Faced with a digital challenger, toys need to change. The G.I. Joes and Barbies of yesteryear no longer capture children's imaginations the way an iPad or Xbox 360 do. For action figures and dolls to survive, they have to evolve.
Activision's "Skylanders" series pointed the way for that transition. The developer, Toys for Bob, concocted a title that wove the concept of figurines and gameplay together. The heroes in the game were the toys in players' hands, and kids could switch out characters by moving a figure off a portal and replacing it with another.
It's a brilliant concept that generated more than a billion dollars, but that just scratched the surface. Disney Interactive has blown the idea wide open with its latest game, "Disney Infinity." It's a project that gives players toys based on franchises such as "The Incredibles," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Monsters University," and lets gamers interact with them in any way they see fit.
The first half of game is conventional. It requires a special play set piece that unlocks a four- to six-hour campaign based in a franchise's universe. For "The Incredibles," players can be a member of the superhero family, and they can fend off Syndrome's plot to take over the city.
"Pirates of the Caribbean" is more elaborate and features an enormous region to sail around. "Monsters University" offers a condensed open-world set between Fear Tech and Sulley and Mike's alma mater. The campaigns have their own personalities and play styles. "Pirates" is heavy on the swashbuckling and high-seas adventure, while "Monsters" is open-ended and reminiscent of Rockstar's "Bully."
The games in the Starter Pack are solid and have a consistent level of polish. They're comparable to the Lego titles by TT Games, the gold standard for family releases. But the play sets one-up their rivals in one aspect: Points and toy prizes earned during the campaign carry over to the Toy Box mode, which is where "Disney Infinity" and players' imaginations take off.
This is the core mode that lets the toys be toys. Players can team up Sulley with Mr. Incredible or Tonto with Capt. Jack Sparrow. It's in this sandbox where players can build their own levels or take the heroes on impromptu adventures. Thankfully, that's easy to do with the tools Avalanche Software provided.
Building stages is almost like putting together Legos with pieces that snap together and an interface that's clear and simple. Going beyond that, the more complicated features aren't difficult to learn. In five minutes, players can even build soccer fields with working goals that shoot fireworks. They can build enormous castles with ease or try to replicate Disneyland with earned pieces such as the Haunted Mansion. They can even use Power Discs (sold in packs) to give power-ups or new vehicles to characters.
It's just fun to build a world, explore it and experiment with the tools that players amass in the play sets. In other words, "Disney Infinity" takes the experience an older generation had of building forts for Optimus Prime or battling evil with He-Man and turns it into a cleaner, more familiar playground for a younger set. It still lets them use their imagination, but the tools at hand make the experience richer and more vivid.
And it's just the tip of the ice berg. Disney has decades of characters to offer and play sets to introduce. There's enough quality content to keep a generation of new fans at play.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, PC
Rating: Everyone 10 and up