Back when Atari ruled the world, a few guys could get together and create a hit video game. That do-it-yourself aesthetic lives on. There's a thriving "indie" community devoted to PC games, and Apple's App Store is filled with the efforts of solo programmers.
The console market has been tougher for indie developers to crack, and the production of a major, AAA release involves hundreds, if not thousands, of contributors. But Sony, with its 2008 release "LittleBigPlanet," hoped to inspire the next generation of game designers, giving amateurs the tools to create their own levels within its funky world.
"LittleBigPlanet 2" (Sony, for the PlayStation 3, $59.99) is the evolution of what Sony calls its "play, create, share" strategy. It provides more gadgets. It allows for the creation of musical scores and cinematic cut scenes. And it broadens the range of gameplay, letting you build, say, a racing game or a shooter.
Because it's so ambitious, "LBP2" is somewhat difficult to evaluate. Its full impact won't be seen until players get their hands on it and start posting their levels to the PlayStation Network. But the elements are first-rate, and easy enough to use that I was able to create a serviceable (if not terribly entertaining) jumping game in just a few hours.
Granted, not every gamer aspires to being a designer. If you're the type of player who just wants to, well, play, "LBP2" includes more than 40 professionally built levels. Sackboy, the adorable chunk of fabric from the original, returns to save Craftworld from a giant vacuum cleaner called the Negativitron. No, it's not much of a story, but it sets the foundation for a journey that mixes and matches art styles, from handmade to high-tech.
Fundamentally, "LBP2" is a running-and-jumping "platform" game, but it regularly veers into other genres, with challenges reminiscent of "Galaga," "Arkanoid" and even "Pong." It upgrades Sackboy's arsenal with a grappling hook, a "grabinator" that lets him pick up and throw objects and a "creatinator" that can shoot water, electricity or less conventional ammunition, like cakes and bananas.
Most endearing are the computer-controlled Sackbots, who are sometimes helpful, sometimes in need of rescue. There's also a menagerie of animals you can "drive," such as a high-flying bee and a rocket-firing camel. You can plow through the story mode by yourself, but to see everything you need to invite a few more humans -- either in your house or online -- to join your mission.
Players who were annoyed by the floaty physics in "LittleBigPlanet" will still be annoyed, because it hasn't changed. It's an odd choice by developer Media Molecule, and "LBP2" doesn't feel as precise as a classic platform game like "Super Mario Galaxy 2."
But that's a minor quibble in a game that, overall, is a delight. And since it's compatible with its predecessor, you can go online and check out some of the 2 million levels that ambitious amateurs have already created. I cannot wait to see what they come up with once they master all the new tools introduced in "LBP2." Three-and-a-half stars out of four.