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Preview: LittleBigPlanet 2

There's a phrase that sometimes comes to mind whenever a developer is showing off the differences between their upcoming sequel and the past iteration of the franchise. It only springs forth when this new installment introduces major, sweeping improvements over the series' previous entry, and, in my case, it almost always serves as a metric for my excitement for the sequel: "Well, this changes everything."

As a fond appreciator of the already powerful creation tools upon which LittleBigPlanet is perpetually built, this phrase entered my mind a score of times during Media Molecule's recent E3 media demo of LittleBigPlanet 2. I suspect that, in order to contextualize the hugeness of some of these changes, you have to have a deep understanding of how the creation tools in the first game functioned. Even if you don't, the proof is in the proverbial pudding: You didn't used to be able to make real-time strategy games. Now you can.

Gallery: LittleBigPlanet 2 (E3 2010) | 9 Photos

After seeing the new creation tools in action, I now understand the seemingly unlimited power the Direct Control Seat and Sackbots afford to players. When used in conjunction, these two tools allow players to create the genre-bending, outside-the-box stages which you saw in the game's debut trailer.

The Direct Control Seat lets the creator map simple functions to the PS3 controller with surprising efficiency. Placing the device on an object -- say, for instance, a car -- creates a collapsible "circuit board" in the shape of a DualShock. Mapping buttons is as easy as choosing a button on the controller, and then clicking the object you want it to manipulate.

In the demo, Media Molecule co-founder Alex Evans showed how simple this process really is. He attached a Direct Control Seat to a simple car, selected the "tilt" icon on the circuit board, and then clicked the Motor Bolt which fastened the back tire to the automobile. For fun, he also attached a car horn sound effect to the car's hull, and mapped that to the Triangle button. Just like that, the game's method of control had changed: Tilt to drive forward and backward, press Triangle to emit an obnoxious, blaring "AROOOOOOOOOGA."

Of course, more complex creations using the Seat are entirely possible. Evans showed us another creation -- a flying, metallic dragonfly, which steers using the left analog stick and fires a projectile using one of the face buttons. He led this device through a side-scrolling shooter, blasting away other flying enemies which rewarded a number of points that the level's creator had designated.

Another level featured a top-down racing section, in which players had direct control over steering, boosting and even the camera's orientation around their vehicle. We're still trying to wrap our minds around that last bit.

The other big new tool are Sackbots -- humanoid AI creations whose behavior can be completely determined by the creator. Evans showed off one of the levels teased in the debut trailer, in which the player leads a handful of miniature Sackbots through a hazardous obstacle course. These tiny (and, might we just say, adorable) lemmings mimic the player's every action, one of the many behaviors you can program into your Sack-homunculus.

Here's where things get really interesting: These Sackbots can be fitted with Direct Control Seats as well. One simple application for this technique: A player encounters a gigantic block they can't get past. If they hop into the equally gigantic Sackbot lying dormant nearby, they can use its superior strength to pull the block to a less bothersome location.

By modifying some parameters of a Sackbot, players can easily take control of the game's core mechanics. Thought the jumping was a little too floaty in the original LittleBigPlanet? Start out your level by having a player in control of a Sackboy, with physics and jumping mechanics of your choosing. Or, rather, have them start out inside of a scorpion that shoots acid and rockets and also flies through the air. World's your oyster.

Creators will even be able to provide instructions for each object's customized control scheme whenever players approach its Direct Control Seat -- a godsend, considering how confusing things would become as you bounced between levels, each featuring tons of complex machines with unique control methods.

If all this programming seems a tad overwhelming, don't fret -- creators can bundle their button mapping setups to Microchips, which they can easily share with other players. Evans said he hoped the community's more technical players will create "chip foundries," creating complex control schemes which other players can implement in their own machines.

All of these creations can be easily shared using the vastly improved community features, such as the web portal and the far more intuitive level search. If you find a level you want to explore using said search, you'll hop to that creator's very own customized planet, where you can see all of the levels they've created, as well as the other community levels they've highlighted as their favorites.

As you might have already heard, these levels can be linked together using badges you can embed within your creations. In addition to enabling players to hypothetically create full-length games, Evans mentioned another result of this new functionality: "LittleBigPlanet journalists." These people could create levels (or "issues") highlighting the best creations they've recently played, providing links to said creations. They could even give a bit of their own commentary on each stage, thanks to the custom voice acting they can inject in their levels using a bluetooth headset or PlayStation Eye.

If you were a prolific creator in the original LittleBigPlanet, you probably understand how these new functions will dramatically change the way you build levels in the sequel. If you thought the possibilities for the last game's creation tools were virtually unlimited, the things I saw during this LittleBigPlanet 2 demonstration are going to blow your mind.

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