Disney Infinity is the tale of two games. One of those games is the Toybox, a gleefully entertaining shared space where you and a friend or three can mess around with your playthings, creating hedge mazes, playing football in turret-protected forts, and launching yourselves into the stratosphere with a series of air cannons. The other game is the sloppy mess that you must endure to get the most out of the Toybox, filled with glitches, shocking oversights, and fundamental design errors. The Disney Infinity experience is a tour through the highs and lows of video game design.
It's also a window into the wonders of modern game marketing. Disney Infinity isn't just a game, but a platform as well--in this case, a platform designed to keep you spending money. Like Skylanders, Infinity is as much about collecting toy figures as it is about playing a game. Your initial purchase includes three figurines, one each from the Disney worlds that make up the game's campaigns, called playsets. To enjoy a playset, or indeed any of Infinity's features, you need a plastic bauble that contains the worlds you wish to explore and a figurine to match, both of which you set on a tray you plug into your console. The three figures and playsets you initially receive get you started, but you soon learn that enjoying most of Infinity's content means forking over cash for new figures, new discs that grant your figures special powers, and other such trinkets.
Disney clearly knows both the emotional value of a quality action figure and the magnetic lure of collecting them, especially when the characters they represent have entered the pop culture lexicon. The figures are solidly constructed and remarkably detailed, and priced around 14 dollars at the time of this review. Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean films sports a mean claw, fearsome face-tentacles, and slanted eyes that mean business. Monsters University's Sulley is every bit the big galoomp you'd expect, posed in mid-stride with a sly grin spread across his face. It's a delight to look upon these figures, and because placing a figure on the stand associates it with your own game, Disney Infinity instills in these toys a strong sense of ownership, in-game and out.
After Infinity's initial introduction, it dumps you and your figure of choice into the Toybox with little sense of direction aside from some tooltips and tutorial voice-overs. It takes a bit of poking and prodding to find your way around the menus, and you'll probably want to explore one of the playsets first, which is the easiest way to unlock new toys to mess with. The Monsters University, Incredibles, and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds are represented--and sadly, they suffer in different ways, bogged down by botched details that are in some cases specific to a playset, and in other cases follow you through the entire game. Also bear in mind that while you can use any character you want in the Toybox, you can only explore a playset with a character from that world. So no, you cannot tour Monsters University with a cheeky Jack Sparrow, as fun as it sounds.
Perhaps Disney fears that such mixing and matching could damage the consistency of the worlds. But such a concern is laughable considering how Infinity breaks its own logic. In the Monsters University playset, for instance, you can play as Randall, at one point taking a mission from…yourself. When you accomplish story missions, prerendered cutscenes depict only Mike and Sulley, making you feel that a character you didn't even control, and never encountered in the game, is taking all the credit for your own deeds. Playing as Syndrome in the Incredibles playset, you must overlook that you will end up fighting yourself in the final showdown. These might seem like minor oversights, but the lack of tender loving care is apparent throughout every playset and beyond.
Take, for example, the Incredibles playset, which has you romping through the open city performing odd jobs for Edna Mode and the like while fending off increasingly powerful robots that constantly spawn near you. Infinity's combat is shallow but still mildly entertaining; whether you play as Violet, Mr. Incredible, or another character, melee blows have a fine sense of impact. But this playset's cloying need to drop enemies at your feet every 10 seconds becomes a hassle when you're trying to scale various buildings to reach a rooftop destination. Robots spawn in the middle of the air and drop to the streets beneath, shooting you down from the walls you're scaling with rocket barrages. Such moments aren't fun, particularly given this playset's vague (and sometimes nonexistent) waypoints and audiovisual cues.
Over at Monsters University, tedium is your biggest obstacle as you saunter about the campus shooting trees and statues with your toilet paper gun, and riding your rival university's mascot to glory. Many of the details are adorable, from the way fellow students giggle when you shoot them with your paintgun to the slick climbing animations that make it fun to scale pipes. But the repetition hits hard here--the repetition of treading back and forth through the tunnels that separate parts of the world; the repetition of the bullies that knock you around when you just want to open the gift-wrapped toys that you've purchased; and the repetition of the vocal prompts reminding you of two-headed Terri and Terry's whereabouts.
Perhaps the voice-over wouldn't be so annoying if the waypoints meant to lead you to the next mission giver would properly appear, but in Disney Infinity, things don't always work the way they are supposed to. That's even true in the Pirates of the Caribbean playset, which is easily the most refined of the three. Here, your time is split between land, where you slice up baddies with your sword, and sea, where you fire your ship's cannons at the pesky pirates that pester you. Sea battles are a blast, and there are a diverse number of activities--platforming, bomb-tossing, boat-rowing--to keep you satisfied.
The detailing is better in the Pirates set: waypoints work properly, and enemies don't attack you if you're in the middle of inescapable dialogue with another character. (That might seem like a gimme, but in the Incredibles playset, you can take damage even when the game has taken control from you.) Nevertheless, oddities still crop up: mission scripts can break and force you to restart the game, and in some areas, making a short leap from a ledge can cause you to respawn in your starting position, even though you can fall incredible distances elsewhere.
There are stand-alone missions too, including specific ones for each character you place on the stand. Such missions are uninspired and mirror the challenges available in the playsets: shooting paintballs, collecting giant orbs, and the like. Bringing a friend along online or locally adds a competitive edge to some of these standard tasks, so your attempt to collect orbs could be thwarted by a buddy intent on keeping you from them. But these adventures, too, are clearly unfinished; how else to explain a gaping hole in Randall's personal mission where the geometry isn't properly lined up, or areas where you can fall through the floor and into the limbo beneath?
You might be tempted to skip the playsets considering how many "Game Design 101" mistakes they make. And yet you need to scour these worlds for collectible goodies to use in the Toybox, which is where Disney Infinity soars. And to really get the most out of the game, you need to return to these places using other characters, because certain challenges and treasure boxes can be accessed only by certain characters. The Toybox thrives on your ability to fill it with stuff--and the more stuff you have, the more fun you have.
Where the playsets are a prime example of poor game design, the Toybox is a magical example of what happens when you let players come together and express their imaginations, just as kids do in a sandbox or on a playground. Don't mistake Disney Infinity for a game-creation tool like Little Big Planet; as of now, you can't download other players' creations or upload your own. Nor are you making games as you generally think of them, with rules, logic, and scripting. Instead, you place walls, objects, enemies, and all sorts of other toys using the logical construction interface, and do what comes naturally.
You and any invited buddies might start small, laying down tracks and racing on them, or placing platforms that set off fireworks when you step on them. Perhaps you set down some enemies and practice your swordfighting, or try your hand at connecting some rails for your favorite characters to slide on. But as your ideas grow, so does the fun. What starts as a little combat arena becomes a death trap laden with spiked platforms and laser-spewing turrets, with you and your partners trying to platform your way out while beating each other up. Laying down castle corridors could lead to an insane game of tag, but with every player using a gun that lets you grab opponents and raise them in the air. Expect to laugh, and laugh hard, as you and your friends crack each other up with your clever uses of launchers and landing pads.
In the Toybox, the unexpected abounds. A shrinking pad temporarily turns you tiny, so why not devise a jumping puzzle based around it? On the other hand, a growing pad makes you monstrous, allowing you to leap to greater heights, perhaps onto a platform where your buddy hid a helicopter for you to pilot. And should you drive a vehicle onto the growing pad, it morphs into a monster-truck version of itself, with a normal-size chassis and gargantuan wheels. What a lovely touch. Not so lovely is the moment when a friend attaches you to a vehicle and tows you away at a maddening pace in a hilarious effort to disrupt your plans. Disney Infinity's griefing potential is enormous, terrifying, and wonderful.
Yet even the Toybox doesn't escape trouble. In particular, the frame rate, a problem in the playsets, can slow to a crawl, even when there seems to be no obvious reason for it. More irritating is how the Toybox locks the majority of its toys behind a randomized spin, with you earning spins by exploring and interacting with the world. The purpose of the system is obvious: to keep you playing--and buying new figures--until you spin up what you want. But when you have your eyes on items that allow you to craft Rube Goldberg machines and instead receive a new kind of tree, it can be a little demoralizing.
What to make of Disney Infinity, a game of maddening lows and joyful highs? Few games are so erratically constructed, and even fewer games capture the delights of the playground, where you make the rules up as you go. It's a shame that the painstaking craftsmanship of the attractive figures isn't reflected in the slovenly playsets. Exercise caution before devoting your money and energy to Disney Infinity: this is not the star you wished upon.