a different way of gaming with my friends.

Addendum: I hope to get another chance to play more LBP with the new searching features to see if I can find some fantastic levels. I'd guess that the platforming issues are still there, but as users get more experience making level (and if Media Molecule can improve the tools or provide additional online tutorial videos to help teach users) the game will improve.

No comments: