Games 10/29: LittleBigPlanet, Fallout 3, World of Goo

LittleBigPlanet
For: Playstation 3
From: Media Molecule/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

Show of hands: Who saw this coming? In this era of fully-realized 3D worlds, who could have imagined the season’s most paradigm-shifting game would be a 2D platformer?

At its absolute core, that’s what “LittleBigPlanet” is. You star as a burlap action hero named Sackboy, and your objective in each level is to reach the goal in as little time as possible while uncovering as many secrets as you can during your trek. Your efforts are scored accordingly, and every level has a worldwide leaderboard for bragging purposes.

What separates this core gameplay from the likes of, say, “Super Mario Bros.,” is a heavy infusion of physics. Objects move and topple realistically, and Sackboy can use anything that isn’t nailed down to reach faraway areas and uncover the secrets that hide within. Be it a rope, a pyramid of cardboard boxes or a Sackboy himself, everything is weighted in accordance with real-world physics.

Were you to enjoy “LittleBigPlanet” on this level alone, there is plenty of fun to be had. The game looks amazing, plays beautifully and is saturated with charm, humor and a style all its own.

But to enjoy the game this way also is to miss the point where things shift gears from evolutionary to revolutionary.

A few levels in, “LittleBigPlanet” pulls back the curtain on its level designer and community features, each of which allows players to indefinitely extend the game’s replay value for free.

The level designer, in particular, is an extraordinary achievement: It’s remarkably easy to use, and the planetload of available objects, physics and adjustable gameplay laws gives it a similarly endless degree of flexibility. Making something truly ingenious will take time, but the tool is so fun and user-friendly that it’s awfully hard not to give it a shot. Best of all, you can share the workload: Up to four players (offline and eventually online, pending an imminent patch) can design simultaneously within the same workspace.

The sky-is-limit philosophy of the creation tool makes “LittleBigPlanet’s” community features, which allow you to share your creations and download other players’ work, that much more exciting. During the game’s brief beta period, players fashioned everything from basketball games to space shooters to “Super Mario Bros.” homages using the available toolset, and it’s anybody’s guess what a larger community will be able to concoct with the complete game. User-created levels enjoy the same co-op and leaderboard support the out-of-the-box levels receive, and you aren’t obligated to create anything of your own to enjoy the riches the community provides.

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Fallout 3
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC
From: Bethesda Game Studios
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

Like an increasing number of games sophisticated enough to do so, “Fallout 3” trades in conscience, delivering one moral quandary after another and letting players tell the story on their own terms.

On paper alone, it’s impressive. Bethesda claims “Fallout 3” has more than 200 possible end scenarios, and it’s easy to see why. Your playing field — post-nuclear Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas — is gargantuan, and while a few linchpin characters are off-limits for storyline purposes, the overwhelming majority of them are fair game for whatever degree of good or evil (including death) you wish to impose. Between the lengthy main story and the ridiculous bounty of optional side missions, it’s a given your character has so many possible fates.

But while other games may boast more thrilling storylines, no game breaks the wall between player and character quite like this one. A bond is established before you’ve even touched down on D.C., and you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself compelled to make choices based on your real-life conscience. Similarly, don’t be shocked if the occasional moment of desperation drives you to do something you’ll feel bad about later. Surviving a post-nuclear wasteland isn’t for the meek, and you just may have to dirty your hands along the way.

Happily, “Fallout 3” handles this ambition without too much fuss. Bethesda has tread this ground before with its Elder Scrolls series, and anyone who played 2006’s “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” will immediately understand most of this game’s intricacies, which are numerous but remarkably accessible.

Though “Fallout 3” resembles and feels like a first- or third-person (your choice) shooter, it is, like “Oblivion,” a role-playing game first. Your character’s abilities are dependant on your accumulated stats and abilities, and that includes your shot aim, which might fail you even when you target an enemy perfectly. It’s an odd disconnect, but it makes sense and is easy to figure out with practice.

“Fallout 3” mixes this real-time combat with a limited-use V.A.T.S. system, which allows you to freeze the action and queue up a small handful of automated attacks that target specific areas of an enemy. Mixing the two attack styles sounds impossibly clumsy on paper, but it’s surprisingly effortless and fun in practice. And because you can employ the two styles on the fly and in tandem, it quickly becomes second nature to do so.

With the good comes the bad, and “Oblivion” vets will recognize “Fallout 3’s” warts straight away. The game’s environments look fantastic, but the characters appear slightly lobotomized, which certainly would explain their occasional ability to simply forget prior sins you might have committed in their presence.

Given “Fallout 3’s” outrageous scope, though, these occasional lapses are to be expected. And because they never break the game, they’re also easily forgiven.

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Downloadable Game of the Week

World of Goo
Reviewed for: Nintendo WiiWare
Also available for: PC
From: 2D Boy
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $15 (Wii), $20 (PC)

While store shelves continue to flood with wave after wave of awful games attempting to cash in on the Wii’s mass-market popularity, the truly devoted have retreated to the WiiWare downloadable channel, which has become an unlikely source for the system’s best games this fall. The best of the best thus far is “World of Goo,” a physics-based puzzle game in which the object is to assemble an army of goo blobs into an elastic bridge that transports the blobs from point A to point B. The process — grab a blob, drag it to create a point on your bridge and release — is simple. Accounting for the bridge’s sturdiness, however, is not, and things don’t get any easier when “Goo” demands increasingly unconventional bridges while populating ever-stranger levels with specialty blobs and other surprises. Completing every last challenge will take some real armchair engineering prowess, but 2D Boy keeps the mood light by making it easy to reset, skip and return to levels that have you hopelessly stumped. This, along with some truly inspired graphics, music and humor, makes “Goo” a game that dares you not to love it both immediately and for a good while after. Why waste $50 when $15 nets you exponentially more gratification?