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SackboyLast week, I was invited to the LittleBigPlanet stress beta that is currently winding down. Release of the game is only a couple of weeks away, and I thought I’d share my first impressions. It’s pretty simple, actually; astonishing. This game is going to revolutionize gaming the way Grand Theft Auto 3 or Ocarina of Time did. It’s all well and good to see it and see the videos, but quite another to play it.

As a platformer, it is just plain fun, smooth to control and surprisingly complex. Sackboy is easily the best new videogame character since a little blue hedgehog sped into our lives. It’s incredibly easy to express emotions with the character through the 4 expressions (happy, sad, angry, afraid) they provide through the D-pad, along with the ability to move your head and body (with Sixaxis controls) and arms (with the shoulder buttons and sticks). This sounds like a minor feature, but it’s actually both a lot of fun seeing what you can make him do, and even more importantly, it lets you communicate a surprising amount to your fellow players online. Being able to shake or nod your head in response to a question cuts out a lot of time laboriously trying to type with a DS3.

Along with Burnout: Paradise, this game shows what the PSN may be capable of one day. Finally, a PS3 game that is as easy and enjoyable to play online as XBL games. A friend of mine, also in the beta, was playing last night; with a click or two, I joined him, and my Sackboy popped out of a hole halfway through the level he was playing and I joined in the fun.

The one level of the single-player game provided in the beta is more of a series of control tutorials, but it’s still a lot of fun and incredibly charming. The music and sound effects of the game are, simply, the best I’ve ever heard. And the narrator is perfect – he sounds just like the guy who does the voice of the Guide in the recent Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie, though I haven’t checked credits – but even if it’s not him, it’s close enough for your to get the idea.

But the real meat and bones of this game are the creation tools. I’ve never been good at using these kinds of level editors and so on in games. I have ideas, but they can’t get realized without so much painstaking work that I invariably give up. I’ve only just started fiddling with the creation tools and running through the tutorials, and the breadth of what you can do with it is amazing. Within its world, if you can think of it, you can do it, even using your USB camera to insert pictures or objects you want into the world. I’ll have more thoughts on it once I really get into working on levels – I didn’t want to pour a ton of effort into the beta in case they don’t carry over to full release – but my first idea, one I think will be quite viable, is creating a series of levels in which you play through Roland’s quest in “The Dark Tower”.

It’s the sharing of these levels that is going to lead to the game’s unlimited replayability. Some of the things I’ve seen – such as a completely working version of Tetris, in which you use Sackboy on a jetpack to get the shapes into place – are hard to believe, and they’re coming from players, not the developers. I’ve played through a new Indiana Jones quest, a Sackboy version of the classic first level of Super Mario Bros., and a bank heist which ended with us getting busted, mugshots snapped and put in jail. The way the levels are shared and the refridgerator poetry-magnet style of tagging levels and adding authors and levels to a “favourites” list works better than I could’ve hoped for sorting through the mediocre and getting to the best. If you never even touch the development tools, you’ll still have hundreds of hours of fun playing other people’s.

Other game developers are seriously going to have to sit up and take notice. This isn’t just a game, it’s a complete development platform. It’s so versatile that one of the best things I’ve seen done with it was Sony’s presentation of the financial state of the company at E3 – and now I have confirmation that making a presentation of my own that looked just as good would be a fairly simple task, something I couldn’t believe at the time.

If any of you out there are also in the beta, or plan to get the game on release, feel free to send a friend request to “dharmabum”, my PSN account.

So I’ve had my iPhone for around 2 weeks, now, and thought it was time to share my impressions of the experience, as well as my experience with Rogers, as I’ve switched to them after well over a decade with Telus.

First, my plan; I’m extremely happy with it. My bill comes in at just under $100/month (all BS service/911 charges and taxes included), about a $20 increase over my old Telus plan. That plan gave me 700 anytime minutes, weekends and evenings after 6, no data, no texting plan. For that $20 increase, my minutes dropped to 500, no weekends, and “evenings” start at 9pm. But I added unlimited calling to 5 numbers – and 80% of my voice minutes on Telus went to only 2 numbers – 6gb of data traffic a month, and virtually unlimited text messaging. If data wasn’t an issue, my plan would actually be cheaper than Telus’s, with the text messaging and My5 added on for the price of 200 minutes. I really don’t feel ripped off – well, any more than any other Canadian compared to many other countries’ plans, anyway.

I’ve been using data like mad – lots of Youtube videos, a ton of GPS with Google maps open to full satellite view, the whole bit – and I’ve racked up only about an average of 10mb of data a day. The 6gb plan, while not branded “unlimited” like AT&T’s in the US, is unlimited for all intents and purposes. As I hear it in the US, anyways, despite the “unlimited” tag AT&T phone and bitch you out if you go over 5gb. Without hacking the phone so you can use it to stream torrents through it to your laptop or something, and with the limits the iTunes store puts on your ability to download music and video over 3G, it really doesn’t seem even remotely possible I’ll hit 1gb a month, let alone 6. None of the data plan gets used at home, where the wifi kicks in, so I’ve got no worry that I can’t use my iPhone to my heart’s desire without worrying about getting charged data overages. In short, I’m very happy with the plan I’ve got from Rogers.

On to the phone itself. I don’t need to go on about how nicely the touch interface works or the other mundane stuff; you’ve read it many times before I’m sure. I’m happy with it as a phone; I hate talking on the phone and avoid it so it wasn’t that big a deal. My only complaints involve battery life and push email. Push email works most of the time, but not all of the time. Sometimes I need to restart the iPhone to get it to work, sometimes it just doesn’t. I’m not sure if the problem lies with the phone, with Rogers, or with MobileMe, but it’s a little irritating. Sometimes SMS messages from Telus customers don’t come through in a timely manner, either, though I’ve no idea where the fault there lies, that happened on my Telus phone sometimes, too.

The battery life is rough. For many people it’s probably not bad, and I’m aware that benchmarks put it into the acceptable range for any 3G device. But when I spend all day at work using the iPod functionality to listen to music, plus watch (high-quality ripped) videos on cigarette and lunch breaks, plus talk on the phone for a half-hour or so… the battery’s over half-done by the middle of the afternoon. It definitely needs a charge-up. Add in the huge battery drain if I decide to use mapping features, and I’m needing a recharge during the day. A set of speakers at work that are compatible and would keep it charging would be a big help, and it only takes a half-hour to an hour plugged in during the day to keep me in solid green no matter how much I use it, but I still wish the battery lasted longer. Switching the phone out of 3G or turning off fetch and location services help, but I prefer to keep them on as much as possible.

As to the good… I don’t even know where to start. It’s a completely life-changing device. As someone with a very large and well-maintained database of music – I’m one of those with album art for every track and lyrics for most – I like it even more than I loved the iPod for the way it displays and uses the information, and it works like a dream. I especially love the headphones, with their tiny little microphone/click button that lets me listen all day to music while seamlessly answering my phone calls, pausing and starting, and skipping tracks with the phone in my pocket. Also terrific is the way the new Genius playlists work – one button press on the song I’m currently listening to and it doesn’t stop playing, just puts the track at the head of a new 25-song Genius playlist.

This is my second iDevice that supports video, and while watching video on the nano wasn’t bad, the screen size and quality of the iPhone is obviously much more suited to watching video. Using Handbrake, I can easily rip my own DVDs into iPhone compatible formats, and I actually enjoy watching them, they look so sharp. Converting DivX files into iPhone-compatible formats with ffmpegx is also easy, though I obviously wish it just supported DivX.

The really life-changing aspects of the iPhone are the App Store, the 3G data speeds, and the new GPS functionality. With 3G data, you’re almost moving at DSL speeds. Using the internet is actually a pleasure, and I’m constantly reaching in my pocket to look something up on IMDB or Wikipedia – and unlike previous mobile browsers I’ve used, I can then get sucked into Wikipedia for a half-hour, since it’s as pleasurable to use as sitting at your computer. Once the long-rumoured and now-confirmed development of Flash for the iPhone comes, there’s little I won’t be able to do that I do on my computer.

GPS has hitches and burps when really using it hard – such as our favourite new hobby, geocaching – and I wish it had voice instructions to go with driving directions. But it’s so incredibly useful, especially with the right apps, it shines way past the minor irritations, and with 3G data speeds, satellite maps from Google Earth load fast enough to have them turned on all the time. I can call up Locly, have it provide a list of pubs based on my current location, then with a couple finger-taps, have directions to their door pop up. Or I can pick a restaurant and with a single tap, phone for reservations. Using Twitterrific, I can have it update the current area I’m twittering from, snap a picture, upload it and associate it with my tweet in seconds. While the camera is unremarkable, it’s decent, and it’s just having it on the iPhone instantly that is so enjoyable; I can snap a picture of something interesting and have it posted and tagged on Facebook in seconds, reading my friends’ comments about it in minutes. Or I can call up Flixster’s Movies app, find a list of (GPS-located) nearby theatres and what’s playing them, order tickets directly on the iPhone, then watch the trailer before getting Google Maps directions to the theatre.

Apps to view and browse my XBL friends, apps to help geocaching, use my bookmarks, read my RSS feeds (synced to my computer), browse Digg, pull up real-time traffic cameras, or chat on AIM and MSN. A complete database of every baseball player in history, with full stats. Even an astonishing number of good games – Tap Tap Revenge and Cro-Mag, especially. So many cool ways people have taken advantage of the accelerometer, too, from Cro-Mag’s responsive driving controls, to a surprisingly good lightsaber, to shaking the phone to refresh Facebook, to providing real-time data on acceleration and braking G-forces while driving a car. Even one app that can record a 10-second long clip of music from any source and then identify it, providing links to YouTube videos and the song in the iTunes store.

I always viewed my phone as more of an inconvenience than anything – I generally don’t like talking on the phone for some reason, but we all need one. I never thought that Apple would be able to take an item I generally dislike and turn it into something that I literally can not keep my hands off.

Just a quick update on things; between a crunch at work and trying to launch NAPA, I’ve been depressingly busy, though Bloginhood deserves most of the credit for getting things going. Also, getting a new iPhone to play with, and the world of geocaching that it has opened up for me, has kept me away from the computer more than is usual.

In short; Iron Man on Blu-ray was fantastic. Rock Band 2 continues to be an obsession, with the full-album download of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic taking up much of my gaming time. In addition, I just got into the Little Big Planet beta; as one of the most unique and exciting games of the current generation, I’m looking forward to sharing my impressions.

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