I didn't give Disney Infinity the time of day before. I'd seen the game, Disney's entry into the new "toys-to-life" category created by Activision with Skylanders. I'd played Skylanders and came away with the impression that it was great game for kids, with very little depth for anyone older. I extended that thought to Disney Infinity and called it a day.
Apparently, that was all just an elaborate mental way to say, "I don't particularly care about the characters."
The Skylanders are all original characters; they're well-designed, but I'm not attached to any of them. I enjoy the characters from Toy Story, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, and Pirates of the Carribbean, but I've never played any of their standalone games. I looked at Disney Infinity as a curiosity that I was glad to have around; something for young children to play together regardless of gender. It's a cool idea, but it wasn't for me.
In the beginning of May, Disney Interactive and Avalanche Software announced the next iteration of their toys-to-life game, Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Super Heroes. This is not particularly surprising since we knew Marvel's characters were coming to the game eventually, but the primary focus is worth noting. The initial announcement included the cast of the Avengers film: Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury. It also teased a playset for the city of Manhattan, where many of Marvel's adventures have been set.
I'm a lifelong comics fan and adding Marvel was the first step to bringing me into the fold. I'd previously reviewed Lego Marvel Super Heroes for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4; another family-friendly game featuring Marvel's best. I really enjoy both versions and ended up getting tuned into the Lego games as a whole. (Seriously, I've reviewed every one released in the past few months.) If Disney Infinity could hit the same bar, that'd be a win for them. These were the thoughts that found me sitting in a conference room with Avalanche Software CEO John Blackburn, taking a look at his studio's latest work on Disney Infinity 2.0.
Blackburn walked me through another new Marvel playset announced at the show, focused on Spider-Man. The playset is based on the currently-airing Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon and features Spider-Man, Iron Fist, Nick Fury, Venom, Nova, Luke Cage, and White Tiger. Figures for the first five were in the room, while the latter two only appeared within the game itself. I asked Blackburn why his team chose that version of Spider-Man and he said it was up to Marvel.
"We did that working with Marvel. We said, 'We need to have multiple characters in a playset. Which version of Spider-Man has a lot of characters to choose from as heroes?' Here you've got Nova and Iron Fist. You've got all these different characters."
Some Marvel diehards and fans of the previous Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon will be saddened by the choice. It means Luke Cage looks like the comics' current Power Man, who's a completely different character. It means Nova is not Richard Rider. Venom is of indeterminate host in the cartoon, instead of the classic Eddie Brock or current Agent Venom versions. If you're playing through the story of the Spider-Man playset, Venom is actually on the side of heroes due to shenanigans by the Green Goblin and Mysterio. I do think the Disney Infinity team can show some more love to certain characters; Cage deserves a figure and without White Tiger, Black Widow is the only female out of eleven characters. (I expect Guardians of the Galaxy will have Gamora.)
Blackburn detailed some of the new features coming to Disney Infinity this year. If you're older than six and you want a challenge, there's missions you can fail and new combat maneuvers like blocking, block-breaking, longer combos, and super moves. There's customizable skills trees for every character, meaning your Spider-Man won't be like my Spider-Man, even though my Spider-Man is the best. Whereas before characters were limited to their own playsets, there will be limited crossover between the Marvel sets by collecting items within each set.
There's also improved powers and movement abilities now that Marvel characters have joined in on the fun, bringing shield throwing, web-slinging, and improved flying to the table. While the first year of Disney Infinity had a wide variety of characters, outside of the Incredibles, their gameplay wasn't wildly different. That changes with Marvel coming over.
The Avalanche developer driving the demo put a Spider-Man figure on the Infinity base and the first thing that struck me was how large and well-made the Disney Infinity figures are. I always assumed they were Skylanders size, but many of them are bigger. I held Captain America and Venom in my hands; Venom is pretty hefty and would look great on my bookshelf. There's no articulation, but occasionally you have to give that up for a great design. Even if you're not interested in the game, the figures may fit in your Marvel collection alongside Hasbro's 6-inch figures.
Blackburn talked about some of the new additions to the game's free-form ToyBox mode, which is probably the real draw of Disney Infinity. ToyBox lets you build worlds, adventures, and games together with your friends and then share those creations online. The problem is sometimes you don't want to place every block yourself. Avalanche has fixed this with Builders, pre-programmed widgets that use procedural-generation to automatically build things like forests, buildings, and roads for you at the touch of a button.
They've also added ToyBox Games, which provide specific experiences like a tower defense game or an isometric adventure; two of these games come in the Starter Pack this year, with more planned for the future. Finally, the team has added the Template system, bringing simple game experiences into Disney Infinity, without going all-in like ToyBox Games. Want a soccer game in the middle of your city? Drop the Template in, move a few things around, and you're ready to play. Most of these features change how players use Disney Infinity and decrease the time from starting up the game to flying around your newly-built level.
"A lot of people were overwhelmed last year when they first got it," explained Blackburn. "So we really wanted to fix that and show you that there's a lot of great gameplay here. Here's how you do those types of things. If you're a player who wants to race, if you'd rather build, if you want to just do combat. All of those things are in here and it's now a little bit easier for you to walk through that, as opposed to 'Hey, go figure it out on your own.'"
What struck me about Disney Infinity is with the addition of Marvel, the sky is the limit. One of the few benefits of having a multi-national corporation own everything is the possibility of crossover. The focus of my presentation was on Marvel, but a Maleficent figure was on display, based on Angelina Jolie's recent role as the character. Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6 are both Marvel properties coming in the next year, so you can expect to see playsets for them as well. Disney also owns Indiana Jones and Star Wars now, and I doubt Disney would miss the chance to tie Disney Infinity with Star Wars: Episode VII.
While Skylanders players may experience fatigue year-to-year Disney Infinity has three Marvel films, a Star Wars film, a Disney Animation or Pixar film, and at least one Disney live-action project to work with every year. And that's not counting Disney TV shows and cartoons like Gravity Falls, Motorcity, and Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja. Blackburn and company were quiet on if we could expect non-Disney media (the X-Men films rights are owned by Fox) to come over to Disney Infinity.
"We're not saying which things you can expect. There will be further announcements," Blackburn simply stated.
The best part of Disney Infinity is that everyone gets to play together. Simply everyone. I wasn't interested until Marvel entered the picture, but now I have something that I can play with my nieces and nephews. It's not tied to either gender and Blackburn told me that anecdotally, they've heard that brothers and sisters enjoy playing the game together.
"We hear that all the time. I've heard so many parents say , 'I love the game. It's the first time my son and my daughter will play together.' They both get to be who they want to be and with split-screen they can engage in the type of gameplay they want to play in. More data-driven, we're actually seeing that it's closer to about 55 percent boys, 45 percent girls."
"The interesting thing is we though that would just be kids 6-12. Over 35 percent of the people who play regularly are adults. Half of those are parents, but half of them are non-parents. Core gamers. We feel like we've hit a pretty sweet spot where people are playing this for different reasons. It's good news for us, because it allows us to support Iron Man, Merida, and Jasmine."
I guess I'll be joining those adult players of Disney Infinity this year when it comes out on September 23, 2014 for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and iOS. Vita owners will have to wait until 2015 to come along. I can't wait for the Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker team-up I'm going to set up in my apartment.
Full disclosure: I left that meeting with Disney Infinity Venom because he looked awesome and they offered him to me. He sits on my bookshelf looking swag.