Little Big Brown Sack of Shame
Despite the grand spectacle of originality that is Little Big Planet, there is a small bit of trouble with it as well. Media Molecule was created by several former employees at Lionhead Studios. For those PC gamers in the audience this name brings the fond cringe of infamy from years past. Lionhead's legacy is a pile of very cute games that should have been great but somehow always missed the mark, usually due to technical and some obvious design flaws. Yes, I'm speaking of Black & White. This lineage is, unfortunately, not entirely missing in this attempt from Media Molecule. The good news, is they've done substantially better than their former bug-ridden alter-ego. The bad news is they haven't shaken the curse entirely. Little Big Planet is rock-solid stable. That's great. But the level design and physics sometimes create more trouble than they are worth.
There are several areas where the level design will torment players into a depressed stupor. Don't get me wrong, the levels are huge, beautiful, and for the most part ingenious in design. But there's always that one head smashingly difficult area...the one that tortures players to walk straight to their deaths over and over again with little hope of success, either in complete redundancy, or, worse, rapidly using your four lives per checkpoint. This in itself could be considered challenging, except that these areas inevitably appear in the last third of the mission, causing you to repeat the other near-impossible feats leading up to the truly impossible one again and again until you finally luck out and pass it. Usually only to be killed by something completely unexpected, such as an Indiana Jones style rolling flaming boulder, literally steps away from the finish gate. Areas such as the flexing willows in the Gardens, the rollers you must fling yourself up from just before you hit the fire wall over and over (if you're not dizzy), and, worst of all, the giant circus wheel you must spiral yourself through to the end, while the camera is rarely in the right position, and the physics, and frequency of jumps and objects to dodge become frustrating very quickly.
While these level designed snafus are annoying in their own right, they're often plagued by the almost great physics engine's idiosyncratic, and not always consistent pull. One of the strongest points of the game is that everything in the world exists in a very strong physics simulation, possible only with the strong multithreading support of the PS3's Cell processor (or raw power of PC, of course.) While, generally, this is a good thing, many situations are made far more difficult by this physics engine interfering with otherwise great platforming action. It's used to good effect throughout most of the game, but in some areas it simply doesn't behave as it's supposed to. These glitches come in the form of hanging objects on a rope which, after you swing from them, eternally swing as though an active force is upon them without gravity ever affecting them again. It appears with falling objects that fall in different ways each time you play, sometimes forming path blockages that can not be removed. In other instances, in a level with a mine cart, the carts may get stuck or pop up in unusual ways depending on how they were "dispensed." In addition, simple jumps and balance beam platforms can be less predictable than they otherwise should be leading to some frustrating gameplay in some areas.
Individually these issues can be ignored. After all, in classic console gaming in the era of the platformer, we all had our frustrating, skull bashing moments in games we still remember fondly. The real trouble comes in with the multiplayer support. Despite most of the point of the game being the cooperative play, multiplayer, at times, makes me wonder how much thought was put into it. It generally is fun, but the camera is the ultimate bane of multiplayer mode. When more than one player is in screen, the camera attempts to zoom out and trail whoever it thinks is in front. This can be troubling for critical jumps. Worse, if one player falls out of the screen, they have 5 seconds before they are killed. In some situations this is unavoidable. If one player dies, the camera quickly snaps to the first player, but can then snap away if you're located near a checkpoint, where the other player will pop into the screen again. The camera yanking away unpredictably is almost certain death for other players on the screen. On top of this, you still only get 4 lives at the checkpoint...so now we have physics interfering with areas of overly difficult level design where the camera is uncontrollably bobbing about, certain to get all players killed, and now you've used two to four of your lives just in that one camera snap. This contributes to the game being almost abusive to the players. I played with two and three players. I don't think I want to know what playing with four players is like. (Editor Note: I have played it in 4 players recently, it's a barrel of laughs and absurdity, even when it often comes down to one surviving player having to make it to the next checkpoint to get back the other players, but it could easily get very frustrating on the harder levels.)
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