Having won the hearts of just about everyone some 15 years ago, the original Toy Story film needs no introduction. Since then, it’s taken literally half of my lifetime for Toy Story 3 to finally arrive in cinemas after the acclaimed sequel, which has been a long and laborious wait. No other animation series has left such a lasting impression throughout my childhood, and yet its heartfelt legacy still lives on as I tackle the pitfalls of arduous adulthood. It’s a series that never ceases to tickle the inner-child found within us all.
When we think of Toy Story licensed games however, nothing of endearing quality particularly springs to mind. From what I recall, there was a side-scrolling platformer for the original film on the Mega Drive, followed by another equally average tie-in for the sequel in the PlayStation era. This was followed by some sort of kart racing cash-in and the Toy Story cast even made an appearance in Disney Extreme Skate Adventure, but I won’t go into that.
Given the everlasting reputation of movie tie-in games, it’s therefore with a degree of pessimism that I timidly open the lid of the toy box – can Toy Story 3 reach for the sky and capture the enchanting buzz of the films?
Fortunately, things get off to a pulsating start with the game’s fantasy opening level, which sees you play as everyone’s favourite Sheriff Woody charging after a runaway train in a homage to the film’s opening scene. As you ride with your trusty steed Bullseye, the evil Dr. Pork Chop unleashes a multitude of hazards to impede your efforts, requiring you to leap over obstacles and gaps whilst the scenery crumbles around you in spectacular fashion.
It’s a decidedly cinematic spectacle, but once you finally board the train it almost feels like a retelling of Uncharted 2, complete with oncoming signals and crashing carriages. The difference, though, is that your objective here is to rescue toy orphans and throw balls at plush aliens as opposed to pumping lead into ruthless thugs.
The visuals perform a remarkable job of making you feel you are a part of the Toy Story world, with accurate character models and fantastically fluid animation faithfully replicating the acclaimed animation series and Pixar’s infectious charm. In fact, the only attribute that hampers the immersion somewhat is that Tom Hanks and Tim Allen do not reprise their voice acting roles of Woody and Buzz on this occasion. Thankfully, the majority of the cast is voiced by the original actors, but it’s hard not to be disappointed by the omission of the lead characters. Their replacements do a fairly decent job, but they are no substitute for the spirit of the real thing and it instantly grates.
The sad truth is that the game’s obligatory story mode never really lives up to the strength of the opening level. It quickly trails into a series of monotonous mini games loosely based on the happenings of the film, predominately comprised of platforming, puzzle solving and shooting elements.
Take the space themed level inspired by the Buzz Lightyear video game from Toy Story 2 for example, which commences well enough by featuring Buzz flying majestically through outer-space and shooting rocks before navigating a series of floating asteroid remains. Repetition soon starts to arise, however, as you start to repeat the same linear tasks throughout the level, which becomes increasingly irksome.
Familiar locations from the film such as Andy’s Room and the Daycare Centre are utilised to great effect, but the gameplay never seems to match the same attention to detail. Woody, Jessie and Buzz all feature as playable characters, and each have their own perks such as Woody’s ability to lasso onto objects with his pull string. Some levels also allow you to switch between the main characters in order to solve a puzzle, but this is often less exciting than it sounds – don’t get me started on the incinerator level which tested the limits of basic trial and error. The sticky camera control doesn’t help matters, either.
Thankfully, the frustration is levelled out by convenient checkpoints, and helpful hints spoon feed you to the point that they tell you exactly what to do should you start to dawdle. All in all, the story mode feels mostly tacked on, frustrating and ultimately rushed, a fact that is brought home by its lasting time of a measly three hours. Boo.
Admittedly I initially put off playing through the story mode altogether until I had seen the feature film for fear of spoilers, but I can safely say that plot details are scarcely divulged; the levels are very loosely strung together. If you were expecting to relive the tearful emotions of the film, you will be disappointed.
Where Toy Story 3 really comes into its own fruition is through the surprisingly profound Toy Box mode, an inclusion that is hidden away from the spotlight of the central game map in the corner, implying that it’s merely a throwaway bonus supplement. In actual fact, it plays out as a fully fledged game in its own right and is surprisingly not too dissimilar to Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. That’s not to say they have equipped cuddly children’s toys with revolvers and sawed-off shotguns mind you, although I am of the opinion this would make for quite a compelling narrative.
Toy Box represents the perfect embodiment of a puny child’s recreational play time, where endless imagination knows no bounds. Modelled as an elaborate open-world sandbox game based on Woody’s Roundup that essentially allows you to play as you wish, you are elected as the Sherriff of your own barren western town whereby it is your duty to expand the locale by undertaking missions from key characters.
Doing so will earn you coins that can be spent on an assortment of extra buildings and toys. As you build new areas and purchase new toys, further gameplay opportunities arise until you are left with a bustling town of plastic inhabitants – there’s a real sense of pride and accomplishment when you marvel over your progress as your town begins to expand. Buildings can also be extensively customised with new paint jobs and outlandish accessories, and your townspeople can also be dressed up in novelty character costumes lifted from Pixar’s filmography if you so desire. WALL-E, anyone? Marvellous.
There’s no questioning the variety of fun that can be had here, and while the specific tasks are short and simplistic (tasks range from finding estranged friends stuck in wells to rounding up cattle), there is such a vast array of activity that it can quickly become addicting as you rapidly tick off completed challenges and hunt down hard to find collectibles.
Purchasing additional toys unlocks further mini-games – you can go parachuting with the Army Men for example, or roam the environment in a flashy toy car. On second thought, you shouldn’t do that since the car handling is less than robust, making the available stunt parks more troublesome than they should be. Honestly, you’re better off sticking to the ever reliable Bullseye.
A friend can also join in the fun for some split-screen multiplayer madness, making exploration even more fulfilling and downright entertaining. The only downside is that Toy Box could really do with an intrinsic world map, as it can sometimes be frustrating trying to locate new toys you have purchased and explore newly unlocked areas.
It would be all too easy to dismiss the game as a disposable distraction for puny children, but it’s clear that Toy Story 3 was designed with a younger audience in mind. The rudimentary bite-sized challenges are often too easy for big kids like myself – the same cannot always be said for the story mode,however. I can’t imagine your average puny mortal tolerating the stealth level for too long, but overall the difficulty is unapologetically forgiving.
Nevertheless, Toy Story 3 stands as one of the better movie incarnations. It shows genuine innovation at times, and yet other times it feels like a run of the mill platformer coated in Pixar’s flowery veneer.
Drab environments and some texture loading issues are apparent, but the character models accurately mimic their movie counterparts.
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The simplistic gameplay is ideal for punies, but older generations could well be put off by the easy difficulty and the Story mode can feel unbalanced at times. There's no escaping the addictive nature of the excellent sandbox adventure that is Toy Box, however.
It captures the charm of the Toy Story universe, but repetitive music tracks and lack of authentic voice talent don't do the game any favours.
It will take but a few hours to complete the story mode, but completists will revel at the depth of Woody's Roundup.
Toy Story 3 is a prime example of a film-tie in done right for once, that offers a compelling banquet of good clean fun. Future developers, take note.