When Disney leveraged its cast of popular characters against Activision's Skylanders with Disney Infinity, it didn't strike gold right away. The game was uneven and sparse in spots, as some Disney characters lent themselves to video games more than others. Disney Infinity: Marvel Superheroes addresses this by singularly focusing on a trope that video games are known for capturing: empowerment through superheroes.
A Heroic Campaign
What sets Disney Infinity apart is that it once again isn't a singular experience. Instead, it groups different characters into various Playsets: self-contained stories that last a 2-3 hours instead of one longer campaign. I enjoyed the shorter stories and variety this provided, but it comes with its own set of drawbacks. The Starter package only includes one of these, the Avengers Playset, so players who want more than a few hours of story-based content will have to pay extra for other playsets. Plus, in a bizarre move, the game doesn't sense if you've used a Playset before, so each time you start a new one you'll find the same tutorial prompts explaining the basics.
Fortunately, though, Disney put its best foot forward with the Avengers set. I played all three Marvel sets--Avengers, Spider-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy--and Avengers was easily the most polished of the three. The cutscenes were well-animated and even just the three characters in the base set were nicely differentiated. It's also the one that makes best use of a large, open New York playground, even if certain characters like Captain America and Hawkeye can't get across it quickly without using one of the jerky refridgerator-on-wheels vehicles.
The Spider-Man set ostensibly uses a similar New York setting, though without the winter theme and Avengers Tower. This was the weakest of the three, however. Though the free-roaming segments get great use out of Spider-Man's unique web-slinging movement, too much of the campaign is set in dreary underground sewers that prevent the wall-crawler from making the best use of his abilities. It's a strange choice, as is the overreliance on vehicle missions. Who ever heard of Spider-Man riding a hover-bike? I also noticed the cutscenes in this playset had a tendency to be choppier and muddier than the other two.
That places Guardians firmly in the middle. Their rollicking space adventure is reminiscent of the recent film, and exploring the neon-soaked space city of Knowhere makes for the most unique setting. Its one drawback is an overreliance on a string of escort missions.
Toys to Life
The characters are really the stars, since Disney can pull from such a wide array of popular series. Everything from their voice acting to animations is beautifully realized, and I particularly loved the sharp-angled look. It was hit-or-miss last year when applied to Disney characters who each had their own art styles to begin with, but applied to the more flexible medium of comic books it fits like a glove.
The figures themselves are nicely designed too, and feel like they have better heft to them than the more plastic Skylanders. Hulk, in particular, met my table with a satisfying thud. For Marvel fans like myself, knowing that the figures look like collectible figures outside the context of the game helps offset the high sticker price.
It is a game first and foremost, though, and on that front the battle between this and Activision's toy-based game will come down to a matter of taste. I found the continued insistence of putting the melee attack on the Triangle button to be pretty awkward, even after hours of play. The vehicles remain a waste, and the camera would occasionally lurch during combat. If Skylanders is a solid but simplistic action game, Disney Infinity by contrast attempts to do a greater variety but not quite as well.
On top of the Playset campaigns, Disney Infinity 2.0 once again offers a rich Toy Box mode. Some creators did some remarkable things with last year's tools, but they could be abstract and difficult to break into. Avalanche clearly attempted to lower the obstacles for this year's creation mode. The tools and rulesets are simpler and more clearly explained, and some pre-fab scenarios are offered to give a starting point or just set an example. It will still take a clever creator to take full advantage of the mode, but at least it's more welcoming.
It's strange how some of the creative tools require a purchase with in-game currency. It makes some sense that this creates a progressive ramp to learn the tools as you go without feeling overwhelmed, but some players might not wish to purchase the creative tools and instead spend their hard-earned coins on other unlockables like townsperson costumes.
The "INterior" mode, an offshoot of the Toy Box, lets you design a little living space for your toys. As in the Toy Box itself, you can purchase decorations ranging from couches to wallpaper, and attach rooms to expand. It's a simple little toy for those who enjoy making their houses in games like The Sims, but with Disney and Marvel fan-service roaming about. I was pleased to see an adorably stylized Cogsworth (from Beauty and the Beast) was my personal butler.
In both the campaign and Toy Box, the characters are wildly different from one another. While they fall into a few set types, melee-focused characters like Cap or Iron Fist are much different than gun-wielders like Black Widow or Rocket Raccoon. The web-swinging Spider-Man and Venom have almost nothing in common with flight-based Iron Man or Nova. The hodge-podge of powers mixes in some unique ways. Hulk is a melee brute but has Spider-Man's wall-climbing ability.
Thanks to a new skill tree system, the characters don't really feel like themselves at first. It takes some time and upgrades before Cap's shield can bounce around to different foes, or before Spider-Man can get a heads-up about approaching danger. Upgrading the characters is part of the fun, seeing them develop into the superheroes we all recognize, but at the same time that means they're a little weak to start.
One could describe the Disney Infinity series the same way. Last year's installment was a neat little prototype for what was possible with such an all-encompassing idea, and Marvel Super Heroes is the next evolution of it. It still has some legacy issues, but the improvements go a long way. The Marvel fan-service, along with the constant small moments of delight and whimsy, more than make up for a few remaining weak spots.
Final Score: 7 out of 10.
This review is based on a retail PlayStation 4 copy and several figures provided by the publisher. Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes will be available in retail stores on September 23, for $74.99. Extra figures are priced at $13.99, and Playset expansions are $34.99. The game is rated E-10+.
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