SackboyLast week, I was invited to the LittleBigPlanet stress beta that is currently winding down. Release of the game is only a couple of weeks away, and I thought I’d share my first impressions. It’s pretty simple, actually; astonishing. This game is going to revolutionize gaming the way Grand Theft Auto 3 or Ocarina of Time did. It’s all well and good to see it and see the videos, but quite another to play it.

As a platformer, it is just plain fun, smooth to control and surprisingly complex. Sackboy is easily the best new videogame character since a little blue hedgehog sped into our lives. It’s incredibly easy to express emotions with the character through the 4 expressions (happy, sad, angry, afraid) they provide through the D-pad, along with the ability to move your head and body (with Sixaxis controls) and arms (with the shoulder buttons and sticks). This sounds like a minor feature, but it’s actually both a lot of fun seeing what you can make him do, and even more importantly, it lets you communicate a surprising amount to your fellow players online. Being able to shake or nod your head in response to a question cuts out a lot of time laboriously trying to type with a DS3.

Along with Burnout: Paradise, this game shows what the PSN may be capable of one day. Finally, a PS3 game that is as easy and enjoyable to play online as XBL games. A friend of mine, also in the beta, was playing last night; with a click or two, I joined him, and my Sackboy popped out of a hole halfway through the level he was playing and I joined in the fun.

The one level of the single-player game provided in the beta is more of a series of control tutorials, but it’s still a lot of fun and incredibly charming. The music and sound effects of the game are, simply, the best I’ve ever heard. And the narrator is perfect – he sounds just like the guy who does the voice of the Guide in the recent Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie, though I haven’t checked credits – but even if it’s not him, it’s close enough for your to get the idea.

But the real meat and bones of this game are the creation tools. I’ve never been good at using these kinds of level editors and so on in games. I have ideas, but they can’t get realized without so much painstaking work that I invariably give up. I’ve only just started fiddling with the creation tools and running through the tutorials, and the breadth of what you can do with it is amazing. Within its world, if you can think of it, you can do it, even using your USB camera to insert pictures or objects you want into the world. I’ll have more thoughts on it once I really get into working on levels – I didn’t want to pour a ton of effort into the beta in case they don’t carry over to full release – but my first idea, one I think will be quite viable, is creating a series of levels in which you play through Roland’s quest in “The Dark Tower”.

It’s the sharing of these levels that is going to lead to the game’s unlimited replayability. Some of the things I’ve seen – such as a completely working version of Tetris, in which you use Sackboy on a jetpack to get the shapes into place – are hard to believe, and they’re coming from players, not the developers. I’ve played through a new Indiana Jones quest, a Sackboy version of the classic first level of Super Mario Bros., and a bank heist which ended with us getting busted, mugshots snapped and put in jail. The way the levels are shared and the refridgerator poetry-magnet style of tagging levels and adding authors and levels to a “favourites” list works better than I could’ve hoped for sorting through the mediocre and getting to the best. If you never even touch the development tools, you’ll still have hundreds of hours of fun playing other people’s.

Other game developers are seriously going to have to sit up and take notice. This isn’t just a game, it’s a complete development platform. It’s so versatile that one of the best things I’ve seen done with it was Sony’s presentation of the financial state of the company at E3 – and now I have confirmation that making a presentation of my own that looked just as good would be a fairly simple task, something I couldn’t believe at the time.

If any of you out there are also in the beta, or plan to get the game on release, feel free to send a friend request to “dharmabum”, my PSN account.