For a game I don’t like, I sure do play Disney Infinity a lot. Most of my playtime is a quixotic attempt to find something compelling, effective, or even just plain ol’ fun in this heap of mismatched stuff. There’s certainly a lot in here. Surely some of it must be good. So here’s me tilting at the windmills of bad game design with a bowl on my head and a Han Solo toy on my Disney Infinity base.
After the jump, I don’t really have a bowl on my head. That was an obscure Don Quixote reference.
When Disney Infinity was first released two years ago, it was a laughing stock. What kids would care about Johnny Depp’s Tonto from Lone Ranger? What adults would care about cars from Cars? Who wants to play Billy Crystal from Monsters Inc? Who’s going to buy this anemic toy boondoggle instead of Skylanders?
But who’s laughing now? With Marvel and Star Wars since thrown into the mix, the anemic toy boondoggle is now a licensing powerhouse. It’s still a toy boondoggle, of course, but it’s anything but anemic. A flood of Marvel stuff came out last year in Disney Infinity 2.0. Now a tsunami of Star Wars stuff has come out in Disney Infinity 3.0. So you’d think the game itself has come a long way.
You’d be wrong. Disney Infinity still feels like the work of several different teams (which it is), all timidly doing not much of anything, as if they’re hoping one of the other guys will do the heavy lifting. It’s a ramshackle and shoddy collection of pointless activities even more pointless than the usual videogame because no one bothered to give any of the activities a meaningful incentive.
The best parts of Disney Infinity are the play sets, which are usually sold separately even though they only feel like about one third of a full game. They’re mostly a set of themed production values vainly trying to recycle the same limited gameplay, which consists almost entirely of shooting things, finding things, or carrying things, plus a glib racing segment. Last year’s play sets were a confusingly vertical rendition of Nowhere from Guardians of the Galaxy and a passable open-world New York for the Avengers to save. You know you’re not going to play any of those in this year’s Disney Infinity, right? 2.0 content doesn’t play with 3.0 content and 1.0 content…well, did you really want to bring forward your Lone Ranger play set? What you get with Disney Infinity 3.0 is a prequel Star Wars play set. An original Star Wars play set was sold separately. Both of them are decent. Even pretty good, so long as you’re content with one third of a game. They certainly put to shame anything that can be made by players. Little Big Planet this ain’t. I haven’t tried the Inside Out play set. Another Marvel play set and Star Wars play set are on the way.
But these play sets have no sense of freedom, glee, or craziness, which is what you’d expect from this collection of universes. Why can’t Merida fight stormtroopers on Tatooine? Why can’t Hulk do fetch missions on Coruscant? Why can’t Donald Duck come to New York to join Captain America in a battle against Loki’s frost giants? Why can’t Stitch and Rocket Racoon, as perfect a duo of small weird critters as there ever was, tear it up in the play set for Inside Out? If you bought all this stuff, why can’t you mix and match in the best content the game has to offer? Disney Infinity’s idea of getting wacky is collecting hidden tokens so Darth Vader can — hold on to your hat, this is gonna be craaaaa-zy! — play in the Star Wars play set which previously only allowed Luke, Leia, Han, or Chewie. Search in vain for a Merida token. There isn’t one.
You can also buy separate toy boxes, which are collections of minigames slightly less half-assed than the stuff that came with Disney Infinity 3.0. Takeover is a toy box with some large scale battles played from a zoomed out view. Like the play sets, it’s also not bad. Short, busy, sometimes interesting settings. You could do worse. For instance, the Speedway toy box. What a dreadful attempt at Mario Karting.
But then there’s everything in Disney Infinity that isn’t one of these play sets or toy boxes, including the context in which they exist. There isn’t one. They are almost entirely separate from anything else in Disney Infinity. And that’s true of everything in Disney Infinity. Look up the word balkanized in the dictionary. Oh, look, it’s a picture of Disney Infinity!
There are only two things that unify Disney Infinity’s disparate parts. Some activities — but mostly fighting — give you experience points to level up characters. Leveling up unlock nodes on a skill tree, most of which are useless incremental advances and most of which are repeated in your other characters. What kind of skill tree has the skill for your main attack to do a little more damage? Or the skill to revive a co-op player slightly faster when reviving a co-op player is almost never anything you’re going to care about? Or the skill to do a double jump in a game that couldn’t care less about double jumps? What kind of skill tree is so similar to the skill tree for the other characters you’ve been playing? If you’ve ever leveled up a Skylanders character, you know how the new skills are actually new skills, with new visual effects and new gameplay gimmicks, with a sense of payoff. This isn’t that. And then you get a character to level 20 pretty quickly and now it has nowhere to go. Now this isn’t anything at all.
You can also accumulate blue sparks to buy doo-dads that are only relevant if you’re planning on building your own levels. Good luck with that. What a mess of poorly documented and frustrating components. As I said previously, Little Big Planet this ain’t.
These are the only common threads through all of the Disney Infinity content. If you don’t care about under-designed character advancement or doo-dads to drop into an empty arena — in other words if you aren’t a little kid who doesn’t know any better — you aren’t going to care one whit about playing Disney Infinity. And I can say this because I’ve searched far and wide through the mishmash of content for something — anything! — to make playing worth caring a single whit. It’s just not there. Not the simple sidekick system, in which your toys have their own toys. Not the literal farming to level up your sidekicks. Not the ghost town of multiplayer arcade activities no one is playing. Not the awkward “well, what else are we gonna do?” splitscreen support for two players to each do not much at all. Not the dearth of downloadable levels that are anything but a display case for stuff you can unlock if you want to build your own levels. Not building your own levels. Not the explorable hub. Not the character customization, because there isn’t any despite unlockable costumes that are apparently no such thing. Not the flickering textures or glitchy scripting or strained graphics (“May have poor performance,” warn many of the player-made levels available online). Certainly not the frequent interminable loading screens. Absolutely not the bewildering assortment of pointless sold-separately power disks.
And, sadly, not even the halfway decent play sets that are over all too soon with no reason to replay them to earn more stars. Because stars are something one set of developers did that all the other sets of developers probably didn’t know or care about. I think some of the missions unlock concept art if you get all the available stars. Yep, concept art, that last refuge of the unimaginative developer. The latest Star Wars play set dares to have it’s own internal economy that lets you purchase buildings you can put in the levels. This is a nifty idea until you realize how pointless the buildings are, much like the kiosks that are redundant with things you access from the ingame menu. Why is there a character skill kiosk when you can access the character’s skills anywhere by pausing the game and selecting “skills”? Similarly, why do I care about putting a vehicle bay on Hoth when I can go to any one of the already placed vehicle hotspots? The internal economy in the Star Wars play set also lets me buy color customizations and character packs for characters that wander around. In other words, stuff that was already in the rest of Disney Infinity. These are the things that pass for gameplay incentive.
None of this is worthwhile and most of it doesn’t even feel of a piece. Say what you will about Skylanders as you spray it down with a firehose connected directly to your bank account. But at least it has a sense of cohesive design. It feels like something created by a single company, tied together, and crafted for you to work your way through its worlds and collect its bits and experience its content. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the veteran developers at Toys for Bob are shepherding the franchise for Activision. It shows.
The only competent bit of Disney Infinity is the toys. They all have the same Disney-fied cartoon style, which makes it clear they’re from the same creative molds (if only the game design had this sense of unity!). They look great, with style and character, frozen in poses that evoke their personalities. Thor’s billowing cape and bulging bicep, Black Widow’s lithe crouch, Iron Man’s palm thrusted out, Han Solo’s blaster pistol held in that cocky loose Han Solo way, Vader’s imposing bulk, Merida’s billowing shock of red hair, Tinkerbell’s iconic delicate tippy-toes stance, lunging Gamora’s sword in mid-swing, Rocket Racoon boldly hoisting two giant guns, Donald Duck’s scowl, Minnie Mouse’s coyly cocked hip. Any fan — heck, even any mildly interested consumer — should be proud to own these sculptures. Because, really, that’s what they are. Sculptures. Skylanders uses toys. Disney Infinity uses sculptures.
Being sculptures, some of the detail is delicate. The lightsabers are ill advised for how they’re liable to snap off when handled by kidhands. My Ezra Bridger’s lightsaber was a casualty of a kid extracting him from the plastic with an entirely reasonable amount of kid enthusiasm. Now it looks like Ezra Bridger is holding a staple gun. My Groot’s arm is very loosely socketed. I have to routinely press it back into place. My Maleficent’s head snapped off when a dog’s wagging tail knocked her to the floor. I fear for my Tinkerbell’s wings and ankles. And yet I’ve never had a Skylander break. That’s the difference between toys and sculptures.
And, ah, that detail! The first Disney Infinity sculpture I ever got to the level cap was Merida, who isn’t allowed into any of the play sets. It wasn’t until after I’d hit the level cap that I noticed something on the base of the sculpture, at her feet. It’s a bit of clear plastic. What is that? Some leftover artifact of the mold? Looking closer, I see it’s no such thing. It is instead one of the will o’ wisps from the movie, carefully built from a bit of clear plastic and etched with a tiny face. If only the Disney Infinity game had been crafted with half as much care, love, and attention as the Disney Infinity sculptures.
Disney Infinity 3.0
Disney Infinity 3.0 Edition now welcomes Star Wars to the ever-growing collection of Marvel, Disney and Disney Pixar characters, stories and worlds. Together new heroes can join forces with characters from previous editions and embark on adventures as big as your imagination in the 3.0 Toy Box (but not in the play sets)! Disney Infinity encourages you to play your way, whether you explore open-world creation in the Toy Box or story-driven gameplay inside Play Sets (where only certain characters are allowed)!