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Journey steals the show at PlayStation preview event in NYC

Plenty of attention-grabbing games were on display at Sony's annual December showcase of recent and upcoming PlayStation wares in New York City on Thursday.

The first thing visitors saw upon walking in the door was the next entry in Sony's MLB franchise, which will be in 3-D. Imagine watching pitches appear to speed out of your television at 100 miles per hour. Better still, imagine physically swinging at these stereoscopic balls with a PlayStation Move motion controller. Canadian baseball fans may actually have something to look forward to this spring.

Right beside it was the next Motorstorm game. It will have players driving through a wasted metropolis and using the outer walls of collapsed skyscrapers as long stretches of track. Its title- Motorstorm: Apocalypse-is fitting, perhaps in more ways than one.

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But while these games and others did their best to attract my gaze, there were three games towards which I was inexorably drawn: Killzone 3, LittleBigPlanet 2, and Journey.

I had a lengthy chat with Journey's designer, Jenova Chen, whose studio, ThatGameCompany, made previous PlayStation Network games Flow and Flower . He gave me a rundown not just of his new game but also his game design philosophy. His goal is to create accessible games that are abstract and artistic; something that anyone can pick up in moments and which will deliver an emotional experience.

"I want there to be a game for every emotion we feel in life," he said. When it comes to Journey, he wants players feel wonder and awe.

The game begins with a lone, caped figure in a vast desert, the sands of which have a liquid quality. We don't know who this figure is, where we are, or what we are supposed to do. Most players will begin by doing what they would if they found themselves in a similar situation: trudge to the top of a dune to get a better view. Once at the top they will see a mountain in the far distance with a gleaming white light at its apex. This is our goal, though we have no idea what we must do to get there or what obstacles may lay in our path.

As Mr. Chen worked through several areas of the game it became clear that Journey depends on player curiosity; the drive to explore, learn, and try new things. By experimenting with navigation we learn how to slide down dunes and surf on waves of sand. By walking past tombstone-looking objects poking out of the sand we can make them light up. By running across swaths of cloth we discover that we can change their colour. By collecting smaller pieces of cloth we find that we can grow our character's cape. It's all about experimentation.

While Mr. Chen was playing he suddenly encountered another human-controlled character in the desert. "We can work together or I can ignore him," he said. The multiplayer experience in Journey is automatic and designed to be free of the sort of annoyances that keep much of the mainstream gaming public from playing online, he explained. "There are no lobbies, and no competition," he said. "And I don't have to play with anyone else if I don't want to. But if I do, then solving puzzles can go much faster-especially if the other player is a veteran. I can share his resources to do things I otherwise wouldn't be able to do yet."

Of course players won't know any of this until they discover it for themselves. Multiplayer, like everything else in the game, thrives on the player's need to know, to try new things. What happens when two players are in close proximity? What happens if one of you follows the other around? You'll need to experiment to find out.

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ThatGameCompany producer Robin Hunicke hinted that a release date had been determined, but wasn't at liberty to disclose it. However, Sony did confirm that it's slated for 2011, which means our wait for this clever and beautiful looking game is now just a matter of months.

Another creative experience coming to the PlayStation 3 next year is LittleBigPlanet 2, the sequel to 2008's popular and shockingly robust build-your-own-game game, which gave players the power to create content every bit as sophisticated as that made by the people who designed the game. Alex Evans, co-founder of Media Molecule, the British studio at work on it, spent about 20 minutes giving me a guided tour.

He began by telling me that as they started building the new game his company actually went out and recruited designers from the community of gamers who were actively building content for the original LittleBigPlanet . "We've created our own talent pool," he said. "It's amazing."

While the first game in the franchise focused on platforming, the sequel provides for other game types. It offers players the tools to create shooters, racers, puzzle games, and more. "You can even build an RPG," said Mr. Evans, "though we haven't done that ourselves in the levels we've created. We're excited to see people try."

As in the first game, the series' trademark Stephen Fry-narrated tutorials are key to learning how to build compelling content. However, rather than force people to work through these sessions-which have been redesigned to make them easier to understand and help players make connections between lessons-this time around they're all optional. But I'm pretty sure this old gamer will still need them. The tutorials may have been revamped, but it looks like the range of design of possibilities has grown substantially.

For example, the new game lets players edit existing music tracks and sound effects and even make their own. The module provided for these activities seemed dauntingly deep to me. In fact, it's so potent that LittleBigPlanet 2's composer used it to create the game's beautiful, intricate score. "He just sat down in front of a monitor with a PlayStation controller and began making music," said Mr. Evans. "That's how powerful our in-game sequencer is."

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Then there's the new community. More than three million user-created levels were generated for the original LittleBigPlanet, and those who play the second game will have access to all of these levels as well as the paid downloadable content they purchased for the first game.

However, they'll be able to find things much more easily. As people play they work toward earning some 500 "pins" awarded for accomplishing tasks. You can affix up to three of these pins to your profile to represent who you are, so people will know that you have, say, finished the entire game, created a certain number of shared levels, and have had more than a hundred people download and play one of your creations. These pins will help people browsing content to know what to expect of the creators they encounter.

You can also look for content based on user opinion. Avid players can become trusted influencers; people the community looks to to discover the best new player-made content. "People will be able to find creators with the best taste, or taste that matches theirs," said Mr. Evans. "They'll be able to find new gateways to the kind of content they like."

LittleBigPlanet fans need wait only until January 18th to begin finding new player-made experiences.

The last of the games I spent time with was Killzone 3. I'd played through a level in an event in Toronto earlier this year, but attendees of the New York event were privy to a brand new level; the second last in the game. It boasts a boss fight in which players take on a hulking armoured platform called a "mawler," the design of which was inspired by a flea-though I've never seen a flea that was 20 storeys tall.

My host-Herman Hulst, Guerrilla Games' Managing Director-spent several minutes working through this multi-staged battle, dying several times in the process (all the while saying he "might be making it look too easy because I know what to do"). The buildings in which he took cover were blasted to bits, forcing him to run through the open and avoid power generators that were abuzz with blue electricity. And just when it looked like he had won, the platform rose once more, straddling his position and looming menacingly above as he fought scores of enemy Helghast in covered positions below. It was intense.

In addition to the new level, Mr. Hulst demonstrated a previously unannounced peripheral: The Sharp Shooter. It's a life-size submachine gun with an extending stock (it was modelled after the StA-11 seen in the game). PlayStation Move and Navigation controllers are inserted into slots in its front end. Players simply point the barrel to move the camera and use the control stick on the Navigation controller to govern movement.

It's more complex and features a more robust control scheme than what I've seen in other gun peripherals. Players not only have access to all of the buttons on the Move and Navigation controllers, but also a trigger, a secondary trigger, and action buttons located on the gun itself.

I found it very difficult to get a handle on things to start-I was swiping too far left and right, and the camera kept spinning out of control whenever I tilted the rifle and looked down to see where the buttons that I wanted to press were located. However, once I had a feel for the layout and camera scrolling speed I began to meet with more success.

It's worth adding that the gun controls are completely customizable. You can select the amount of target locking assistance you'd like and alter button assignments. I only spent about 20 minutes playing, which makes it difficult to pass judgement on both the gun and Guerrilla Games' implementation of Move control. However, the hardware felt comfortable in my hands. I'm looking forward to giving it a much more thorough test when Killzone 3 is released at the end of February.

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