Games

‘LittleBigPlanet 3’ Proves Kids’ Video Games Don't Have to Be Crap

It's cute and cuddly, but it gives your brain a workout: 'LBP3' is an excellent addition to a well acclaimed series.

by Mike Diver
Nov 17 2014, 10:00pm

Gaming parents, I feel your pain. It's pissing down outside and your kid's toying with some LEGO, or scribbling over an important final demand with permanent marker, or realizing a magnificent crayon landscape on your recently painted hallway wall. 

Point is: They're occupied, safe, content, and mostly quiet. You figure you've got 30 minutes, maybe, for some PlayStation. But however engrossed they are in their chosen mischief, you know that as soon as you fire up the engine of your hard-earned GTA V Grotti Cheetah, junior is going to drop what they're doing and sit on the sofa beside you.

"Dad..."

"Yes, son?"

"What is this game about? That's a cool car. Is it a grown-up game? Can I play it?"

"No, son. This is daddy's game. You can play... Wait, what can you play?"

This is a problem. If you're a Nintendo-loyal sort, chances are you've a range of games suitable for all ages. As it happens, Son Number One and I enjoy a few laps of Mario Kart 8 from time to time, and he's partial to some Nintendo Land, too. But let's face it—there aren't too many Wii U owners out there, and the range of quality software available for the market-leading PlayStation 4 is dominated by mature-audiences-only affairs. 

Browse Metacritic's highest-rated PS4 reviews of the last 90 days and many involve copious amounts of bloody murder: Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition, Metro Redux, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Sure, the latter's based on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it features a distinct dearth of cuddly Hobbits, focusing instead on the decapitation of ugly orcs.

You're right: There is always Minecraft. But the boy's got his LEGO already—I know, because bricks find their way to precisely where my feet will fall with unfaltering frequency. In terms of something that's actually bearable for a grown adult, but also legitimately family friendly, the options are hardly abundant. But then, there's the Old Faithful of Sony Family Games—a caring, sharing sort of title that's been absent from the new-gen ranks this past year. It's probably about time, then, that Sackboy put in an appearance.

Sackboy: "Still the star of the show."

LittleBigPlanet 3, as its title eloquently conveys, is the third main home release in the Sackboy-starring series that's also sprung its share of side-affair distractions: a couple of portable versions for the PSP and Vita, the PS3-exclusive LittleBigPlanet Karting, and the Move tech-compatible Sackboy's Prehistoric Moves. Just out to coincide with LBP3 is Run Sackboy! Run!, an iOS endless runner. There's quite the franchise forming for the Media Molecule-created character, extending to (via a swift survey of Amazon) toys and t-shirts, backpacks and espresso mug sets. It's a very British success story supported by one of the biggest tech companies in the world.

But Media Molecule, the Sony-owned Guildford studio that birthed LittleBigPlanet with the inspired 2008 original, isn't on development duties for LBP3. That honor went the way of Sumo Digital, an indie team based in Sheffield whose previous credits include the excellent home port of OutRun 2 for the first Xbox, Doctor Who: The Adventure Games for the BBC and, most recently, the 360 version of Microsoft-exclusive racer Forza Horizon 2. They've limited LBP experience, having worked on LittleBigPlanet 2's Cross-Controller Pack in 2012, but taking on a main game in the series, for its new-gen debut, is one hell of a leap into the unknown.

Yet, after just ten minutes with LBP3, it's clear that Sumo has retained all of the charm that characterized previous iterations. And, quite brilliantly, they've actually improved upon the base experience by tweaking historically floaty controls and giving the game's Sackboy hero a new set of contraptions to aid his (or her—as always with LBP, your avatar is effectively a doll to be dressed however you see fit, with whatever new costume elements you find within the game) progression through a litany of inventive levels packed full of physics puzzles.

At its root, LBP3 is just that: a puzzle-platformer in the classic Mario mould, where traversal from left-to-right, overcoming obstacles, generally results in the completion of any given stage. But there's much more to it than that: since day one, the LBP games have allowed players to create and share their own levels, built using in-game tools. This is why the series carries the motto, "Play, Create, Share," and it's something Sumo has assured is as present as ever for LBP3.

"We build the story mode of the game with all the same tools we give you to use at home," says the game's lead designer Jonathan Christian, or JC to his colleagues. "We quickly find out that if they offer us possibilities and get the creative juices flowing, we know that the community at large will dig them. That's the acid test: If they excite us, they'll excite the community."

Prior to the launch of LBP3, earlier entries in the series have generated some nine million user-created levels, all of which will be open to those picking up LBP3 as their first game of its kind. Among those are some seriously inventive designs, and Sumo actually turned to the user base for LBP when they started work on their own addition to the franchise. "We hired ten of the top community creators, so we got some really good guys in," says JC. "They were great at building levels—but also great for coming up with new tools. They always had ideas."

The E3 2014 announcement trailer for LittleBigPlanet 3

New to LBP3 are Portal-style teleportation panels that maintain Sackboy's momentum as he falls into them, a blow-and-suck wind gun called the Pumpinator (which does sound a lot like a sex toy) and a Hook Hat that allows our diminutive hero to ride rails through certain sections, a little like a cuter version of Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite. Which is all great, but the biggest change compared to what's come before this third game is the introduction of three new characters, whose abilities have allowed Sumo to get even more creative with their level design. 

Toggle is two characters in one, who can change form to be small and light, all the way up to fat and heavy; Oddsock is a four-legged dog-like sock puppet thing, used for speed and agility; and Swoop is a bird who can, you guessed it, fly. Each can be experienced solo, or four of you can get together for simultaneous co-op play.

"Sackboy is still the star of the show," says JC. "In the story mode, you'll play as him more than anyone else, and we've taken great care to tighten his controls up. He plays better than ever, I think. But the new characters are cool, as they're all focused around gameplay—they're not additions just for the sake of it. It's all about what players can get out of it, and, as a creator, what these new characters can do for me. So when you create a level as Oddsock, that's a complete paradigm shift, compared to a Sackboy level."

"Visually, each character is very distinct," he continues. "Immediately, the game looks different, while maintaining the LBP charm—that handcrafted feel. It's a new take on it. And it's always about gameplay, everything we do. And if something feels good, however bad it might look to begin with, you know that when you dress that up with great visuals you're going to have something."

LBP3 definitely has something—and that's the all-important all-ages appeal, which comes without sacrificing any enjoyment from an adult perspective. Like its forerunners, this is a game that can be played with your kid next to you, as you discuss ways to best get through seemingly locked gates, and how to reach what appears to be an impossible pathway. It's genuinely funny, and consistently charming, with voice work from the returning Stephen Fry and his one-time partner in comedy Hugh Laurie. It's also frequently testing, without ever abandoning common sense. "We never drown you in technical terms," says JC. "It should always feel like a playful thing, like a tangible thing. Keep it simple, logical and tactile, and then you know your tool's a good one."

Personally, I don't have all that time right now for the game's creation tools (although I'm happy they're there, in case I do). What matters to me is that Sumo has continued in the manner of Media Molecule by shaping an experience that maintains Son Number One's assertion that, actually dad, Sackboy is way cooler than Mario. And nobody ever said that about Knack.

LittleBigPlanet 3 is released for PlayStation 4 (and PS3) on the 28th of November (in the UK—other regions vary).

Follow Mike Diver on ​Twitter