It's Got the Touch, It's Got the Power
When LittleBigPlanet appeared on the PlayStation Portable, it received favorable reviews, but the critics had reservations. The reason that title impressed critics was also its main flaw; it was a great translation of Media Molecule's beloved Do-It-Yourself platformer to a handheld with lesser power, but ultimately the PSP version lacked the sheer scope and depth of its PS3 predecessor. The PlayStation Vita version, however, completely avoids those kinds of unfavorable comparisons. If anything, it looks like the new portable LittleBigPlanet will eclipse the console versions and become the definitive title in the series. At least, that's my impression after getting my hands on the beta of LBP Vita.
The basic design of LittleBigPlanet Vita is just like the other games in the series. The gameplay involves the kind of two-dimensional platforming that's been around since Super Mario Bros., trying to navigate a side-scrolling obstacle course without getting killed. What sets LittleBigPlanet apart from typical platformers, of course, is its focus on user-generated content. Players get an improbably wide array of items, materials, and decorations to make their own levels and customize their Sackperson avatar. They can share their creations on the PlayStation Network, while sampling the designs of other gamers. This hasn't changed with the Vita version, but the handheld's interface makes level building more intuitive than ever before.
LittleBigPlanet Vita uses the system's touch screen to dramatically simplify the level creation process. While the console LittleBigPlanet games are of stellar quality, they still have to contend with the fact that a conventional game controller isn't a good device for point-and-click maneuvers. The Vita, on the other hand, lets players drag items from the menu with their finger and place them wherever they wish. The interface also uses the Vita's multi-touch capabilities so the player's finger can move a selected item while the other can rotate or resize the object. They can even create new stickers from photos taken by the Vita's camera, as well as sounds recorded by the internal microphone. This all can be a bit awkward at first, but that's only because players might not be used the Vita's interface. Once they take a minute to adjust to this touch control scheme, they'll wonder how they ever managed with just buttons and analog sticks.
Even if you're not interested in creating your own levels, you'll still find that LittleBigPlanet Vita benefits from the new technology and offers a good challenge. The controls are largely identical to the other games, using the left stick to move the Sackperson, the X button to jump, and the right trigger to grab. However, the levels also use the touch screen, requiring players to drag and flick different objects on the map. The worlds open even further with this newfound touch power, and add a cerebral element as players puzzle through how to best move the environment to their favor. Touch screen controls also play prominently in the mini-game challenges that are hidden through the single-player campaign. For example, one game has players tilt the system vertically and tap Sackpeople emerging from the ground a la Whack-A-Mole — not the most creative use of the touch screen, but evidence of the ways in which the new inputs expand the gameplay.
LittleBigPlanet Vita is the most promising entry the fledging series has yet seen. Its graphics are just as good as on the PlayStation 3, a profound improvement from the lower-resolution PSP version. The platforming gameplay is better than ever, and it promises to support all the content from the previous games. The improved interface gives LittleBigPlanet Vita killer app potential, expressing the concept with a fluidity that the previous versions couldn't achieve. If Sony continues to support LittleBigPlanet Vita with new content well after its September release, that potential will turn into profitable, user-fuelled reality.
Neil Kapit is a freelance writer, cartoonist, and "La Li Lu Le Lo" agent based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen on www.therubynation.com.
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