Thursday, June 9, 2011

E3 Recap: LittleBigPlanet on the Sony Vita

"So, what game are you interested in playing?" asked the PR rep for Sony who was showing us around the upstairs VIP Vita area. (It's amazing how well you're treated when you have a media pass, a legitimate-looking business card, and are hanging out with the right people.) It was a little overwhelming, surrounded by programmers and developers and celebrities (Zach Levi was broadcasting for Nerd Machine, and Greg Grunberg was enjoying his private demo), not to mention the library of games: Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Little Deviants, Virtua Tennis 4... so I decided to go with an old favorite: LittleBigPlanet (working title) from Tarsier Studios and Sony Computer Entertainment.

The original LittleBigPlanet was one of the main reasons that my girlfriend was willing to supplement our previous console of record, the Nintendo Wii, with a PS3 last holiday season. She had played through the game before (on a friend's system), found it adorable and intuitive, and thought that maybe those big scary high-powered HD systems weren't so bad if they could come up with charming material like this every now and then. My goal was to see how the intuitive charm and fun carried over onto a brand-spankin'-new handheld system.

Guiding me through the demo (a level created especially for E3, to showcase all the cool new features) was Pete Smith, an Executive Producer at Sony Computer Entertainment. After walking me through the controls, he gave me free reign of the system, which I didn't find that difficult to hold at all. Maybe that's because I grew up with a Sega Game Gear, one of the bulkiest handhelds in existence. I acquitted myself pretty well, despite Pete having to reach in and assist me now and then, which was easy to do with the touchscreen function.

"The original LittleBigPlanet was basically run, jump, and grab. But for this one, we wanted to incorporate all the new features of the Vita while still maintaining the feel of the original game." In addition to having objects that Sackboy can grab onto, there is material that can only be manipulated by using the touchscreen. One of the first puzzles involved using a block made of said material as a step for Sackboy to reach a button that opens a door, then moving the block under the door to prevent it from closing when you step off the button.

It was a little weird getting used to interacting with the environment onscreen using two very different methods (your on-screen character and your finger), but after the first couple of puzzles I started to dig the "hand of God" aspect with which I'm sure DS users are very familiar. But the gameplay gets even more immersive with the tilt function, an aspect with which anyone who's ever played a mobile game is very familiar. Certain points in the game require you to grab, touch, and tilt all at once, delivering a style of gameplay that requires not just the thumbs and eyes, but the coordinated function of several different motor skills.

The demo ended with a showcase of the rear touchscreen, which you use to push blocks out of the background for Sackboy to use as platforms to reach higher areas. You can also use the front touchscreen to push these blocks back in, which Pete had to do for me a couple of times when I screwed up. Hey, it was my first time! The coolest thing about the rear touchscreen is the little fingerprint icon that appears on the screen to show where you're actually pressing. It's a lot more convenient than flipping the Vita over, which would make it very hard to see the action on the main screen.

After playing through the level, Pete challenged me to a game of air hockey, created using the LittleBigPlanet level creator function, which lets creators access all the Vita's tilt n' touch features in addition to the copious backgrounds and objects. "Yeah, they called us from HQ and said they wanted an air hockey game for E3, so we popped this off in a couple days... and then it took us a little longer to polish it up," Pete added modestly. Each player takes hold of one side of the Vita with one hand and uses the touchscreen to control your paddles (which only moved laterally, making it more like horizontal Pong on an ice rink). Fun for the whole family!

From my experience with LittleBigPlanet, it looks like the Vita is doing a fine job of combining the HD graphics and software/hardware support of the powerful Sony machine with some of the most dynamic aspects of more casual mobile gaming. Plus you can get a model that's fully 3G and WiFi ready. And it starts at only $249! As I overheard one producer say: "When we announced our price, we all heard Nintendo give out a collective 'Eep!'" But it is a dedicated gaming machine, the days of which might be numbered. How many devices are modern people supposed to fit into their pockets nowadays? Or should we all start carrying messenger bags to hold them all?