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Disney Infinity, an open world platform game where collectible toys represent the playable characters, is a huge enterprise that cost more than $100 million to make and required the coordination of many different Disney divisions and properties. I like its ambition, but I don’t care for the game so far. The title debuted on Aug. 18 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Wii U, and 3DS.

But then again, you can’t trust my judgment. I wasn’t a big fan of the first Skylanders game from Activision. That game series went on to sell more than $1 billion worth of toys and games. It was a stroke of brilliance, and I just wasn’t the right audience for it. I look at Disney Infinity in the same way. Disney Infinity could well go on to be a blockbuster that breathes new life into both Disney’s video game business and bridges its toy business into the digital realm. The core demographic of young kids could very well turn this into one of the hottest games of the year. And Disney’s brands might very well crush the Skylanders’ momentum. Your kids might prove me wrong.

Like Skylanders, the game lets your kids combine playing with toys and playing a video game. You plug your base into your console, as I did with my Xbox 360, and then you set a toy on the base. The toy character transfers into the game and launches the themed environment for the character’s world, such as Toy Story. Then you can either play a narrated mission campaign or play with the character in an open-ended world where you can create anything you’d like.

Avalanche Studios has worked on Infinity for more than three years so that it can deliver a magical experience for Disney fans. But I feel Disney Infinity falls short in providing the kind of intelligent humor and engagement for adults that you find in Disney films. Disney’s entertainment is typically multi-generational, with people of all ages enjoying films from Pixar. But Infinity is too poorly executed to be loved by hardcore gamers and adults looking for a fun experience to share with their kids. You may very well sit alongside your young kids, maybe around the six to nine age group, for hours upon hours. But as the adult in the room, you’ll be silently groaning.

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At the same time, Disney really has something cool going in the Toy Box, where users can generate their own Disney-themed content and mix characters from different stories. The introductory interactive video for the Toy Box is aimed at sparking your imagination and it is so well done it could bring tears to your eyes. It will show you all of the characters you can play and the endless variety of things you can do in the Magic Kingdom’s digital realm. This is the part that will make you feel like a kid again, as if you were mashing up characters from different stories on your living room floor.

Overall, players can indulge in Infinity for hundreds of hours if they fully invest in all the toys and content. Disney is releasing six “play sets” at the launch. These play sets have different themes but they’re essentially six full games. The base platform comes with three toy characters with three play sets — Sulley and Monsters University, Mr. Incredible and The Incredibles, and Captain Jack Sparrow and Pirates of the Caribbean. You only have to buy the base once. You can add to the experience and the play sets available by purchasing new toys. More play sets on the way include Lone Ranger, Cars, and Toy Story.

Disney Infinity toys

Above: Disney Infinity toys

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

What you’ll like

The huge variety of play

Disney Infinity is a massive game, and it is infinitely extensible. The $75 starter pack comes with a base and three characters, the Toy Box mode, and multiplayer play. That’s an enormous amount of content, considering that each play set has somewhere around eight hours of gameplay or more. You can unlock more items in the gameplay and then those items become available as accessories. The toys are beautiful and well made. Online multiplayer is another way to extend the experience with your friends.

Each world has its own set of cute items that drive a lot of gameplay. There’s a toilet-roll shooter gun and a paintball gun in Monsters University, a hover board and a glider pack in The Incredibles, and a pistol and sword in Pirates. You’ll use these over and over again as you come across various enemies in the worlds. As you collect more tokens, you can go to the Toy Store and purchase new items that will help you. Some of these, like a joke launcher in Monsters University that will slap you in the butt and send your character flying, are necessary to advance to new areas in the play sets.

The worlds themselves are big enough where it would have been nice for Disney to include a map of each one. The plus side is that these worlds add to the variety of the game. In the multiplayer play, you can download new Toy Box worlds created by Disney, such as a replica of Disneyland itself, or share your own Toy Box creations with others. You can play in Toy Box worlds created by friends. If they’re better than what Disney has created, then that’s a big bonus. Disney Infinity is just at its beginning, and by the time it’s in full swing, we should see an enormous amount of content available.

Disney Infinity villains

Above: Disney Infinity villains

Image Credit: Disney

Each play set is a long game

The play sets provide plenty of entertainment and replayability. My kids and I plowed into the Monsters University play set and we found no end to it. There are always new missions to pursue and new toys to earn in the Toy Store, based on your achievements. The side quests get confusing, but the game has some nice cues to keep you on track, such as arrows that point you to your destination. If you view the game with a collector’s mentality, where you want to pick up everything and replay areas with different characters, then you’ll spend a lot more time than you normally might in a game of this nature.

I was surprised that there was as much to do in each of the play sets given the big range of estimates for how long it would take to complete them. Each play set also introduces a different kind of gameplay. In The Incredibles, you have superhero gameplay such as fighting, flying, and driving cars. In Pirates, you have swordfighting, bomb throwing, and sea combat. And in Monsters University, you climb buildings, shoot the toy guns, and scare critters.

Toy Box mode offers endless creativity

The highlight of the game is Toy Box mode, an open, virtual world where you can mix and match characters from different stories and create your own world. You can try your luck in a kind of slot machine to get 25 different pieces of content to populate your world. You can also access a big library of about 1,000 pieces. You can also add a theme to the world by adding discs that you purchase. You can add the Tangled disc and the world will suddenly be adorned with the decorations from the world of the Tangled movie. The major set piece in Toy Box is Cinderella’s castle. But you can modify the world as you like, changing the props, landscape, and objects in the world to suit your taste. It’s sort of like Second Life, but with a much simpler set of tools for customizing the world. Besides setting down objects, you can connect them logically. You can put a soccer ball in the world and set up a goal. When someone kicks the ball into the goal, you can set off a fireworks display. With the logic rules, you can pretty much create your won games within the Toy Box.

Toy Box has different modes itself. In the Adventure Mode, you can win new items to add to the collection of objects. This is the part where Disney differentiates itself from Activision, whose Skylanders toy figures are not used much outside of scripted missions or challenges. You can create environments in forests, race tracks, cities, underwater places, and more. Toy Box mode is as good as your imagination.

Mike from Monster's University

Above: Mike from Monster’s University

Image Credit: Disney

What you won’t like

The basic gameplay is boring

My 13-year-old got tired of doing the same kinds of missions over and over. The 10-year-old played the game for a lot longer. I enjoyed some of the mini-games, such as playing paintball in Monsters University and fighting pirate ships in Pirates of the Caribbean. But there was a lot of drudgery in between. The greatest danger for Disney is that kids will view the gameplay as generic across the whole play sets.

The fighting with characters in the play sets is very routine. The enemies are fairly dumb. Monsters University introduces the concept of stealth but not in an elegant way. You sneak behind some of the enemies, who patrol the Fear Tech campus at night. Then you “roar” at them and make them lose their gold coins. This is amusing at the outset, but becomes boring after the 25th time you do it. And the enemies show very little intelligence. They won’t, for instance, hunt you down in a pack with much skill. So it’s easy to take them out one at a time, simply by pressing the Y button, over and over again. Blocking or dodging are possible, but unnecessary with such dim-witted opponents.

When it is challenging, it seems so in a silly way. At one point, I ran into some difficult gameplay in the Pirates play set, where I had to take out nine pirate ghost ships, with three or four of them coming at me at a time. I had to upgrade my ship with new weapons and protections in order to defeat the pirates. That was a fun challenge, but I didn’t like the fact that I had to go get some new equipment and return to the mission. The mission should have told me at the outset what I needed in order to complete it. Instead, I played it about 10 times, gave up, and returned when I had upgraded my ship.

In Monsters University, I also had a hard time getting past a nasty Fear Tech student who was on a roof. He was basically unbeatable, but stood in the way of my completing a mission. I had to switch to a different character in order to beat him and just knock him off the roof. Perhaps that is the point of Infinity, to make use of multiple characters, but it makes me think of what could have been. For instance, with Skylanders, you can withdraw a character who has taken a lot of damage and substitute a fresh one. But since there is no consequence to death in Disney Infinity, you have no motivation to do that.

Lack of decent stories

Disney and Pixar films are engaging because they have great characters and great stories. There isn’t much of that here. Although each movie property is always based on a strong story, the games are completely lacking in this regard.

The Monsters University play set appears to have a solid narrative as your Monsters University squares off in a school rivalry against Fear Tech. But the missions got to be so numerous and convoluted that I lost the narrative thread. I had a dozen missions open, and I had no idea which ones were part of the main narrative thread that would get me to the end of the story.

The interlocking collectibles and gameplay are a problem sometimes. In one mission, I had to have a backpack to toss into a window at Fear Tech. So I ordered it from the Toy Store. I looked around for the place where it would drop from the sky. But it never showed. up. I looked around the entire Fear Tech campus. Then I went back to the Monsters University campus. It wasn’t there either. Then it showed up finally, at a spot in the Monsters University campus where I had looked before, far from the place where I ordered it. This kind of design flaw interrupts what little flow there is to the story.

I get the sense that the worlds are each half-built. If you go into the fraternity row section of Monsters University, you can’t go inside the buildings.

It’s full of minor bugs

The idea is great, but the execution is poor. Aiming with any weapon or hero is a real chore. In the Pirates of the Caribbean play set, I was trying to smash a barrel and it took me seven swings. Captain Jack can’t hit anything the first time, whether he is swing a sword, throwing a grenade, or firing his pistol. I simply adjusted my play to suit the imprecision by firing lots of bullets, expecting one to hit home.

In The Incredibles play set, the hoverboard is very maneuverable and easy to steer. But the cars are very difficult to master. They drive as if there is absolutely no turning radius. The ships are quite easy to steer in Pirates, but it’s very difficult to stay facing in the right direction during a sea battle.

The flip side of this is that there are contradictions in the design. In Monsters University, the school is billed as an open world where you can wander. Most of the buildings have upper levels where you can roam. But there is often only one way up. I was trying to perform an early mission and was looking all over the place for a way to the top of the building. It turned out that I had to scare a monster first. Then the monster rises from the grass and gives my character something to step on. So what is this really? A game on rails, a poorly designed initial experience, a bug, or false advertising for an open world?

None of the bugs I encountered were game killers. But they were maddening. I purchased a couple of things to outfit my ship in Pirates. But they didn’t arrive on my deck and I couldn’t equip the ship with them. Still, the game docked me the coins I used to purchase them. Then, after I’d died a few times because I needed my cannon, they suddenly showed up in the appropriate spot on the ship.

Other bugs: Pirates who are talking to you will repeat themselves. Frame rates are often poor on the Xbox 360.

Disney Infinity Pirates

Above: Disney Infinity Pirates

Image Credit: Disney

The game feels like it moves in slow motion

You need a lot of patience in this game. When the characters are talking to you, all movement ceases, even if you’ve got better things to do than to have a conversation. When you’re in a sword fight, your enemies aren’t very fast. That makes up for the fact that you can’t swing very accurately. Maybe these mechanics are designed for kids. But if they drive adults crazy, they’ll drive kids crazy too. At some of the smallest achievements, the game stops and runs a cute fireworks display that makes you feel good. But by the 100th time you’ve seen this cute canned sequence, it feels like another waste of your time. And you can’t skip it.

It’s one big commercial

Disney really really wants you to buy a lot of toys. So much so that it has embedded various videos of the other toys that you could be using in each play set. If you watch these videos, you can unlock some cool gear for your Toy Box. You get the feeling that everything in the game is linked to enabling more transactions. You can complete the play sets without buying anything more than the Starter Kit. But when you’re walking on ledges in Monsters University, you probably want to have Mike, the little green guy, on hand, rather than the burly blue Sulley. The transactions are very plentiful in this game, to the point where they’re going to inevitably interrupt the story and annoy you. Each additional toy will sell for $12.99, and power disc packs sell for a few dollars. These packs include unique web codes to unlock online content, including content in the upcoming Disney Infinity Toy Box app on iOS.

The interface can be clunky

The worlds are fairly big, but there was no world map to go with each world. So I got lost frequently. At Monsters University, you have to exit the campus at certain points. There’s an exit to get to Fear Tech, another for the paintball arena, and another for the campus fraternities. But since I had no map, I had to search around frequently to find those exits. The same goes for the Pirates play set. I finished a mission in the middle of the ocean. Once I was done, I didn’t know how to get back. I had to just initiate another mission to navigate to a place where I could go. Pirate ships will occasionally show up to fight you, but the seas are, for the most part, lifeless.

There are green arrows that direct you where your next mission point is. But it isn’t always on. At the beginning, you have to realize this and actively click the “X” button to get directions. If you simply click “Y” to accept a mission, you’ll have no idea where to go on the big map as you finish each sequence of a mission.

The controls for switching weapons are also difficult on the Xbox 360. You hit the right bumper to call up a wheel of your inventory. You hit the right stick to move it to the point where you can use it, then you hit A to use it. You can also put it into the quick access portion of your Dpad. But the weapon often disappears inexplicably from the Dpad, and you have to do this all over again. In the meantime, this completely stalls any action sequence.

Disney Infinity The Incredibles

Above: Disney Infinity The Incredibles

Image Credit: Disney

Conclusion

The beginning introduction to Infinity shows what is possible when you use a spark of your imagination, and how that can grow into giant worlds that you create by yourself and then share with your friends. It’s a tantalizing vision and a wonderful interactive video. Disney Infinity is both amazing in its breadth and frustrating in its execution.

I think kids will buy into the vision, and, because it’s Disney, will forgive many of the little flaws that I’ve pointed out. Adults will have less patience, though. And Disney should address this critical part of the fan base as it seeks to take on Skylanders, which is getting more polished as it moves into its third product cycle. As a reviewer, I have to remember that I am not the target market, and my kids are more like the real audience. But they weren’t thrilled with the game either, and I’m not sure how long they’re going to stick with it.

Can Disney fix the problems? Sure. The game is malleable in a number of ways. And there will be many more toys and play sets. But this first group of play sets in the Starter Pack is underwhelming.

Score: 70/100

Disney Infinity launches Aug. 18, 2013 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Wii U, and 3DS. The publisher provided GamesBeat with the final release version and toys for the Xbox 360 for the purpose of this review. 

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