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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Player's Club: de Blob review and Little Big Planet preview

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de Blob

Released Sept. 22

Nintendo Wii

Developed by Blue Tongue

Published by THQ

The Wii’s got a bad rep among gamers — one that’s not entirely unfounded. Personally, I don’t care that the system isn’t as technically powerful as the XBOX 360 or PlayStation 3. Games such as Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3, and Zack & Wiki prove that greatness doesn’t depend upon state-of-the-art graphics or processing power. There aren’t nearly enough of those games, though. Most publishers treat the Wii as a dumping ground for underdeveloped, outdated embarrassments. Unfortunately, the sales figures tend to back up the decision to shortchange development, as quality non-Nintendo titles on the Wii rarely sell any better than the trash. It’s a genuine problem, and there’s no easy solution in sight.

Thankfully, the poor performances of most quality third party titles didn’t prevent THQ from putting some effort into the novel 3-D platformer de Blob. De Blob isn’t just one of the year's best Wii games, but one of the better video games I’ve played on any system in 2008. From the inventive concept — a paint-filled blob helps a ragtag band of underground revolutionaries liberate Chroma City from an occupying force of color-hating black-and-white fascists — to the charming presentation and character design, de Blob offers a heavily detailed, thoroughly satisfying experience.

De Blob helps liberate the city by painting the drab, black-and-white surroundings a variety of colors. Players fill the Blob up with paint and then run or jump against buildings, fences, trees, etc., until everything is colored in. Each paint job eats away a bit of de Blob’s paint points, which are refilled by smashing paint-filled bad guys. There’s also a timer that’ll end the game if it counts down to zero. Players replenish the timer by performing various tasks and challenges put forth by fellow members of the Color Underground. Those challenges are optional, though, and the main goal is to color in as much of each level as possible. The game play can get a bit repetitive, but a stylistically diverse original soundtrack, playful sound effects, and character animation keep the game from becoming dull.

Speaking of repetition, de Blob is a surprisingly long game. It takes a good 10 hours to get through, and even more if you decide to complete all of the optional challenges. The sprawling levels take some time to complete and, unfortunately, you can only save your progress between levels. That’s a total drag, and my biggest complaint about the game. It’s also unfortunate that de Blob doesn’t make better use of the Wii’s motion controls, but that’s not too big of a deal.

De Blob is exactly the sort of game the Wii needs. It works around the system’s technical limitations through inspired art design and game play. It’s cute enough for kids, but clever enough for adults. The difficulty of the story mode won’t overwhelm anybody, but the optional challenges can be very trying. De Blob almost risks being too precious, but reels it in enough to be a game truly everybody can enjoy.

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Little Big Planet

Available Oct. 21

Sony PlayStation 3

Developed by Media Molecule

Published by Sony Computer Entertainment

Speaking of games everybody can enjoy, Sony’s endlessly charming Little Big Planet might set a new standard. I’ve logged a ridiculous number of hours on the online beta over the last several days, and can say that the much ballyhooed customizable game might just live up to the Herculean hype. Little Big Planet is basically a platformer in the Super Mario style, where the adorable Sackboy character runs and jumps from object to object while dodging enemies and circumventing dangerous terrain.

The game play is basic stuff: a bit limited and unoriginal, consisting primarily of jumping and grabbing onto things. It’s also not quite the point of the game. Little Big Planet’s greatest strength and selling point is its comprehensive level-editor mode, which provides every gamer with the necessary tools to craft his or her own world and upload it for anybody in the world to play. Dozens of homemade levels have already been published in the game’s beta, including detailed recreations of Super Mario Brother’s first stage, Sonic the Hedgehog’s green hill zone, and other iconic game worlds. More impressively, LBP players have created inspired stages that deftly work around the somewhat limited core game play mechanics. One such level requires players to break into a bank, dodge the cutest bankguards ever, and eventually enter a vault code by dragging dice into the proper position.

I played that last level with a complete stranger onine, co-operating instinctively like we were old friends. Little Big Planet could be a massive touchstone for the medium, the next Mario or GTA-level smash, if enough people are able to play it. It certainly doesn’t help that it’s exclusive to the PlayStation 3, but if any piece of software can make that console fly off the shelves, Little Big Planet has to be it. Look for an official review in a few weeks.

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