Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was a huge gamble from Activision. The idea that players would buy a game and use related figures to expand the experience seemed too expensive and very risky since it would look like a money grab. Not only did the experiment work, but it also created a franchise that practically prints money. Other companies have wondered if they could make the formula work with more recognizable characters. Disney is a juggernaut with its vast library of television and film characters, and early indicators show that Disney Infinity is a success, which shouldn't be surprising since almost anything with the Disney name sells.
Unlike Activision's franchise, Disney Infinity doesn't have a grand plot. Instead, the game tries to foster the idea that your imagination is your greatest asset. This is reinforced through the opening stage, which has you play as a mimicking spark that goes through bits and pieces of a few Disney worlds and meets up with a few Disney characters. The tutorial ends with Mickey Mouse, who's dressed up in his Sorcerer's Apprentice hat and robe and lets you loose upon the world.
The game is split into two modes, each with different mechanics. The first is Play Sets, which takes the world of a movie or series and transforms it into an adventure with appropriate tasks. Though each play set differs in content and focus, the basics are similar. You're given an open world to explore with no load times, but the worlds are quite small, so don't expect Saints Row. You're free to do as you please, and there are plenty of side-quests to occupy your time. There's also a litany of world-specific collectibles and achievements. Specific missions propel the tale forward, and they are the most important aspect if you want to progress. While the sets can be played solo, you can also play them in co-op. Due to the split-screen nature of co-op, players can play together or independently as long as they stay within the same area of the map.
Included in the starter pack are three play sets with three corresponding figures. The first set is Monsters University with Sulley. Instead of being an adaptation of the movie events, the game focuses on a nebulous time within the movie, so it's spoiler-free for those who haven't seen the film. The game begins at the start of Fear-it Week, when Monsters University and rival school Fear Tech compete in a series of tasks and games to rack up points. With school pride on the line, it'll be up to you to clean up the mess caused by Fear Tech students and then travel to their campus to create some mischief.
Monsters University is set up with a focus on stealth and platforming rather than combat. Though you fight a few Fear Tech bullies with toilet paper guns, paintball guns and a charge move, scares are your main mode of offense, and they are more effective when you sneak up on an unsuspecting target. When you aren't scaring students, you'll set up gag items that launch an unsuspecting student into the air, get him painted or send him down a sewer. Beyond this, you'll collect stuff and do fetch quests, like painting over rival posters, dressing up students or getting rid of toilet paper and banners from your campus.
The lack of dedicated combat limits the appeal of this play set, but it's perfect for those who just want to goof off. There are lots of people you can throw for no good reason, and the focus on prank traps really opens up once you obtain more traps that you can chain together. There are even ramps and half-pipes on which you can perform bike tricks. You won't be doing anything complicated, but it's a nice diversion. The variety of fetch quests keep the player engaged since the game spaces out activities before they start to repeat. There's rarely a time when you don't feel like you have anything to do, and when you consider the size of each location, that's a good thing.
Pirates of the Caribbean makes up the second play set, and it provides an alternate take on the second and third films. Playing with the included Captain Jack Sparrow figure, you race against time to stop Davy Jones from obtaining the treasures required to rule the seas. You want the same treasures to stop the kraken that Jones controls.
The Pirates of the Caribbean play set has straightforward platforming action. You'll solve light puzzles or jump from ledge to ledge to reach higher places or find hidden treasure chests. Swordplay is your main form of combat, and you'll duke it out with Davy Jones' crew. You have secondary weaponry in the form of pistols and bombs, but their reload times are quite long, so you have to mix things up to make your attacks effective.
Since the play set is situated among a bunch of islands, it includes ships. Your ship can be decorated with kits to change the beat-up vessel into anything, including a Royal Navy ship, one of Sao Feng's ships, or a mock version of the ghostly pirate ships from the films. You can outfit the ship with different cannon types, including flamethrowers and triple-barrel ones. This is important during ship combat, where you can pilot the ship and use the charged cannon barrage or man a cannon for manual firing.
This portion of the play set is the most engaging because the combat is very entertaining. It's fun to try to outmaneuver the opposing ships, and the game is constantly spawning ships for you to duel against while you traverse the seas.
The final included play set is The Incredibles, with Mr. Incredible. The game takes place after the movie; we catch up with the Incredible family as it's rounded up some of the city's major super villains. Syndrome suddenly returns to wreak havoc on the city and free his recently captured comrades. Your job is to establish a central command in the city and get all of the supervillains back in jail.
Of all the play sets in the starter kit, this one most closely fits the standard open-world template. Mission givers are located throughout the city and in the central headquarters. Missions vary greatly between putting out fires, protecting people and objects, and returning people and things to their proper places. The cities are sizeable enough, and you have a variety of vehicles for transport if you're tired of walking. What really sets this apart from the other play sets is the emphasis on combat. You can open up a training facility, which lets you know the various moves you can perform.
It is this freedom and constant combat that makes this as engaging as Pirates of the Caribbean. The use of vehicles makes the city feel bigger than it really is, and it provides the player several ways to approach the missions. You also don't have too many moments in the city where nothing is happening. Enemies always come in, and you'll never know if they want to brawl or set buildings on fire, so you must stay on your toes. There's always something to do that'll keep you busy, and the persistent activity makes it perfect for players who hate lulls in their gameplay.
There are a few issues with the gameplay in the various play sets. The game lets you complete some missions before receiving them from a non-playable character, but not all the time. You might complete a few tasks before meeting up with the right person, but they won't register as complete until you go to the required location or redo the task. Some side-quests reset without warning, allowing you the chance to complete them again. This is a great way to get some fast cash and level up, but it makes it difficult to know what you've finished, and it's a little disheartening to see your hard work reset. Some missions have poor navigation markers, but that didn't happen too often.
If there is one grave mistake in the Play Sets mode, it's the co-op. The game refuses to mix characters and forces players to pick characters that belong to that specific play set. Playing in the Monsters University play set, for example, means you can only use the Randall, Mike and Sulley figures. This also means that you must buy figures to complement the play sets in the starter pack if you intend to play co-op.
That mistake is easily rectified in Toy Box, the other major mode, where toys from different properties can play and interact. The game becomes a sandbox since you're given a blank space to build anything, including gladiator arenas, obstacle courses, race courses, soccer fields and short platforming sections. You can even build monuments or re-create specific scenes from other popular media. The only real limitation is the system memory, which is referenced by a meter at the side, and the amount of objects obtained from various play sets and vault spins.
The mode works very well and is intuitive, even if you don't bother with the building tutorials. Navigating between building and testing modes is a snap, and you can use the equipped magic wand to delete objects or change their color, placement or texture. Changing elevations is handled with the d-pad, and object rotation is easy. One thing you can't do, though, is change object sizes. You have the option of downloading any of the Disney-created levels, which include a re-creation of Disneyland, the Jungle Cruise, and an imagining of Beggar's Canyon with a Tron vehicle in place of a Star Wars one.
There are some issues with the Toy Box. Because your creations are limited to what you've found in the play sets, some of the approved Disney downloads don't work unless you find everything the stage requires. The download for the Columbia re-creation from Bioshock Infinity, for example, was impossible to play because it required things that weren't acquired yet. There isn't a mechanic for level discovery. You can download and save the levels featured by Disney, but unlike LittleBigPlanet, you can't discover creations made by others or upload your own creations. You can invite others to see your creations if you're playing online, but for something this robust, it's disappointing that you can't share things unless they're featured by Disney.
The game features a few other modes. Mastery Adventures is split into combat, driving and world building, but these are merely extended training modes. Adventures are more like challenges, as you must get as many collectibles as possible within a set time limit; medals are given out once you reach certain thresholds. Each character gets a special level and separate leaderboards, and since every challenge level is unique to each character, more figures ensure a wider selection of challenge levels. Then you have the Hall of Heroes, which acts as a progress meter of discs in your collection, which heroes are played with, and how often. The hall is built with more additions as you progress, and the statue upgrades — from bronze to silver to gold — are captivating.
When it comes to the figures and other accessories, there's some good and some bad. The construction of the figures is rather nice. Though the amount of detail isn't as extensive in some areas as the Skylanders figures, they are about the size of the Skylanders Giants figures and are pretty weighty. They also look quite good and can be used as decorations, especially since the base isn't very prominent. The figures can level up, but the leveling is restricted to gaining spin tickets for the Toy Box and changing the metal color of statues in the Hall of Heroes.
Even though you can level them up, there's no sense of ownership with the Disney Infinity figures. You might level-up your version of Mr. Incredible to Level 8, but he's the same Mr. Incredible you started with. Compare that with Skylander Giants' Trigger Happy, who has different hats and powers from Level 1 to Level 10, and you have a better sense of pride in the work put into that figure. You can take solace in the fact that losing or replacing the Disney Infinity figure won't be devastating since the augmentations come from power discs that are universal rather than character-specific. This means that no character feels underpowered when compared to its brethren.
Put all of these elements together, and what you have is a game that can get quite pricey beyond the initial $74.99 starter pack. Individual character figures cost $13.99, and while that is necessary if you want Violet and Dash from The Incredibles or Mater and Francesco Bernulli from Cars, you can get the sidekicks (Barbossa, Mrs. Incredible and Mike Wozowski) and villains (Davy Jones, Randall and Syndrome) in packs for $29.99 each. Extra adventure packs go for $39.99 each. There's a Cars set with Holley Shiftwell and Lightning McQueen as well as The Lone Ranger set with the titular character and Tonto. If that weren't enough for the first wave of figures, Toys R Us has an exclusive Lightning McQueen variant that is recognized as a separate character. He is normally $13.99, but with the exclusive nature of the character and high demand, expect to pay much more via online auction houses.
The kicker is the power discs. You get a bag of two random discs for $5.99, and there are a total of 20 to collect, three of which are rare. Like the figures, Toys R Us has an exclusive bag with a guaranteed disc for Mike's car. If you get very lucky, you only need 10 bags to get everything from this first wave, but chances are you'll either buy multiple bags or get involved in a massive trading network if you intend to complete a collection.
For collectors and completionists, the term "investment" really applies here. The Skylanders games require you to buy more characters to unlock areas, but they only require one elemental character to unlock the content. In Disney Infinity, complete sets from every game world are necessary since some missions and unlockables can only be accessed if you have all of the toys from that play set. The power discs are less of an issue, since some seem to repeat character boosts, but the extra vehicles and environment packs are required for those who want to have a specific piece.
Keep in mind that this launch lineup of figures and discs is only the beginning. Upcoming sets include characters from "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Phineas & Ferb," "Tangled," "Wreck-It Ralph" and the upcoming film, "Frozen." There are a few shoutouts to older stuff, including "Condorman," "Fantasia," "Pete's Dragon" and "Tarzan." Disney can pump out content for quite some time, and that's already discounting the newly acquired Lucasfilm and Marvel licenses.
Graphically, Disney Infinity is average. The theme is that your figures come to life, so the character models look exactly like the physical figures, with some plastic sheen for emphasis. They look fine and animate rather nicely. The environments mimic that appearance in their textures but have a healthy amount of particle effects. The colorful palette is expected, but the game still looks like some of the kids' titles from the middle of the console cycle, where developers used the Wii code base at a higher resolution.
It's disappointing when you see that the game doesn't look very optimized. The levels have a very noticeable level of detail shift. The frame rate tries to hold steady at 30, but it takes constant dips if there's a lot of activity on-screen. There aren't any load screens, but the game presents a physical wall if the streaming hasn't caught up yet — and that's while you're walking at a normal speed and without using vehicles. Then there's the matter of pop-up, which occurs for smaller elements, such as clothing details.
What becomes even more baffling is how the three included play sets differ. Despite using the same engine, the Monsters University set is the worst performer, with wildly fluctuating frame rate. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Pirates of the Caribbean set, which looks rather gorgeous. Both The Incredibles set and the Toy Box are somewhere in the middle, where problems are noticeable but they look good nonetheless. It'll be interesting to see how the engine handles the upcoming play sets.
The sound is also quite average. The music is a nice mix of authentic movie tunes and original pieces that sound like they could've been in other movies. The musical selection per play set isn't very expansive, so you will hear a few pieces quite often, but they're so good that you won't mind. The effects are fine and plentiful, and they match the source material rather well. The voice work is also great, and despite the fact that sound-alikes are expected, a few characters are voiced by their original actors.
What hurts this category the most is the sound-related bugs. Most of the time, the musical pieces play without a hitch, but sometimes, the music suddenly stops playing. Vocal phrases either get repeated too often during a mission or stutter at the beginning or end. Voices also tend to overlap during cut scenes, where the character's idle chatter is mixed with scene-specific dialogue. During a few missions, a number of sound effects disappear and only return when the mission has been completed. These happen too often to ignore, and one hopes that a patch will fix these mood-killing instances.
Despite the various technical flaws, Disney Infinity is entertaining, and that's all that really counts. Each play sets provides a healthy amount of gameplay and is addictive. The Toy Box is exactly the kind of sandbox that players look for, and while it isn't as expansive as Minecraft in terms of creativity, it does the job pretty well in matching the creativity in Toy Story 3's Toy Box. As long as you're forgiving about the presentation and are amenable to the game being a money sink, you'll have loads of fun.
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