After months of speculation, Disney Interactive finally unveiled its enigmatic new gaming project, Disney Infinity, at a special preview event last week in Los Angeles. Developed by Avalanche Software, a Disney subsidiary responsible for producing licensed tie-ins like Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, Disney Infinity is an ambitious, cross-console “gaming platform” that marries collectible figurines and video games in the vein of Activision’s Skylanders series. Given these circumstances, it’s easy to dismiss Infinity as a quick cash-grab, a way for Disney to leverage its own properties into greater toy sales (and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong considering the game’s steep cost of entry, which looks to set fans back $75 USD for the requisite starter pack).
In truth, while Infinity may bear more than a passing resemblance to Skylanders, the title was actually born out of Avalanche’s earlier gameplay experiments, namely its adaptation of Toy Story 3. As far as licensed games go, Toy Story 3 was met with a fairly positive reception thanks to its unique Toy Box mode, a virtual sandbox that players could customize and play around in as they pleased. This mode was so well received, both internally and within gaming circles, that it inspired a full-fledged sequel to the title, one that was set to focus on Buzz Lightyear’s universe, before it eventually morphed into the menagerie of Disney franchises it is today.
It certainly helped that John Lasseter, one of Pixar’s most prominent figures and now the chief creative officer of Disney’s entire animation department, took a personal interest in the idea. According to Lasseter, Avalanche’s pitch for Toy Story 3′s Toy Box made a perfect fit for the license and took him back to his own childhood experiences, when he’d weave his own stories with all of the disparate toys in his collection. Being able to do the same with these virtual characters, just as Andy did with them in the film, was the perfect expression of this kind of imaginative play in video game form.
It’s no surprise, then, that the most ambitious– and certainly the most appealing– aspect of Disney Infinity is its own Toy Box mode. Like the one found in Toy Story 3, Infinity’s Toy Box offers players a virtual world that they can build and customize. What’s particularly impressive about this mode is the sheer range of actions at your disposal; not only can you build towering monuments like castles and arrange them around the environment to your liking, you can even use its assets to create your own games (the play tester I watched, for example, created a looping track that players could race on, but the trailer that Disney aired during the event highlighted a top-down action game and even a traditional side-scroller among the many possible creations). The mode also supports drop-in/drop-out multiplayer both locally and over the Internet, allowing up to four players to gather together in one Toy Box. Perhaps best of all, you can upload your creations to Disney’s online community, where other fans can download and tinker around with the world you’ve built.
Of course, even the most versatile game will grow boring without a little structure, which is why Disney Infinity also includes a more traditional story mode for players to enjoy. But rather than offering a single, overarching quest to complete (as was the case in Skylanders), Infinity features a handful of distinct “play sets”– dedicated campaigns based on a specific Disney property– for fans to play through. Unlike the Toy Box, these play sets are restricted to a single Disney world, which is determined by the figurine you place on the included dais.
The first of the play sets on display at the event was based on The Incredibles. Pitched as a sort of “alternate ending” to the film, this set (which plays out much like a traditional beat-’em-up) follows the Parrs in their continuing battle against Syndrome. Avalanche has gone to great lengths to replicate each hero’s unique superpowers in Disney Infinity: Mr. Incredible himself possesses superhuman strength, while Violet and Dash can disappear and bolt around the environment, respectively. In addition to the main storyline, each play set will also feature its own “building” aspect, which takes on the form of a Superhero HQ in The Incredibles, a headquarters that players can customize and populate with other heroes they’ve recruited during the course of their quest.
The next play set, based on the upcoming Monsters University, stood in stark contrast with the frenetic superhero action of The Incredibles. Here players are charged not with saving the world from a maniacal supervillain, but with protecting their campus from the rival Fear Tech, whose students are engaged in a fierce prank war with the students of Monsters U. Not only is this set much lighter in tone than The Incredibles, with its emphasis on practical jokes over combat, it utilizes a more mission-based structure, doling out its objectives via different quest givers on your campus. It also incorporates some tower defense elements into its design, as you can set up traps, like a spring-loaded glove that slaps anyone who approaches it, around the school to ward off any trespassers from Fear Tech (or to prank your own classmates if you’re feeling mischievous).
The final play set demonstrated at the event was based on Pirates of the Caribbean, both the popular film series and the ride by which it was originally inspired. You’ll be guiding Captain Jack Sparrow (who runs just as effetely here as he does in the films) as he hops from island to island, recruiting shipmates and doing battle with Davy Jones and his barnacle-encrusted crew. This set, likewise, does its best to replicate its source material, featuring its own unique combat system that emphasizes swordplay over fisticuffs. You’ll also acquire your own customizable boat early on in the adventure, which you’ll use to sail the high seas and engage in naval battles with rival pirates, just as you’d expect from a pirate-themed adventure.
These three represent the initial trio of play sets available for Disney Infinity, but Avalanche has hinted at additional ones (based on The Nightmare Before Christmas, Wreck-It Ralph, and Phineas and Ferb judging by the early promotional material) hitting retailers soon after launch. Couple these with the potential for even more play sets down the line, including ones based on recent Disney acquisitions like Marvel and Star Wars, and the game has an almost endless amount of support in store for it. There’s no doubt that Disney Infinity is certainly shaping up to be an interesting title, particularly if you’re a fan of the company’s many properties, but its heavy reliance on what are effectively microtransactions in the form of toys makes it a rather expensive commitment. We’ll have to reserve judgement on whether the game’s content will ultimately justify its high cost.
Disney Infinity will be released for all major gaming platforms, including Wii, 3DS, and Wii U, this June.