Disney Interactive Studios has been making a lot of noise about refining and improving its approach to licensed games, and while Toy Story 3: The Video Game is still meant for the younger members of Pixar's vast following, it's the best evidence yet that Disney is serious about trying to use licenses right.

I got to play the game at a recent pre-E3 event, and it was a solid, kid-friendly experience, with bright and beautiful graphics surrounding intuitive racing and platforming mechanics. With innovative features like a very dynamic difficulty system and lots and lots of collectibles and game modes, Disney's Avalanche Studios has created something here that you, as someone who enjoys fine game design, can actually be proud to have your kids play.
It's clear from the beginning that Disney is out to make a good game -- though it's probably not directly inspired by last year's game of the year, the first level has Woody platforming his way up a moving train full of action and mayhem. It's a fantasy sequence in toy owner Andy's imagination, and along the way, he beats up a few Squeeze Toy Aliens (they're just pretending to be bad, I was told) and rescues a few toy kids, leading up to a boss battle with the Evil Dr. Porkchop (the Piggy Bank from the movies, dressed up with an eyepatch and flying around in a UFO).

One section had me jumping across wooden planks over hot coals, and after I missed a few jumps, the producer watching told me that the game would start secretly making it easier for me -- more planks would appear in the world, to close the gaps and make the jumps simpler. That dynamic difficulty system is available throughout the game, so if the player (young or old) ever reaches a sequence they can't beat, the game will surreptitiously help them through.

On the engine, I brought down Dr. Porkchop with a well-thrown bouncy ball, and as his UFO burst into flames and fell to the ground, I yelled out, "Take that, John Ratzenberger!" The producer laughed, and told me that the Cheers star and Pixar standby did actually contribute his voice to the game. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen didn't, due to "scheduling concerns" (Allen was filming Wild Hogs 2: Bachelor Ride, I was told, which is a real thing that really exists), but other than the two big stars, almost all of the other characters were voiced by the movie actors. That includes Curb Your Enthusaism's Jeff Garlin, who plays a unicorn named Buttercup, and Flight of the Conchords' Kristen Schaal as Trixie the Triceratops. The dev and I were both pretty sure that makes this the lovely Ms. Schaal's first video game, a notable event in and of itself.

Pixar contributed another feature to Disney's game, too: a graphical shader. We were playing the game on a PlayStation 3, so I jokingly asked if the game used Pixar's models, and the dev confessed that while Pixar had sent along the actual models used for rendering the characters and environments, once loaded up in the PS3, they were so detailed that not even Sony's hardware could draw them at a playable speed. Avalanche did use one of Pixar's fur shaders in the game, however: the producer showed me an in-game teddy bear rendered with a shader used in the actual movie.

After that opening train scene, the player is then introduced to the game's various modes. There's a full campaign mode (which offers drop-in/out co-op throughout), and then there's the intriguing Toybox Mode, which lets players build and customize what's basically an open world game-within-a-game, complete with its own missions and platforming abilities. I first took Woody's horse Roundup for a ride as Buzz (you can play as Woody, Buzz, or Jessie in the toybox mode), and ran a race to complete a mission, sprinting and jumping through a Western canyon.

That earned me enough currency to unlock the "Enchanted Glen," which opened up another set of areas to explore and missions to undertake. Once I platformed through the glen a bit, I found a new mount: a Dragon, which added fire breathing and floating to my platforming abilities. We're not talking first-party Nintendo polish here, but all of the various activities I undertook in the toybox mode worked well and felt great, and the amount of collectibles and unlocks seemed well-balanced and rewarding.

It's still a licensed game for kids -- the gameplay isn't quite deep or varied enough to really hold the attention of older gamers, and the license's "sacred cow" status overpowers most of the available customization. Rather than dressing up Woody or Buzz in the various outfits you can find and unlock, you instead put them on "townspeople" in the Toybox, generic characters created just for the game. But for what it is, Toy Story 3: The Video Game is a solid effort. When it comes to making major licensed games for the consoles, maybe Disney Interactive isn't just toying around.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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