Though Skylanders was the first game in the so-called “Toys to Life” genre, it has taken two Disney Infinity games to grab hold of the concept and really make it sing. Like a well-written novel or expertly crafted feature film, the themes of Disney Infinity are ingrained throughout, on both a large scale and small, and the use of real-world action figures as part of play isn’t just some tacked-on monetization concept, it’s core to what the game actually comes to mean.
If you want to play Disney Infinity 2.0 tomorrow, which is when it lands on UK shelves, you’d need to pick up the Starter Pack. Alongside the disc containing the software, this also includes a few other bits of special hardware. The biggest is the Disney Infinity Base, a platter with a USB cable that you’ll plug into your console, but the most attention-grabbing are the three little figurines. In the case of 2.0, it’s a trio of Marvel’s Avengers, with Iron Man, Black Widow and Thor.
There’s also a little translucent replica of The Avengers’ tower. Popping that piece down on the base unlocks an entire “playset” for The Avengers, a fair-sized sandbox-ish platform, exploration and combat game. You’ll also want to put one of the Avenger figures on the base and unlock them too, and thereby elect that characters as your avatar in the game.
But this is where things start to get a little odd and the brilliance starts to show itself, because you won’t actually be playing as Iron Man, Black Widow or Thor, you’ll be playing as a toy of that character. In fact, not just any toy, but your toy. And thanks to the “chip” in the figure that records the effect of your play, not any or every copy of that toy, either, but your exact one.
The transition moment is nicely played too, with lights on the Disney base illuminating the character in time with an equivalent effect on screen, and the virtual apparition of the toy breaking out of its fixed pose and welcoming you with some characteristic quip or another. The developers have gone to great pains to tie the physical toy to its on-screen representation in both obvious and subtle ways.
You’ll also love your toys just because they’re beautifully designed and well made. There’s a Disney Infinity style that all of these various characters have been filtered through on their way to becoming these little vinyl collectibles, and its amazingly flexible and consistent, all at once. They made sense of a design language that allows Nick Fury, Stitch and Buzz Lightyear to share the same stage – and because every character is a toy, to do so at the same scale.
Now, playing as a toy doesn’t mean that the game details a Borrowers-style or Toy Story-ish adventure with little Iron Man scampering up the table leg or Black Widow stomping spiders on the windowsill. What actually happens is the video game equivalent of child’s play, with your TV screen or monitor providing a view into the mind’s eye. The game screen is a window onto the adventures that you might well fancy your little action figure could go on. In these imagined exploits, the Iron Man toy is Iron Man, and he has all of the smart-mouthed arrogance, hi-tech weapons and beat ‘em up abilities that you’d want him to have – that you’d imagine he does have.
At the same time… he’s a toy. It’s a point that’s as shifty and slippery as imagination, and will be better understood through play. Suffice to say, deaths in Infinity are bloodless, with the figure coming apart on screen like an articulated action figure being bust into pieces.
One new wrinkle with 2.0 is that once a character dies, they don’t respawn immediately but stay eliminated from play for a while. In multiplayer, you can resurrect the deceased, but in solo player, it’s a case of waiting a few minutes for the character to come back around. To continue in the meantime, one either has to go back to the last checkpoint and try again, or take the figure off its spot on the base and replace it with another.
If your Infinity base isn’t close at hand – mine was seven or eight feet away from where I’d sit to play – this might get annoying. I hope Disney can patch in a fix whereby a stand-by figure can be positioned on the second spot on the base and, if needed, called in as the replacement through a button press or two. Would certainly save me having to get out of my seat whenever a character just died in battle – which is to say, at the most frustrating time possible.
In the case of The Avengers playset, which has a story, missions and cut-scenes co-written by longtime Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis, the gaming takes place in a version of Manhattan. Loki has arrived on the scene with legions of frost giants and plunged the city into deep freeze, and the player needs to sort him out and thaw things off. The plot details and character designs don’t match the Marvel movies, nor the animated TV cartoons or even the comics but draw on all of these at once. They’re like the mash-up that a child at play might dream of, in fact. Again, Infinity is a game that thrives on the energy of daydreams, fantasy, and wish fulfilment.
Should you not place a playset piece on the base, the game will only offer you access to its other, second mode. This is The Toy Box, and it’s the most ambitious part of the game by far, and also the most discussed. Here, you’re offered access to a fully customisable world where you can play as any of the available characters you choose, either in pre-made maps, games and missions or in challenges, levels and adventures that you build yourself.
On launch day, the figures available to you will be the three Avengers in the starter pack; Star Lord and Gamora, who come with the purchase of the Guardians of the Galaxy playset; Spider-Man and Nova, who come with the Ultimate Spider-Man playset; or any of the 29 Disney characters released during the time of the 1.0 version, from Pixar’s Cars to Captain Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse as the Sorceror’s Apprentice to The Lone Ranger, or from Mike Wazowski to Elsa from Frozen. There are plenty more already announced for release in the coming weeks, including Donald Duck, Rocket Raccoon, Aladdin and Maleficent. There’s certainly a broad range of alternatives here, and each character has its own ‘move set’ and range of abilities.
For example, Iron Man and Nova can fly, but Sulley, Captain America, Tonto or Venom would all need some kind of vehicle to soar through the sky. Some characters are real brutes, such as The Hulk or Mr. Incredible, whereas Hawkeye or Merida are designed to be range fighters, handy with a bow but easy to break at close range. Some characters do seem to be very alike in how their skills and weaknesses line-up, and the game’s producer John Vignocchi has even made an example of Iron Man and Tinkerbell being really very similar under the skin.
Still, there’s a lot of variety here, and more so develops as you play. Collecting the in-game orange spark currency will level-up your character and earn you skill points that can be spent on new abilities. These are arranged on a branching tree, and it’s impossible to buy them all within the 20-level cap placed on every character. This has the nice side effect, however, of making your toy even more personally yours. Take your Iron Fist around to a friend’s and his Iron Fist might well look the same, but not have the same combo of melee moves or that health-protecting, rechargeable shield. As a bonus, figures from 1.0 now also have the 20 level limit, and better still, they’ve got power ups and bonus abilities to be unlocked too. This is a nice example of how 2.0 isn’t just backwards compatible, but adds new value to your 1.0 figure collection.
In the Toy Box mode, you’ll be able to take any of these figures at all – up to two in local multiplayer and up to four in online multiplayer – and pit them against one another in paintball games, collect ‘em up challenges, kart-style races or other gaming styles, all the way down to the surprisingly time-absorbing just faffing about and mucking around.
It’s hard to explain the Toy Box without rattling off long lists, because that’s what it offers you. Huge lists of characters, play styles, customisation options and possibilities. This is where the game earns the (strictly speaking, inaccurate) Infinity in its title.
The various “toys” on offer in the box go from pieces of landscape and architecture to props, weapons and vehicles, all of which can be arranged as you wish to create the playing arena you desire. Crucially, there are also “Creativi-toys,” programmable logic objects that give Disney Infinity what amounts to a rudimentary but surprisingly sophisticated programming language. And should you not want to build with these toys yourself, there are plenty of pre-made ‘boxes’ already on the disc, a new set to download for free weekly, and the option to receive any that your friends have built.
Because it’s so open ended, play in the Toy Box can be rather unstructured, and that’s sometimes fun, but I didn’t enjoy this side of Infinity 1.0 a half as much as the playsets. 2.0 has made some significant changes, however, and greatly increased both the immediate appeal and potential of the Toy Box. This time around, Toy Box levels can be focused and disciplined much more like a miniature playset, with clear objectives, proper “Win” and “Try Again” states, and all of the bones that give a video game its engaging form.
One of the first wave of downloadable Toy Boxes is an Avengers-based adventure set onboard the Helicarrier. This showed off some of the new possibilities for user-built gameplay and, while I found it easy to go months without checking on 1.0’s new DLC, I think I’ll be coming back to 2.0 for new downloads weekly, at least if they can keep the standards and ambition up.
I started with 2.0 by playing the Avengers playset all the way through. As with the 1.0 playsets, the game didn’t end once I’d defeated the final boss but this time, there was definitely a much clearer expression that the main story was over. From there, I just had the sandbox city to play in and, pretty quickly, I mopped up the few remaining side missions. I only know there’s no more because they’ve stopped appearing on my radar; they just ran out, with no fanfare.
All that’s left for me now, in that particular playset, is to go around hunting the many collectibles hidden across the world map. To get to this point took around nine hours of play time. Across the three available Marvel playsets I spent just about 25 hours in total, completing all three stories and main sets of side missions. The dozens of collectibles that went unfound hardly feel like an imperative to come back right now, but I do feel like I got a good amount out of these playsets.
The best of them, I think, is the Spider-Man one, not least because Spider-Man is a very distinctive character from the other six Marvel figures I’ve played with, but also because there were more memorable and specific set-pieces and missions. The Spider-Man playset was, despite being set in another version of Manhattan, the most singular of the three options.
Now I’m done with the playsets, I’ll be playing in the Toy Box, and particularly enjoying the Escape from the Kyln and Assault on Asgard games that unlock with the little “pyramid discs” also included in the starter pack. These are not plot driven, but level-based riffs on tower defence and dungeon crawler tropes.
I do appreciate, honestly, that a lot of this review might have read like a list of lists. That’s a hazard with this game, unfortunately – there’s just so much in it that telling you about all of the content racks up a considerable word count just by itself. I hope I also managed to make it clear that this game is full of wonder, however. Perhaps it’s a little rough around the edges here and there – I played the PS3 version and there were a couple of audio quibbles, and one mission I had to restart to get my ‘radar’ working properly – but it’s also so obviously a game made by people deeply in love with play.
This is a game about the joys of creativity and imagination that speaks to these ideas by inspiring you to indulge in them. Disney Infinity is a genuinely impressive creation, so entwined with the essential nature of “Toys to Life” gaming that you’d be excused for thinking this is where the genre started. It isn’t, but it’s certainly where it’s been best expressed.
Disney Infinity 2.0 is released in the UK on Friday 19th September (and the 23rd in the US). That’s when you can pick up the Starter Pack, with its Avengers playset, or the Guardians and Spider-Man playsets. More figures, power discs and toy box games will be released as the year goes on, and beyond.