When we were invited along to see a super-secret project from Disney Interactive, we thought we knew exactly what to expect: a new action adventure based on a forthcoming film property that finally promises to buck the trend of movie tie-in mediocrity, like many well-intentioned games before it (including the immeasurably dismal Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). But that wasn't what we got.
Then we heard it was called Disney Universe, and immediately imagined a kid-orientated MMO based around clicking on Disney characters rather than penguins. But that wasn't what we got, either. Assumptions: comprehensively dashed.
So before you read about Disney Universe, check out the trailer. Looks a bit like a Disney-themed LittleBigPlanet, doesn't it? Well, it's not that. There's no create-and-share aspect. But it is a cute and cheerful platform adventure with a heavy co-op multiplayer focus, and it does have a sense of humour, so they do have some things in common.
Disney Universe is the first ever Disney game to bring so many of its well-loved properties together. Kingdom Hearts is the only comparable crossover project in interactive entertainment, but even then the separate Disney universes remained mostly discrete. Here, they're smooshed together in an endearingly creative way – old and new, modern CG Disney and classic animated Disney. If you are or ever have had any affection for the animation powerhouse's creations, there's something for you here.
The premise that brings about this franchise inter-pollination is an explosion at Disney HQ, causing the universes to transform. You and your friends/partner/offspring must make your way through the worlds to set things right, dressed up as various characters from a huge selection of Disney and Pixar films from Lilo and Stitch to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.
There'll be over forty of these character suits, evidently – I'm shown a Tron suit, an Alice wig and monocular Mike from Monsters, Inc. outfit – each with their own special weapons and abilities (I know, right? Bet you didn't see that coming). But any level can be played with any combination of characters, so you won't have to retrieve controllers thrown across the room by petulant five-year-olds who can't play as the exact character they want.
We're introduced to Disney Universe with a four-player demo, taking place across two different levels. There aren't quite as many distinct worlds as there are characters – only six, in fact – but expanding that selection with DLC is a major part of Disney Interactive's plan, so expect that selection to grow with new films. The first level is set in a loopy, colourful Alice in Wonderland landscape, the second in a Monsters, Inc. factory.
Both are gently challenging 3D obstacle courses of gaps to leap, things to collect, puzzles to solve and baddies to bash with each character's unique weapon. The camera copes ably with four players on-screen – it transitions between static angles rather than attempting to track you.
The Alice scenario is more co-operative in nature, filled with simple but satisfying multiplayer puzzles. You can tell that it's Tim Burton's Alice – the distorted landscapes and surreal colour palette are instantly recognisable from the film, though it's disappointing to see identikit black-smoke enemies populating them. It's early days, so this may yet change, but generic baddies could muffle the distinctive aesthetic voice of each setting.
Monsters, Inc. is a much more competitive arena, with narrow platforms, plenty of fighting, lots of dangerous ledges to push each other over and streams of fast-moving doors rattling past to sweep you from a platform. There are myriad things to distract you from the obvious path through the levels – side-puzzles that reward you with weapon power-ups to fight over, or injured rag dolls that can be grabbed and dragged back through the level to a nurse station. You can grab onto pretty much anything, including each other, which seems to form the basis of most of the game's puzzling.
There are myriad influences at work here, the Lego franchise most obvious among them. It's a game designed to be playable by everybody, and one that allows stronger players to put themselves in the driving seat whilst weaker ones frolic about smashing scenery for coins. But it's got a competitive edge, too – you can grab other characters and fling them off the scenery, and there's always a mad rush for new coins.
The rhythm of play flows naturally between co-operation and competition – one minute you're dragging a giant top hat across a bridge so that your friend can solve a puzzle on the other side whilst you keep a switch held down, the next you're trampling all over each other for an item upgrade or stash of coins. It's a double-edged multiplayer gameplay style that Nintendo, Media Molecule and Traveller's Tales have all exploited before, and it's no less entertaining here.
The game rewards or punishes competitive and co-operative behaviour with end-of-level rankings. It scores you on different things – helpfulness, coins collected, enemies defeated, speed – so that one player can't possibly dominate the scoreboard. Interestingly, it also scales itself to the skill of the player, spitting out more enemies to challenge more proficient groups – though it's not clear yet exactly how that works.
It's a funny game, Disney Universe, and naturally rather lovable. There are power-ups like giant boxing gloves, or items that turn you temporarily into a chicken. The idea of a Disney themed Lego/LittleBigPlanet mashup is a pretty appealing one, and the two levels on display showcased enough variety between them to give us hope that this isn't a one-note effort.