Version tested: PlayStation 3
Time makes liars of us all, and I knew I was tempting fate when I wrote that LEGO Harry Potter would likely be the best kids game of the year. Playing Toy Story 3, there were times I worried I'd have to retract my rash prediction after only a couple of weeks.
That's because in its best moments, Toy Story 3 perfectly captures the innocent imaginative appeal of play. Not play as in gaming, just play: tipping the toybox on the carpet and making up an adventure without caring about things like plot or scale or common sense. In those moments, Toy Story 3 is delightful, and a vast improvement over the recent games to bear the Pixar brand.
Up was blandly passable, Wall-E was irritating and repetitive, and Ratatouille was, quite frankly, the worst children's game of the last five years. From that low ebb to this cheery peak is quite a turnaround, and it sees developer Avalanche graduating from the pleasant-but-inessential likes of Bolt and Chicken Little in style.
At least, for most of the time. While the highs of Toy Story 3 are lofty indeed, the lows are close enough to previous missteps to cast a shadow over proceedings. This is, in every sense of the idiom, a game of two halves.
The first half, sadly, is the worst. It's the story mode, which takes Buzz, Woody and Jessie through eight levels drawn from the movie, and it's not good. It's not awful either, but it feels obligatory and rushed - included because games-of-the-movie need to follow the cinema template, not because the story actually lends itself to gaming scenarios.
It at least opens strongly, with one of several levels that take place in the imaginary realm of play. Woody is racing to stop a train commandeered by the evil Doctor Porkchop, and his race against time is presented in slick cinematic style, vaulting over obstacles on Bullseye, then battling along the train in true Western style.
From there it's back to reality, and a quick clamber and scramble around Andy's house, where the game squeezes the last drops of fun from the "small things in large environments" formula. Then it's into the Buzz Lightyear videogame, as seen at the start of Toy Story 2, for a level that starts out fantastically as you hurtle into the screen, dodging rocks, then make your way across floating asteroid platforms. It all falls apart once you reach Zurg's fortress, however. Jumps become distractingly fiddly, the camera becomes uncooperative, and irritating tasks are repeated multiple times for no good reason.
This is a problem that recurs throughout the story mode, as the initial thrill of each superbly realised location is bludgeoned by challenges that seem deliberately designed to bore or frustrate the young players who will surely be Toy Story's primary audience. There's a stealth level, for God's sake! In a kids game! Isn't there a law against that? Scuttling around, fighting the camera and dodging spotlights with ill-defined boundaries, it's infuriating stuff. Later still there's a timed puzzle section in a junkyard that requires a lot of trial and error, and the final boss battle is both narratively redundant and horribly paced.
This wobbly gameplay balance is never game-breaking, because there is at least some mercy in well-placed checkpoints, a generous help system and adaptive difficulty that nudges you along if the game notices you're stuck on one section for a long time. The problem isn't that it's too hard, but that there are just too many moments that are fiddly and annoying and, crucially, not much fun at all. Suffice to say, if you're a parent buying this, you can expect to be taking over on the joypad for much of the story mode.
More on Toy Story 3: The Videogame
But then: redemption. Tucked away in the corner of the game map is Woody's Roundup, and it's here that Toy Story 3 truly seizes its potential. A freeform sandbox mode set in Woody's fantasy cowboy town, this section is groaning at the seams with over 100 ambient challenges, dozens of missions, cute secrets, additional gameplay and simple, joyful make-it-up-as-you-go-along exploration. Far from being some optional bonus game, it's more compelling, more entertaining and better realised than the "proper" movie-based levels.
More Animal Crossing than Red Toy Redemption, as Sheriff your job is to expand and build the town by taking on missions for the townsfolk, a colourful mixture of characters from the movie and cheery little Weeble-esque inhabitants. You can add new buildings, which in turn trigger more quests and more gadgets. As the town fills out, there's tangible pleasure in seeing it take shape, the streets filling up with your silly plastic population.
Pretty much every aspect can be customised, using an ever-expanding catalogue of items. Every building can be painted, or festooned with weird accessories. You can dress up the little people in a mind-boggling array of costumes, found dotted around the sprawling landscape in little plastic vending machine pods. Dressing them up as certain characters triggers, yes, yet more secret challenges. You can drive around in a toy car. You can chase and capture bandits. Go parachuting with the Army Men. Deliver mail. Grow giant vegetables. Throw cows down wells. Take part in school sports day. There's even a story, of sorts, running through this improvisational wonderland.
There are, admittedly, some minor bumps in the road. Some randomly generated missions never seem to trigger, and there are quest objectives that border on the obtuse. The checkpoint races and stunt challenges come closest to spoiling the easygoing vibe, with stodgy controls and stiff time limits, but even those pale alongside the simple amusement of being able to play with the Toy Story characters, to get down to their level and get lost in their toybox world, rather than merely controlling them in a linear arcade game. This is the sort of empowering wish fulfilment to which kids' games should aspire.
Toy Story 3 is an awkward and uneven package at first glance, and the perfunctory and annoying movie levels sour the sweetness of Woody's Roundup, but not enough to overwhelm the game's easy charm. With those missteps cast aside, Toy Story 3 is a rare treat that appreciates the fine line between play and playing, and hints at a future where movie tie-ins could actually be something to look forward to.
8 / 10