Cheap, plastic crap. That’s the first thing I thought when Activision first introduced Skylanders to the press. After all, this was the same company that had foisted millions of plastic guitars, drum sets, and skateboards on us. Only this time they were hitting below the belt and trying to drag kids into as well. “Heathens!” I silently fumed. “Visigoths! It’ll never work! You can’t put a price on imagination!” But as it turns out, I was completely wrong. You can put a price on imagination, as long as you create a great product. Skylanders managed to hit the crossover point perfectly, providing both a toy that kids want to play with and cram into their backpack, and a video game that lets you zap that same character into it, Tron-style. It’s pure wish-fulfillment on a tangible level. Which reminds me: Disney, if you ever create a Tron playset for Disney Infinity, I’m in for life.
Yes, that’s right, a Jeff Bridges or Bruce Boxleitner-inspired little plastic toy can buy me cheap. But first let me back up and say that when Disney Infinity was first announced, I had the same knee-jerk reaction that much of the gaming press did: Oh, they’re ripping off Skylanders. Since that announcement back in January, I hadn’t paid much attention to the game until an event that Disney hosted just before E3, allowing us to finally get our hands on the game. And yes, they might have aped Skylanders in a fairly direct manner, the Toy Box element they have added to it is extremely impressive. Plus, as a former Disney employee (I worked at Walt Disney World back in 1992 at Disney/MGM Studios), I know how nuts people go for anything with the word “Disney” on it. Which means Disney could probably market these figures as standalone toys and they would do a brisk business, especially since the sculpts are fantastic.
But, there’s actually a robust game here. After a brief moment playing in the Toy Box, I’m ready to join the (new) plastic revolution.
What you know. Disney Infinity is actually two halves of a complete game. There are Playsets that give you self-contained adventures containing only the characters from those worlds in them: Monsters Inc. for example will come with Sully and Mike, and you can add other characters from that realm as they come out. These will have true-to-property missions and experiences in them, and if you try and put a character from another world – let’s say Tonto from the upcoming The Lone Ranger – on the Infinity Base while you have the Incredibles playset loaded, you’ll get a message telling you that character isn’t available in this playset. But the game will tell you that you can take them into the Toy Box if you want. On the other hand, if you drop someone like Syndrome onto the base while you have the Incredibles playset loaded, he’ll appear in the game and you can control him.
Power-up plastic. The playsets themselves offer a fair amount of gameplay, and you can use Power Discs as well to augment your characters in them. These are thin, clear plastic discs that you place under your character on the Base to have them deal more damage, and so on. There are also boosters that work in the Toy Boy, giving you access to unique items and vehicles, like Carl’s cane from Up. Some of these discs can change the environment, like adding a new sky, and the orange-rimmed ones represent rare items that you can use while in Toy Box mode. Basically, the easiest way to keep things straight between Playsets and Toy Box is: no crossover in Playsets. You won’t see characters from one realm interacting with characters or environments from another while you’re in the Playsets, that only happens in the Toy Box.
Swap meet. Playset gameplay will depend on what character you have loaded up, and most of the missions we saw were right out of the movies connected to these characters. For instance, in The Incredibles the characters were facing a robot that was wreaking havoc downtown. Depending on who you had on the Infinity Base, you could control Mr. Incredible, Elastigal, Dash, or Violet. There was some platforming involved, some vehicular action (Mr. Incredible rides a pretty nifty hoverboard), and action that you would expect in an Incredibles universe. Some of the quests are timed, and while we didn’t get to spend a ton of time with them, they offer up enough content to face value to make it interesting, and the fact that you can swap in/out characters from that world should add some replay value.
Toy Story. Where things really get weird is in the Toy Box mode, which allows you to do nearly anything. Not only can you combine architecture, environment, and items from different Disney worlds, you can put them down wherever you want. It’s like a Disney Imagineer merged with a copy of Minecraft. Not only can you place those objects, even stacking them on top of each other, but you can change their behavior. We built a rudimentary soccer match inside a stadium, adding cardboard cutout crowds that can be made to cheer wildly on command. You can drop in a soccer ball, and set behavior for the goals in the game, and even add scripted events like confetti and fireworks for each goal scored. That’s just scratching the surface of what you can do in Infinity, and according to one of the developers at the show, they created their own version of Mario Kart back at the office, remade inside this game.
Planes, trains, and automobiles. Which brings us back to the vehicles that are part of the game as well, including living mounts. At first it was a bit strange to see Mr. Incredible piloting a Recognizer, or changing the sky to an underwater atmosphere at the touch of a button, but right as your brain says “What the…” it also says “Whoa. I want that.” Toy Box will be a massive messy place, no doubt, but you’ll be able to upload your creations, and hopefully Disney will be curating those and offering up the best of the best for download.
Disney Infinity has adopted a near caricature look for their characters, which applies itself nicely to the Pixar properties, although it makes the live-action characters extremely cartoony. This is actually a good thing, because as appealing as movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger can be, people die in those flicks and these are toys meant for kids of all ages. That cartoon look adds a degree of separation that we’re fine with. The toy sculpts themselves are extremely well-made, and they would look at home on your bookshelf, or next to your game console. People might buy these without ever playing the video game. That means more plastic stuff for Disney to sell, and if they can find a way to make these figures as collectible as the Disney trading pins and vinyls have been, watch out cash cow.
It was easy, and unfair, to be dismissive of Skylanders, but the success of that game has given rise to a whole new genre of gaming that combines real-world toys with in-game versions of the same. A few years back, this would sound like science fiction, but now it’s here as video gaming fact. Disney Infinity looks to make a powerful connection between toys and video games, combining fun and collectibility, especially in the fantastical Toy Box mode. No more mint in package, folks. You have to open these to play with them in both worlds.