Games 1/11/11: LittleBigPlanet 2, TouchMaster: Connect, ilomilo

LittleBigPlanet 2
For: Playstation 3
From: Media Molecule/Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)

It’s may be thanks to a technicality, but it’s still true: “LittleBigPlanet 2” is the first game in history to launch with 3.5 million levels ready to play out of the gate.

And besides, it’s no small technicality. The first “LittleBigPlanet” broke considerable ground by making it easy for players to create full-featured 2D platforming levels using nothing but a Playstation controller, and players responded by designing lavishly personalized worlds and using the game’s immense flexibility and boundless physics engine to mimic genres the game was never even designed to emulate.

Those levels all carry over to “LBP2,” which delivers on Media Molecule’s promise to nurture the “LittleBigPlanet” universe as a self-standing platform. The lessons learned and implemented during the first game’s lifespan — interface streamlining, community feedback, tools for finding the best of those millions of levels — carry over as well.

As in the original, “LBP2’s” core content includes a traditional 2D sidescrolling adventure that, in addition to continuing the story of series star Sackboy, provides a comprehensive overview of the game’s tone, its physics engine and what’s possible on the creation side of things.

If you didn’t like the way Sackboy controlled in the original “LBP,” the return of these controls — floaty jumping, excessive slipperiness when standing on unstable ground — is likely the worst news about “LBP2,” which probably had no choice but to leave the physics alone in order to maintain full backward compatibility.

But flags of progress fly just about everywhere else. In addition to running, jumping and grabbing, Sackboy now can lift, throw, fire projectiles, swing around with a grappling hook and commandeer a more diverse array of vehicles (some living). A storyline twist also introduces us to the Sackbots, which creators can configure to give their levels programmable artificial intelligence.

But the unarguable (and literal) game-changer is “LBP2’s” now-ingrained ability to create gaming experiences — twin-stick shooters, puzzle games, a makeshift game of basketball — that have nothing to do with 2D platforming.

“LBP2’s” game creation engine has benefitted immensely from two years of experience and polish, emerging as a significantly more streamlined interface that better uses the controller without sacrificing any of the tool’s power.

To the contrary, the introduction of the Controllinator — which allows creators to map objects and functions to controller buttons in whatever configuration they please — takes the original “LBP’s” high ceiling and kicks it over the moon. Being able to map anything to anything else means creators can design foundations for just about any type of game genre, and the process of doing so is remarkably simple.

“LBP2” provides would-be creators with roughly an hour’s worth of surprisingly entertaining tutorials, and while it’s impossible to demonstrate on paper how versatile and user-friendly these tools are, a little hands-on time in conjunction with the tutorials does wonders. Testers were able to design everything from racing games to first-person shooters during “LBP2’s” brief beta period, and it’ll be exciting to see what emerges with the full toolset in hand and no time limit in place. The game’s persistent co-op (four players, locally or online) now applies to the creation tool as well, so players can collaborate on a masterpiece if they can manage to work through their creative differences.

And if you’re hopelessly intimidated or just don’t care about creating your own games? Those 3.5 million (and counting) levels remain yours to download and play for free. Enjoy.


TouchMaster: Connect
For: Nintendo DS
From: DoubleTap Games/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)

The strangely successful “TouchMaster” series lives in its own contradictory little universe, capably emulating those cheap touchscreen arcades you see in bars and successfully porting the experience of playing them to a system that’s as responsible as any for killing most of the novelty those machines once had.

“TouchMaster: Connect” (which, for those scoring at home, is the fourth “TouchMaster” game to surface in three and a half years) takes the contradiction even further with its sideways approach to online bragging rights. This time, though, the blame for what results lies as much with the system’s limitations as it does with the game.

Similar to previous “TouchMaster” games, “Connect’s” 20 mini-games mark a prioritization of quantity over quality. The games fall into four categories — strategy, action, puzzle and card — and generally give players a single objective to fulfill. Tricky Fish, for instance, asks players to “juggle” a fish by swiping upward with the stylus, while Quik Match is a simple Mahjong clone with numbers instead of symbols.

“Connect” doesn’t completely skimp on presentation. Each game has a high score table and a lengthy roster of achievements to unlock. Nine of them support two-player wireless multiplayer with one game card. And “Connect’s” attempts to fulfill the “Connect” part of its name — more on that momentarily — are interesting, if not terribly successful.

But the chief problem with “Connect” is the same problem the previous three “TouchMaster” games had: The games themselves feel unmistakably cheap. The touchscreen controls are stiff, the graphics look like relics from the CD-ROM era, and when “Connect” tries to emulate a game that’s already prospered on the DS — Coco Loco, a “Bejeweled” clone, for example — the results are unflatteringly stiff and clunky by comparison. Authenticity of emulation is an admirable goal, but the “TouchMaster” games would be a whole lot more fun if they left that behind and created facsimiles that felt like they were developed for the DS instead of some cheap arcade box.

“Connect” gets its surname from its headlining new feature, which allows players to link to their Facebook and Twitter accounts and post their accomplishments to each respective service. Superficially, the idea makes sense, but in practice, all it really feels like is advertising. At least when friends annoy you about their Facebook game pursuits, you can jump in and play them if you feel so inclined. “Connect,” by contrast, feels like a one-way street, and while the social networking name-dropping is very 2011, the online leaderboards that became cool in 2002 remain a superior system in this arena.

Fortunately, “Connect” has those as well. Unfortunately, the Nintendo DS has no way to stay persistently connected to the Internet. So while you can compare your scores with others around the world, you have to manually connect to the Internet and submit your score whenever you want to see updated leaderboards in a separate menu. “Connect” only downloads leaderboards from that one game, too, so if you want all 20 leaderboards, get ready to navigate a lot of menus. Considering the other failings of the setup — there’s no support for friends lists, much less a friends-only leaderboard, nor is there any way to challenge other players from within the game — the hassle just isn’t worth it.


For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: SouthEnd Interactive/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

“ilomilo” didn’t need to be charming to an almost illegal degree in order to be a good game, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The object of each of “ilomilo’s” 49 levels is to reunite best friends ilo and milo, who have been separated by a labyrinth constructed entirely of plush cubes. Reuniting them involves teamwork, with players controlling both characters either alternately by themselves or simultaneously with a friend via local co-op. But things really get interesting when the game introduces advanced tactics — from creating bridges and elevators out of portable cubes to rotating the entire level and defying gravity — and produces level designs that ask players to use the tricks in tandem in order to reunite the friends and find the other secrets hidden within. On the difficulty scale, “ilomilo” hits the sweet spot: The harder levels are cerebrally exhausting, but the game lets you take as much time as you want to figure them out, penalizing slow players only on the completely ignorable Xbox Live leaderboards. The relaxed pace provides a perfect complement to all that aforementioned charm. “ilomilo’s” graphical style — everything, from characters to world, looks like a living plush toy — is arrestingly beautiful, and the game’s personality and sense of humor strike a perfect balance between lovably endearing and slyly clever.