As Disney Pixar's Toy Story showed, toys that play together make magic together.
It doesn't matter which product line they come from. For most kids, once they're on the bedroom floor, all toys live in the same terrifying world - and sooner or later Darth Vader is going to slice off Barbie's pony tail and escape wearing a pair of Hot Wheels cars as rollerskates.
Except in video games. Uniquely among modern playthings, it's not really been possible for kids to take their games, break them apart and reassemble them in their own, usually twisted, vision. LittleBigPlanet went part of the way there. Minecraft also found a surprisingly committed young audience. But nobody has really cracked it. Even Lego games exist in pretty rigidly enforced 'worlds'.
Until now. Because Disney Infinity is almost here - and aside from earning the Mouse about a bazillion dollars, it looks set to change how the digital toybox works forever.
At first glance, Disney Infinity looks pretty much like Activision's Skylanders meets Pirates of the Caribbean, The Incredibles And Monsters Inc. And there are obvious, intentional similarities to both the games and the business models involved. Like Skylanders, Infinity revolves around collectible, fairly pricey, physical toys which can be imported into the digital game by placing them on a special portal. Buy more toys (there are about 20 at launch) and you'll unlock more of the game, including new standalone campaigns. And by adding 'power disc' add-ons, sold blind in 'Football Card'-style packs, you can add abilities to your character and new elements to the game world.
The debut starter set includes three characters and their standalone campaigns, or 'playsets' - Jack Sparrow, Sully and Mr Incredible - as well as the base game and the portal. Each of the playsets is its own game, which takes place only in the world of the associated character. The Incredibles playset, for instance, is an open-world superhero game set in a city under siege by the nefarious Syndrome. Players can take control of any of the Incredible Four and set about helping the police to stop his evil plans and save the city. The Pirates playset is a seafaring action adventure, while the Monsters U game revolves around setting pranks on rival students. Each of the playsets will have about 4-6 hours of content for solid players.
Above: the content of the Disney Infinity starter set
That's not bad value, but parents might want to know what they're getting into before launching headlong into the Infinity experience. If Skylanders is anything to go by, some kids are going to get obsessed with this stuff - and at £11.99 a character or £24-ish for a pack of three, it's going to add up. Especially if you consider the sheer scale of Disney's available IP, from Star Wars to The Lion King and even its own theme parks.
What's neat, however, is that each of these playsets is rendered in a consistent Infinity graphical style - which subtly harmonises the various disparate 'looks' of Disney's properties into something broadly reminiscent of Toy Story.
The playset games themselves appear to be just as colourful, action-packed and well produced as you'd expect from Disney. But they build significantly on existing titles - the Cars game, and the racing engine in the Toy Box, is reportedly built on the same essential engine as previous Cars games, for instance. And that's either great value, or not, depending on whether you bought the Cars games already. Across the board, the playsets look fun but don't appear to be truly transformative games.
But that's where Toy Box comes in.
Disney Infinity's Toy Box mode is essentially Minecraft meets Game Maker, filtered through Disney's huge catalogue of characters, movies and settings from Tron to Cinderella. It's a giant, expandable sandbox in which players can create whatever they like - from standard static objects like Disney castles and towns, to complete and potentially quite complex video games which take place inside the Toy Box, from racing games to fully-functioning calculators.
Inside the Toy Box you can play as any character you like - with whoever you like. One player can be Jack Sparrow, another Dash from the Incredibles, and all the various elements from any Disney 'world' can be mixed and matched. Using up to 1,200 "toys", unlocked as you progress through the Playsets and Toy Box itself, you navigate the world, build and destroy terrain, theme and repaint whatever you want and link together objects with built-in game mechanics to create standalone experiences.
It sounds hard to explain, and in our demo was a little complex with everything all unlocked at once - though that won't be the case for new players. But it's incredibly fun, fast, flexible and hypnotic to play around with, whatever your age.
In my playthrough I started as Jack Sparrow - spawning him by placing the RFID-enabled toy on the portal - before theming the world in Alice In Wonderland colours, again by using a power disc. Then I equipped Buzz Lightyear's jetpack and blasted off while shooting stuff with a pumpkin grenade gun. In mid-air, I spotted a pre-built race track. Naturally I spawned a Light Car from Tron, added monster wheels with the help of a 'grow pad' and set off on a race against the Cars (from that Pixar movie about cars, whatever it was called). But it didn't go well. I span off the track, and - upset and embarrassed - I left the race and flew to an empty space where I built a skate park, did a few loops in Cinderella's carriage, destroyed it all and set about making a fully-featured NFL place-kicking game inside a customised stadium.
The whole thing took about 15 minutes.
It's stunningly fun to play, and the potential is enormous. As in Minecraft, the ability to create simple logic circuits is going to lead to some exceptionally complex and detailed user generated experiences. Expect full recreations of Mario Kart, scene-by-scene movie remakes and ridiculously huge structures. Online multiplayer supports up to four users at once, who can collaborate in real time, and Disney has said it will support the Toy Box 'community' by allowing gamers to upload their creations for moderation and possible release.
Crucially, younger and more casual gamers are also going to have a ton of fun with this. Enjoying Toy Box isn't a case of grinding your way to creativity. Massive structures take seconds to build, while racetracks can be 'plopped' in minutes. The mechanics - which mainly revolve around a 'Magic Wand' to build and destroy terrain - are simple and easy to use, and experimentation and chaos spills out naturally - like a car chase does in GTA or cave-digging in Minecraft.
Best of all, the whole thing is cross-platform. If you have an Xbox, your buddy a PS3 and the Mario fan in your life a Wii U, all your toys, levels and power discs will work.
There are a few potential downsides. Toy Box Mode is pretty intensive graphically, and it remains to be seen how the current gen consoles will cope when things get really huge and out of control. It's also complex, and not immediately intuitive - though Disney say the extensive tutorials should help younger players cope. We've already mentioned the potential costs involved for parents, but the scale and fun involved in Toy Box mode makes that issue even more acute. And Toy Box also makes the Playset campaigns look a bit stale in comparison - though by linking the two sides of the coin through collectible unlockable items, there's less chance of kids just ignoring it altogether.
All that said, it's hard not to be excited about Infinity - both in its current form, and in its potential for future growth.
Disney could have easily left Toy Box on the cutting room floor and started with something less ambitious. That they haven't - and that they appear to have pulled it off - is remarkable, and thrilling.
Just don't be disappointed if your kids get it, tear off the packaging and go straight into Toy Box Mode. That's just how kids play with toys. To its credit, Disney Infinity might be the first video game to really understand that. But whether its Playset campaigns get a look-in remains to be seen.
Oh, and make a Lego version, 'kay?