Preview: Disney Infinity

John Vignocchi is breathless. The Executive Producer of Disney Infinity has rattled through a whistle-stop tour of the game for the second – possibly third – time today. He’s been in the UK less than 24-hours. 

Disney Infinity 3

I don’t envy him. Expounding Disney Infinity in twenty minutes comes with a sacrifice and that sacrifice is oxygen. Still, while Vignocchi  is within reaching distance of breaking a world record for number of words spilled in such a short period – or at least giving Fran Capo a run for her money – he is careful to belabor the game’s mantra: “Infinite possibilities. Endless fun.”

It’s a combination of words that ought to provoke Klaxon alarms – even coming from the most respected of game developers – but sat here watching Vignocchi tinker with what appears to be a painstakingly-simple visual scripting tool within Infinity’s LittleBigPlanet-like Toy Box mode, the alarm doesn’t ring. Who better, after all, to make good on the promise of infinite and endless than Disney? And while you could argue either of Minecraft or Skylanders beat them to the punch somewhat, neither of Mojang’s masterpiece nor Activision’s cash-beast have Captain Jack Sparrow. This one could be big.

Infinity’s Toy Box has, through the game’s initial surge of hype, done a better job of stoking the imagination than the campaign, what Disney are referring to more specifically as play sets – each of which is tailored to a different franchise. We get a brief glimpse of the Monsters U play set, which is grounded within the universe of the upcoming sequel to Monsters Inc. The story goes that a long-standing rivalry between Monsters U and Fear Tech has given rise to Spirit Week, in which members of each fraternity get to dishing out pranks on the other.

Disney Infinity

Vignocchi is keen to shine light on the fact that the developer has worked closely with Pixar to compose a story worthy of the Monsters Inc name. “I’ve worked on Lego Pirates and Disney Universe and Tron and the level of access we’ve been given by the company to the filmmakers is unprecedented”, he says. “One of the key things is we’re not actually creating games that retell the story of the film. We’re creating games that expand the fiction of the film. I think that’s so important because when you take a look at the licensed games business in the past that’s always what it’s been and part of the reason that business is dwindling is gamers don’t want that.” Vignocchi chooses to name check perhaps the greatest use of a license in recent memory, the Arkham games. The missive is clear: we’re not trading on customer ignorance and a popular license, we’re making quality games.

Still, it’s hard to muster too much enthusiasm for the snippet of campaign on show. The section we play has us scampering around a modestly sized campus, scaring a handful of monsters by squeezing the right trigger up in their grill, liberating captive friends and engaging in a spot of quintessential third-person platforming. You’re free to reconnoiter the place as well as tinker with the pranking system – there are plenty of secrets that unlock new items in the Toy Box mode – but while Vignocchi promises the game enjoys a greater focus on stealth further on, first impressions suggest this one’s aimed squarely at the kids.

Not so the Toy Box. “Think of it as your parent’s living room floor”, Vignocchi remarks. “When you had your own toy box as a kid you could take all of your toys out and play with them however you wanted. There were no rules and that’s kind of what the toy box mode is.”

As if to prove that very point, on-screen Captain Jack Sparrow has donned Buzz Lightyear’s jetpack and is rocketing towards a cityscape caught partway between Disneyland and The Incredible’s Metropolis. Enormous golf-ball domes rise out from between towers themselves caught amidst the iconic bulwarks of a Disneyland castle. 

Midway through this demonstration Vignocchi reaches for one of the small plastic power discs scattered across the table. These pog-sized discs (which are to be sold in blind packs) are adorned with the faces of classic Disney characters. Placing one of these down on the Infinity Reader could change entirely the aesthetic of the world, bring more toys into the toolbox or alter the theme of the floor and these are only a few examples. Vignocchi opts for a Nightmare Before Christmas themed disc and within moments of placing it on the Infinity reader the sky is painted a deathly shade of black, Nightmare’s signature moon has risen to its low perch and the mountains have curled and warped to better represent those from Burton’s film.

Disney Infinity 7

All this happens in real-time, as Jack busies himself with creating a fireworks display through a combination of pressure plates and behavioural commands summoned through a clean and simple UI. There’s a delightful dynamism to everything here – a sense that experimentation is at the heart of the Toy Box, and that without the power discs that wouldn’t be quite so the case (or at least, the power discs make tinkering that much easier). 

Vignocchi revisits an earlier point – “Build. Create. Customise.” – as a showreel throws up footage of Toy Box creations in the style of Contra, Gauntlet, Joust and Super Mario Brothers, all designed using logic toys and terrain and texture editors. We’ve seen this before, of course, in LittleBigPlanet and others, but it’s never looked so painless. “There are games out there that allow you to make games, one of the things we wanted to do was make that accessible to everyone,” Vignocchi observes over the showreel, which has moved on to footage showing Woody and co. gallivanting around Mario Kart favourite Bowser’s Castle. “The games that are out there that allow you to create your own games are pretty complicated so we wanted this really simple interface that let people have a really powerful tool to build things that anyone could play with.”

First impressions certainly don’t betray Vignocchi’s claims. It’s a remarkable tool, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Disney Infinity is that it’s taken this long to happen. Disney’s earlier forays into the videogame space certainly weren’t underwhelming – Toy Story 3 was the catalyst that set Infinity in motion, after all, and who could forget DuckTales? – but by the company’s wrecking-ball status as a mass-purveyor of entertainment, its presence has undoubtedly been weak-kneed.

No longer, though. Disney is stealing headlines with Infinity and with its ace card tucked safely away. How long until we see Buzz versus Vader? Christmas 2013, my bet. This one could be huge.

This preview was originally published on Strategy Informer.

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