First off, is there anyone in this crowd who didn't play LittleBigPlanet? I see a few hands there... Tune out for a paragraph or so if you know this part.
LittleBigPlanet is an incessantly cute platform game built on the philosophy of "Play, Create, Share": Play the game, Create your own levels, and share them with the world. A simple enough idea, but a real technical achievement.
In less than two years, LittleBigPlanet has seen more than two million user-created levels. That means players have created an average two new levels per minute since the game was released. Stop to consider that, it's an impressive statistic. Now the sequel is in beta testing, and we've had the chance to try it out.
The verdict: It's much more than just a platform game this time around.
My own first experience was one of familiarity. With my saved data from the first game accessed automatically, I came into LittleBigPlanet 2 with a Sackboy I immediately recognised. The first character you'll came across in ‘Story’ mode is Larry da Vinci. Larry wasn't in the original game, but he's imbued with the same "home-made kid's toy" feel the first game did so well. Within seconds, you'll be running and jumping, grabbing and swinging like nothing had changed. Then the game hands you a grappling hook. This isn't revolutionary for a platformer, but it helps the sequel to feel fresh and different.
This is even more evident when other players are involved, because you can grapple them too. The result is similar to the grappling mechanic in Pixeljunk Eden, and it causes even more chaos in Larry's mad cardboard-and-fabric tower.
Beyond Larry's tower lies Block Drop. This level is timed, and each player has to remove stacked blocks labelled with the Playstation button symbols (X and O to start, but the other two show up later) by pressing the appropriate button when the block is directly overhead. Press the correct button, and the block vanishes, awarding you points. Choose wrong, and you're forced to wait a few moments before you can try again. It may be simple, but it's very different from anything in the first game, and gives a hint of things to come.
Levels included with the beta show off several new features as a taste of things to come. There are "sackbots", programmable AI characters with the same visual customisation options as your Sackperson. These little guys (or big guys, if you so choose) can be given a selection of preset behaviours, or you can use puppeteering controls (same as controlling your Sackperson, but with the Sackbot as a "puppet") to program more detailed actions.
Media Molecule show them off with a level where the sackbots (with adorable heart-shaped LED lights for eyes) are trapped in cages, and need to be rescued. Once free, they follow the player(s) around in adoration, going anywhere you do, until you lead them to an exit area. The space between is full of hazards though, so you need to be careful to avoid getting any squished. Bonus points are awarded based on how many of the sackbots you keep alive through each area.
At one point in another level, gravity partially cuts out, allowing loose objects to float away, and letting the player jump higher and further than usual. Another major addition to the game that this level shows off is the "level link" function, which transitions the player from one level to another without dropping back to the menu, perfect for telling longer stories than one level will allow, or making bigger games. This becomes especially relevant when you consider that it's possible to create a purely cinematic cutscene level, just in case you plan to recreate the Metal Gear Solid or Assassin's Creed stories in 2.5D. (Made easier if you bought the Ezio and Solid Snake costume packs for the original LittleBigPlanet.)
Go online and already you'll discover a wealth of user-created content. More importantly, players are already using all the new tools provided to amazing effect. The beta version doesn't have all the design features implemented, and yet players are already building basic real-time strategy and tower defence games, full-featured shoot-'em-ups, top-down and side-scrolling racers, puzzle games, and even the odd quality execution of first-person shooter gameplay with some impressively complex tweaking with the design tools.
If you're curious about the 'Create' mode, but find it all too confusing to make out, load up the relevant tutorial, and enjoy Stephen Fry continuing his excellent voiceover work from the first game. As before, everything is laid out step by step with video examples, and all you need to re-enact the footage is within reach, with none of the extra functions cluttering things to confuse you.
As complex and powerful as these tools are, they're amazingly user-friendly, and once again, every official level is made with the same toolkit players are given.
Being a beta version, it isn't as stable as it could be, and a couple of the tools available don't work as advertised, or at all. The easiest example is an apparent lack of polish in the tutorials, but we'd be surprised if any of the game-breaking problems we've seen get shipped on the disc.
If you love LittleBigPlanet, cute things, anything involving assembly or design, or Stephen Fry, keep your eyes on Media Molecule this November.