The toys came to life, and it was cool when they did. Almost four years after Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure let kids place action figures on an NFC device to make them playable in a grand adventure game, what seemed like a goofy idea turned out to be a great one. There's something undeniably wonderful about seeing your toy come alive. That idea is also an absolute gold mine. The Skylanders series broke $2 billion in 2014, just weeks after Disney Infinity became its first major competitor. Now Warner Bros. is releasing Lego Dimensions, a massive mash-up of different pop culture icons rendered as little toys to use in one of Traveller's Tales popular Lego game series.
That's a lot of toys vying for space and attention. After playing both the new Disney Infinity game, Star Wars: Twilight of the Republic, and Lego Dimensions, one thing is abundantly clear: The toys-to-life competition is now rooted in who can make the best game because the toys aren't changing. By that measure, Disney is doing impressive work while Lego Dimensions demonstrates just how limiting the toys-to-life tech can be.
Consider Lego Dimensions. Particularly since this will be the first toys-to-life game with figures and vehicles that can literally be pulled apart and reassembled, it should be a fundamentally different beast than its competitors. Speaking at a pre-E3 event, Traveller's Tales co-founder Jon Burton said that this was the game his studio had been building toward for 10 years, ever since it made the hit Lego Star Wars. Just like The Lego Movie -- whose co-starring couple Batman and Wyldstyle join Lord of the Rings' Gandaflf as the game's pack-in figures -- Dimensions is a grand mix of pop icons. The Doctor from Doctor Who mingles with Marty McFly and Homer Simpson. Provided you have the toys, you can make Ghostbuster Peter Venkman drive Doc Emmett Brown's DeLorean alongside Scooby-Doo and the robots from Portal.
Lego Dimensions still feels like a game from eight years ago when you actually play it.
Just like in the movie, it's fun just to see these faces mingle. It helps that the game itself oozes with high production values. A stage where Scooby-Doo's meddling kid friends try to break into a haunted house is accompanied by scratchy jazz and audio hiss-soaked dialogue that sounds like it was ripped right from the show in 1969. Like Scoob's perfectly animated floppy walk, though, the audio is all new, just like the rebuildable toys you can place on a glowing platform to make them appear in the game. The toys feel good too. Batman's Batmobile and the DeLorean are stubby, but accurate recreations that have three alternate forms you have to use to solve puzzles in the game. The game even shows you how to change them with an on-screen manual that looks like it just fell out of a fresh box of the bricks.
For all the polish and charm of its icons, though, Lego Dimensions still feels like a game from eight years ago when you actually play it. In a demo stage like Oz's Yellow Brick Road and a new world that acts as a hub between all these characters' realms, Dimensions is indistinguishable from every other Traveller's Tales Lego game. The characters still trundle along at a cozy pace, collecting bricks and putting things together on screen that you hold a button to assemble.
They try to incorporate the physicality of the toys, but it ultimately just feels like the game is slowing down. If the Wicked Witch puts Batman in a tractor beam, you can free him by moving the figure on the platform sensor, but in a game like 2010's Lego Harry Potter you could get the same effect by just switching to another character. When you need to break a special box to free an item inside, you have to rebuild the Batmobile into a noise-powered drill, but in Lego Batman 2, you could solve an identical puzzle by just switching to Robin in a quick menu and using his demolitions costume.
The toy platform can't even sense when you rebuild the vehicles into your own creation. Unless it fits one of the preset modes, the blocks won't register on the screen. What the game is actually detecting is the NFC base the figures and vehicles are plugged into. Lego Dimensions toys can be mixed and matched to your heart's content, but the game isn't built around that quality. If you or your family goes into the game wanting a new style of toys-to-life game based around the mutability of Lego, this isn't that. It's more like very expensive fan fiction built using a nearly decade-old video game.
By contrast, Disney Infinity is doing something truly invigorating with its new game playsets coming out later this year. There are no efforts to spruce up the toys themselves with what it's calling Disney Infinity 3.0; just adding more and more of the characters Disney has spent billions on acquiring or creating in the past decade. Most notable among the new crop are George Lucas' endlessly warring space soldiers and wizards. The little plastic Yoda and Anakin Skywalker you can make fight through the Clone Wars in Star Wars: Twilight of the Republic are appealingly rounded and cartoony, as with all the Disney Infinity toys. They are not nearly as inherently fun as Lego Dimensions' little yellow brick people, which feel wonderfully distinctive even if they aren't used to great effect in the game.
Disney is building a video game Exquisite Corpse, finding multiple styles of play to suit its panoply of characters.
Forget the toys, though: Disney's strength is the games themselves. Twilight of the Republic was very simple in the demo on hand at Disney's pre-E3 event, but no less fun because of it. Running through fields of gun-toting droids on Geonosis -- that's the planet of bugs from Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones if you forgot -- you slice them up with lightsabers and force powers. Obi-wan Kenobi feels smooth, favoring defensive posturing, while Anakin Skywalker attacks with heavy blows and his apprentice, Ahsoka, feels speedy. Making them pull off slick aerial attacks with a PS4 controller is easy to grasp while also looking extremely stylish.
That the sci-fi sword fighting feels and looks so good isn't terribly surprising considering who made it. Ninja Theory, the same studio behind such excellent combat games as DmC: Devil May Cry, is the studio making Twilight of the Republic. Not all of it, though. The podracing sequence in there is actually made partly by Sumo Digital, the development house behind the mighty fine Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. This is all using the core Disney Infinity 3.0 technology made by Avalanche Software, who created the original Infinity and makes the open-world Toy Box mode that lets you mix and match Disney characters in an original adventure.
What's remarkable about Infinity is Disney's recognition that no game development studio is a true jack-of-all-trades. The original Infinity's combat wasn't so hot, so Disney brought in Ninja Theory to overhaul it in 2.0, which in turn led to its making Star Wars. And 3.0 needed racing in both Star Wars and the Toy Box, so it brought in another specialist with Sumo Digital. In order to make the best possible game it can, Disney is building a video game Exquisite Corpse, finding multiple styles of play to suit its panoply of characters.
The toys don't need to change, and it would be difficult to force them to. Of course Lego Dimensions can't just automatically sense the bizarre thing you've just made out of old Batmobile parts because it would require every little Lego piece to have an NFC chip in it. Is the game damned because it doesn't harness the full creative opportunity of its new toys? Certainly not. What burns about Lego Dimensions is that beneath all the new toys and old faces is the same Lego fans have already played. Disney Infinity is exciting because the company has demonstrated that whether or not its latest game is full of brand-new or fondly remembered faces, it's going to come up with a new way to play with them.
[Image credits: Disney (Star Wars); WBIE (Lego Dimensions)]