LOS ANGELES–Disney Interactive Studios previewed what it said was the best of its E3 video game trade show line-up last week, as part of a tour for game critics. After failing to garner critical praise for its re-launch of the dinosaur-shooting game “Turok” earlier this year, Disney is going after the hardcore racing gamer with the off-road ATV game “Pure” on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
This is the first title from Disney-owned, UK-based Black Rock Studio (formerly Climax Racing), which is known for excellent off-road racing franchises like Sony’s “ATV Offroad Fury” and THQ’s “Moto GP.” This game and others are a sign that Disney is starting to get video games. For years, its game division has been an also-ran in the games business, rarely producing breakout hits and perpetuating the notion that the Hollywood studios will never excel at making games in the shadow of their movie businesses.
Although the off-road racing genre is experiencing a sudden traffic jam this year with games like Sony’s “Motorstorm 2,” THQ’s “Baja” and “MX vs ATV Untamed” and Activision’s “Baja 1000,” Pure could drive Disney onto the Main Street of games. The title handles well — the ATVs have a nice blend of simulation with arcade flavor (they’re realistic but not so hard to drive) — and it looks breathtaking. With its trick-based focus, “Pure” also stands out from some of the crowd. The solid track record of the game studio should win over the core racing fans and it’s up to Disney’s marketing to woo the rest of the audience.
Disney is also expanding its original “Spectrobes” game franchise. This title has potential to cross over to TV and movie in the future. The new game, dubbed “Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals,” carries on from the original, which has sold over 1 million units since launching in March 2007. Developer Jupiter is on a hot streak with their recent Nintendo DS hit for Square-Enix “The World Ends With You” and the new game offers a robust gameplay experience that introduces 3D gaming and over 30 hours of adventuring. Shipping on Oct. 7, this sequel should top sales of the original with the kids who love the collectible gaming experiences.
While everyone is trying to replicate the success of MTV Games/Electronic Arts’ Harmonix’ “Rock Band,” including Activision with its “Guitar Hero: World Tour,” Disney has a Wii-exclusive game that stands out from the crowd. Aimed at tweens and families who don’t want to spend $200 for guitars and drums peripherals, “Ultimate Band” lets people play game as a rock singer, guitarist/bassist and drummer using only the Wii Remotes and Nunchucks. To play the guitar, the controllers are used to mimic strumming, while drums replicate drum movements. It’s a four-player game, so the entire family can join in. And unlike the other rock games, this one features songs and avatars that are family-friendly. As an added bonus, the licensed songs come from bands like Weezer, The Who and The Jonas Brothers and not Disney movies or TV shows.
In license-based games, Disney showed “High School Musical 3: Senior Year DANCE!” for Wii, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360 and PC and a Nintendo DS trivia game based on the October theatrical release. The dance game features 35 songs and all of the actors/characters from the three films. Disney has created a game that will require gamers, especially Wii players, to physically interact with the on-screen musical numbers and learn the choreography from each song. Given the global popularity of this franchise — Disney’s taking the third film from TV movie to theatrical release — tweens will likely buy this game up in droves.
If the early look at Disney’s gaming interpretation of the fall 3-D movie, “Bolt,” is any indication, things are looking up for the studio as it takes over 3-D movies from Pixar after next year’s “Up” is released by THQ. “Bolt” is a non-Pixar 3D movie, like last year’s “Meet the Robinsons” (which Disney also developed a game for), that features the voice acting of John Travolta as the German shepherd Bolt and and Miley Cyrus as Penny. Given that anything Cyrus (also konw as Hannah Montana, for our older readers) touches turns to gold this game should attract a tween following even if her voice won’t be heard in the game. Rather than regurgitate the on-screen tale of “Bolt,” Disney has taken the 5-minute Action Dog TV show and turned that into a full game. Although it may sound funny, developer Avalanche Studios compares the gameplay to Sony’s “God of War” franchise when it comes to Bolt, the dog, while Penny has a more stealth gaming experience. The levels are designed around one of these two characters to mix up the gameplay experience.
Disney has a solid racer on its hands. Given the fact that “Turok” has a non-Disney feature film in development, the Pure game franchise could end up with a sequel. “Spectrobes” is a guaranteed global hit. And “Ultimate Band” may end up outselling some of the pricier competition, especially on Wii. Despite the fact that a “High School Musical” game could sell well even if the disc featured “Pong,” Disney has crafted a fun and engaging dance experience with its movie tie-in. And “Bolt” has much more potential to become a smash hit with Miley Cyrus attached to that project, so that game has a better chance at capturing a large audience than last year’s “Meet the Robinsons.”
Last year, Disney said bought Junction Point Studios, the Austin, Texas studio created by gaming veteran Warren Spector. Spector’s original Disney game, which has yet to be announced, isn’t coming out this year, but that game will only help Disney in its quest to break out of the licensing mold and have a smash mainstream hit on its own. Even “Turok” was a relaunch of an old Acclaim game. “Pure” and “Ultimate Band” are positive steps in this direction of creating new content for gamers. Disney proved it could hold its own in the gaming space with “Spectrobes” — and I’m surprised there hasn’t been at least a direct-to-DVD movie spin-off yet. So Disney’s game business is certainly heading in the right direction.