Games 12/8/09: LittleBigPlanet (PSP), Tony Hawk Ride, Backbreaker Football

LittleBigPlanet
For: Playstation Portable
From: Studio Cambridge/Media Molecule/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

Despite what the name implies, “LittleBigPlanet” isn’t a straight port of the 2008 Playstation 3 game of the same name, but a legitimate followup with an entirely new suite of single-player levels.

Better still, despite what common sense and a knowledge of that PS3 game’s sky-is-limit scope might imply, the PSP incarnation of “LBP” also isn’t a watered-down tribute to its predecessor, but a full-featured game that matches it in terms of ambition and possibility.

The overriding style, of course, remains the same. For those unfamiliar, “LBP” is a 2D platformer that incorporates real-world physics to an exponentially deeper degree than, for instance, “Super Mario Bros.” Objects slide, swing and topple according to their real-world properties, and even your playable character — the obnoxiously adorable, highly customizable Sackboy — runs and jumps according to the rules of inertia and gravity.

These physics, combined with the use of multiple planes on a 2D playing field and a reward system built around discovery more than mere survival, allows “LBP” to present levels that simply aren’t possible in other games. The generous checkpoint system and modest penalty for failure also frees the game to challenge players far more than its charming exterior would imply. Mining each level for its every last secret is a dicey endeavor, and Studio Cambridge really lets its cruel flag fly during some brutally tough side levels that, fortunately, are there for fun and don’t prohibit player advancement.

All of this extends to the game’s level creation engine, which sacrificed almost nothing during its migration from the PS3. Some additional controller gymnastics are necessary to overcome the PSP’s button and joystick deficiencies, and the graphics and physics calculations obviously aren’t as refined. Two-player level creation isn’t possible — there’s no wireless multiplayer of any kind in the PSP version — and levels designed in one game aren’t playable in the other, which is to be expected but nonetheless is worth noting for those who might hope for the impossible.

Elsewhere, though, “LBP” has everything it needs to develop a community on the level of its PS3 counterpart. Learning to harness the level creator’s insane power isn’t a blink-and-you’ll-get-it affair, but the game’s exceptional presentation coaxes newbies in and makes it fun to learn and make mistakes. The toolbox responsible for the single-player levels lies completely at players’ disposal, and sharing levels online and downloading others players’ creations is as simple here as it is on the big screen. As always, “LBP” has an online leaderboard for every created level, so there’s always a record waiting to be broken.

“LBP’s” true value will become apparent in the coming weeks, but some inspired levels have already appeared online, and things look promising. The PS3 game continues to pay dividends a year later even for those who ignore the creation tool altogether and simply download other players’ designs, and having a similarly bottomless well of gameplay on the go is just about the best thing this series could have done for a second act.

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Tony Hawk Ride
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
From: Robomodo/Activision
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (Lyrics, mild suggestive themes, animated blood)

Without being behind the scenes, it’s impossible to discern whether “Tony Hawk Ride” is a case of hardware failing software or software not properly utilizing hardware.

At least on appearance, it isn’t due to shoddy hardware workmanship. To the contrary, the board controller that ships with “Ride”  — picture a wireless skateboard deck sans wheels — feels durable enough to easily outlast the mountain of iffy plastic musical instruments that paved its way. It looks good, too — like a sophisticated piece of electronics instead of just another one-trick toy.

Most importantly, in fleeting bits and pieces, it also works. The board rocks from side to side and nose to tail without demanding too much effort, yet it isn’t so malleable as to make it easy to spill out of control. Performing basic flip tricks is simple enough, and it’s fun to let loose, take one foot off the board, place the other on the far nose or tail, and perform a 360 spin while your onscreen skater does some facsimile of the same. Small sensors located on all sides allow for grab tricks, and between the lower body acrobatics and the fight to maintain optimum balance, “Ride” sneakily provides a good workout for muscles you may not otherwise work.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the game designed around the board fails to cater to what makes the board fun to use.

In stark contrast to the string of recent open-ended “Tony Hawk” games that let players ride freely and take on objectives at will, “Ride” is stiflingly straightforward: Each city breaks into a few small levels, and each level offers a handful of objectives — typically a time trial, trick session, collection of five mini-challenges and half-pipe trick session — that require a few minutes each to experience. “Ride” offers a free skate option, but the levels aren’t built with that in mind and there’s nothing to do during these sessions. A multiplayer component (eight players locally sharing one board, four online on the 360 and PS3) consists of the same events recycled under party play rules.

The abrupt, linear nature of “Ride’s” trick and race sessions makes it hard for players to just let loose and have a creative good time on the board, and the precise demands in the challenges create needless aggravation because the board simply isn’t smart or precise enough to consistently discern different flip tricks from one another. Instances of nailing a trick, only for the game to claim you didn’t, are aggravatingly common here, and there’s little reward for getting it right thanks to a bare-bones presentation that just trots out more of the same.

Ultimately, “Ride” feels like a half-finished game hastily designed to complement a board that maybe took longer than planned to complete. Maybe the board’s true calling will be as a snowboarding game controller or something else entirely. The potential is there. Right now, though, “Ride” adds up to an experience that, in its current state and at its current $120 price, just isn’t worth the investment.

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Backbreaker Football
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: NaturalMotion Games
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1 (free demo available)

NaturalMotion’s Backbreaker football physics engine has sparked lingering curiosity since its 2007 unveiling, and if its first playable appearance in the wild is any indication, it’s no mystery why. “Backbreaker Football” isn’t a complete football game by any stretch, but a low-concept arcade game in which you, as the ballcarrier, must evade oncoming would-be tacklers and reach the end zone. Tilting the iPhone controls your directional movement, and some onscreen buttons allow you to juke, spin, sprint and, if the end zone is in sight, showboat. Evading defenders in style nets you points, stringing moves together results in bountiful combos, and the more times you can reach the end zone without being tackled and losing all your turns, the better your placement on the game’s leaderboards. “Backbreaker” backs the simple concept with a series of challenge levels, an endurance mode and multiple difficulty settings, but it’s the technological underpinnings that elevate it from a decent time-waster to bona fide addiction. Even on the underpowered iPhone, the tackle and running animations look fantastically authentic, and reading a would-be tackler’s body momentum — and countering it with perfectly-timed, perfectly-placed evasion — is a skillful undertaking rather than a matter of guesswork. Seeing this tech in motion on more powerful hardware can’t happen soon enough.