Billion dollar franchises don't come around as often as any of us would like, so it's no surprise that Activision's tremendously successful Skylanders gambit has seen its first direct competitor this week in the form of Disney Infinity. Whilst Disney appear to have jumped heartily onto the cash-laden bandwagon, company spokespeople have repeatedly insisted that Infinity has been on the drawing board since long before the concept behind Activision's Skylander's became public, also vigorously downplaying the inevitable press comparisons between the two games. "There are similarities, in that we have figures," said Uncle Walt's man John Vignocchi, "but the similarities stop there."
Vignocchi can play that tune until his fingers bleed, but the fact remains that Skylanders created a market, which it now dominates, and Disney now has to use the power of it's virtually unrivalled IP catalogue to make a beach-head in the minds of children and the pockets of their parents. If anyone knows how to run a merchandising tie-in it's the House of Mouse. Not only does it own many of the world's most recognisable characters and trademarks, those properties run the gamut of tastes and demographic focus, most of which see regular and profitable exposure in cinemas worldwide. If it can just breach the market's first lines of defence and establish itself as a rival to Skylanders' offering, Infinity could prove to be an immense money-spinner with perfectly aligned vertical integration.
Skylanders has proven that it's entirely possible to recover from a slow start with a remarkably sustained long-term sales plan, and that reviews are not the be all and end all to a game of this type's chances, but now there are two options on the market, that comparative Metacritic rating is undeniably going to be raising its homogenised head in the marketing materials of whoever comes out strongest. At the time of writing, however, it's virtually neck and neck, with both sitting around or just shy of the 80 per cent line.
"There is an impressive variety of items and themes you can add to your Toy Box, giving you enough flexibility to build forests, cities, race tracks, underwater locations and more."
Ben Lee, Digital Spy
Bringing Infinity's otherwise positive round-up down with a bump is a stark 40 per cent from Digital Spy, which offered double that score to last year's Skylanders Giants. Key to that assessment, it seems, is a perceived lack of challenge. "The core mechanics in each of these campaigns are dull and lack any real depth," says Digital Spy's Ben Lee. "For starters, when you die, you simply respawn where you fell. There is no punishment for death at all.
"This isn't helped by the simplistic combat and the lack of enemy variety. Even in the combat-heavy Pirates and The Incredibles Play Sets, blocking and dodging is hardly required. Single-button mashing for the most part will do the trick with ease."
Added to that, says Lee, is a lack of satisfying progression in terms of gaining new abilities, which soon leads to feelings of shallow repetition. "Though you do pick up new tools along the way," he writes, "they're rarely used in interesting ways other than some light puzzle-solving." For Lee, a direct comparison to Activision's product marks some clear disappointments for the Disney team. In fact, he says, it manages to bungle one of the key mechanics which made Skylanders so enjoyable: the swapping of the physical toys.
"The toys themselves store data including experience and unlocked tools and weapons, which is useful if you wanted to use them with a friend's version of Disney Infinity or potential sequels, but if you're playing solo figures are only appealing in a cosmetic or collection sense.
"So while swapping Skylanders toys mid-game was a huge part of that title - it would allow you to access new areas, deliver bonus elemental damage, withdraw characters on the brink of death - there is little incentive to do the same with the Disney Infinity figures.
"Character-specific timed challenges do exist, but these are minor and forgettable, and there's no other reason not to stick with your favourites. Though they are well-designed and crafted, the figures themselves don't feel essential to the actual gameplay, certainly not in the same way the Skylanders toys are."
That such a well-established merchandising giant should make a mis-step with the physical portion of its game seems remarkable. The toys themselves are well made and detailed, cartoonish abstractions of film characters or animated heroes, but there's some cynicism about their inclusion, with some reviewers seeing them merely as a callous cash grab. Whether that makes them a mis-step or a masterstroke probably depends on which side of the equation you sit on.
"This is where you feel the hand of Disney's marketing department," says Game Informer's Andrew Reiner, scoring Infinity with a robust nine out of ten. "It pushes the player to try other modes and - if you want to make your Toy Box as deep as possible - purchase more figures and play sets to unlock more stuff. You'll frequently run into boxes you cannot open unless you have specific characters. Some of these boxes are tied to characters that aren't available for purchase yet."
"Toy Box is a construction set where worlds can be created, played within, and shared online. If Minecraft is the Lego of video games, Disney Infinity is the Duplo."
Andrew Reiner, Game Informer
That this angle is being heavily exploited will come as no surprise to anyone - it's a hook as old as the hills - but Infinity also combines it with a splash of the random 'gacha' element which got so many Japanese mobile games into trouble last year, offering young players a spin of a roulette wheel to access much of its unlockable content.
"When characters level up or their unique challenges are completed, they earn tokens that can be redeemed for spins to unlock a random toy box item," continues Reiner. "This is the element of the game where I found myself cringing as the thought 'I need more figures' crossed my mind." However, it's through this mode that the keys to Infinity's real treasure are revealed: the vast array of pieces to play with in the Toy Box mode which, for Reiner, is the game's highlight.
"Toy Box is a construction set where worlds can be created, played within, and shared online. If Minecraft is the Lego of video games, Disney Infinity is the Duplo. Houses, castles, and most of the components are pre-built. The colour and texture of many of these objects can be altered, but that granular level of sculpting them to exact specifications is not available. Creativity is tied to how these pieces are used in the context of playing with them."
This virtual play room is where the longevity of Infinity is revealed, and where the creativity of its intended audience should find it easiest to shine. Here, Sully can be sat upon a Tron Lightcycle to play football with Mr Incredible out side Cinderella's castle, whilst Jack Sparrow and Lightning McQueen race laps in the background. This is where the Infinity badge becomes so apposite, reviewers agree, and it's here where children will be most satisfied.
That said, there's also a fair amount of praise for the mission sections of the game, particularly the Studio Gobo developed Pirates of the Caribbean playset. Reiner continues: "Pirates' open world sailing is particularly impressive, and is better played with a friend who can man the cannons as you chart a course across the dangerous seas to islands hopefully holding treasure and more Toy Box pieces. The play sets, when done well, are another great avenue of play."
Games Radar's Hollander Cooper is less impressed, giving Infinity half marks and grudgingly allowing that the toys and podiums which are the marketing focus are "a gimmick, sure, but a darn good one." Like Reiner and others, Cooper is full of praise for the open-sea sailing of the Pirates campaign, but finds little pleasure in much of the game's main sections, which he says offer little variety.
"This is most obvious in The Incredibles' Play Set, which has you dashing through a boring city and completing the same few tasks. Repetitive missions also bog down the Pirates of the Caribbean and Monsters U sets, but they both manage to be entertaining despite the lack of mission variety."
The Toy Box comes to the rescue again here, with Cooper calling the concept 'astounding.' "Want to make a 2D platformer where you jump on aliens from Toy Story," he writes. "Easily done using the 2D camera tool. Interested in trying to make a wave-based horde-style mode where you protect Scrooge McDuck's Money Bin? Totally possible!"
"You'll struggle to play for more than ten minutes at a time without something going wrong"
Whilst there's much to be praised in Disney's ambition here, there do seem to be some obvious edges where the design has overstretched the technology, leaving more than a few technical issues. "You'll struggle to play for more than ten minutes at a time without something going wrong," Hollander notes. "There are random framerate drops, misleading missions, and a number of technical glitches that halt any momentum the game gains. Don't be surprised if you need to occasionally restart a mission because of a technical hiccup that renders it unbeatable, and don't be surprised if it happens more than once."
It's a problem which also plagued Polygon's Brian Crecente, who played through the game with five year old son in tow, seeing past the hiccups to award eight out of ten to a "wonderful game that mashes together the best of collectables, cherished childhood memories of playing with toys and Minecraft-esque creation into a beautiful package, and then locks it up behind what I found to be an aggravatingly vague system of luck and grinding - and what my son found an exciting and rewarding game of chance."
For Crecente it's again the Toy Box and the Pirates which are the selling points here, with the physical toys themselves once more taking a fairly muted role. Again, the random nature of the unlocking spins is a sore point, with Crecente wondering if the mechanic isn't all to easily abused for the promotion of extra playsets.
"It feels like this is tied to a push to get gamers to buy more play sets, which is unfortunate if true," Crecente muses. "That Disney Infinity also supports power discs and item discs - add-ons that can be placed under a character's base to give them buffs or unlock new things - only strengthens that feeling when you have to buy them in blind packs. Either by bad luck or design, I was only able to unlock a few of these special items 20 or so hours into the game. That's a lot of spins, and a lot of bad luck."
That balance, that knife edge between encouraging collection through good design and the gouging of the player by under-delivering or tantalisation, is undoubtedly the factor which will define Infinity's long-term success. Looking at Disney's current 'subs bench' and seeing IP of the calibre of Star Wars, Marvell and Indiana Jones, there's clearly so much more to come, but if parents can't be convinced that they're getting a good deal on the pounds to peaceful children exchange, it could all be for naught. Like Skylanders, we can probably expect a fairly gradual sales curve here, as word spreads amongst the demographic and their fiscal guardians, but if Disney can be a bit less Scrooge McDuck and a bit more Robin Hood with its generosity, that incredible character CV might just give it the edge it needs to triumph.