The groan omitted by video gamers when a title is announced to support a Hollywood film can usually be measured on the Richter Scale. But it's a brow-wiping relief to say that they'll be no such reaction for Toy Story 3 when it arrives on consoles and handhelds on 15 July.
The game has been developed for Disney Interactive Studios by Avalanche Software who mercifully decided to do something different to the usual here's-a-few-levels-based-on-some-memorable-scenes-in-the-game approach, and have come up with a prospect that is as interesting in a social setting as it is in a gaming one.
When you start up the game, the main menu screen is depicted very neatly, and in keeping with the Toy Story world, as board game with different buildings - some small, some large - and a large crayon used as your cursor. In one corner is the smaller part of the game which is the story portion. Here it is very much as you'd expect for a modern, well thought out 3D platform/puzzle game. Your avatars are Woody, Jessie and Buzz and you take the gang through levels of action from the game where you're toy-sized in a human world, as well as imagination levels where you're no longer in a land of giants.
Each avatar has its own special abilities and between the three of them, you puzzle your way from point A to point B. It's done very smoothly, controls are obvious and intuitive and the optional help system is simple, unobtrusive, quick and clear using pictorial ghost animations as clues rather than swathes of instructions and menu text. What's more, with full access to the Toy Story 3 studios and sets, the graphics are excellent and identical to what you'll see at the cinema. But that's the dull stuff. You don't want to know about that.
The lion's share of the game's experience is taken up with what's known as the Toy Box. You pick one of the three avatars to be and you're given a town of which you are sheriff, although in actuality the role is probably closer to that of a mayor or town council but that's a tougher sell to kids. Your town starts off small and is, essentially, a sim-type environment that you can grow and develop without any of the sim need for management, in that same agonising resources kind of way. Again, an economics lesson is probably not what the target audience is after here.
Instead, it is a case of finding and executing small missions and sub-games in order to either unlock new buildings or get enough money to buy them. As your town gets bigger, you get more people, access to more interesting properties and each one of those has new effects and influences your town itself. The biggest watchword for the whole experience, though, has to be customisation. You can interact with all the townsfolk and give them haircuts, hats, masks, clothes, make them into zombies, give them bat wings, make them angels and just do pretty much anything you can think of. By the same token, you can do the same with the look of the buildings themselves.
Through your platform missions, which take place in and around the town, you unlock new customisations and you can even find them, as well as new toys to play with, hidden about your world. On top of that, there's also deluxe environment buildings that bring wholesale changes to your toy box as well as providing new mission-playable levels within, with goals, toys and customisations to unlock of their own.
There's Sid's Haunted House, Zorgs Space Station and Lotso's Enchanted House as the deluxe environments as well as stunt tracks to drive toy cars on, mines to rail slide in and even Bullseye the mule's race track. It's excellent to see the level of detail and imagination that Avalanche has taken it to, and from first looks at least, the scope of the game is mind-boggling.
Perhaps the only thing that niggles at the back of your mind as you watch all of this unfold is whether it matters or not that there's really no plot behind it. Will the game be as compelling and impossible to put down without the drive to get to the end and finish it? It's not even a question of whether you'd bother so much if another game that did have that element would always make it onto your console instead.
But then, the target audience of Toy Story 3 isn't really us. Sure there's an aim to appeal to adults, but it's really 10-13-year-olds where the sweet spot lies and the idea of the game is to provide play in the way that people might have with dolls and action figures in generations gone by. The research done by Avalanche is that children just don't do that in the same way any more. What the studio is hoping is that this age group will do it instead in the virtual world.
You have to applaud both Avalanche for having the desire to make a movie game that's innovative and different and the vision of Pixar to let them do so. Toy Story 3 is undeniably a highly entertaining play. It's imaginative, creative, fun and just the kind of thing that even the toughest of stern faced anti-video game psychologists might both encourage their children to play and get caught having a go on themselves.
There are question marks over its lasting appeal and its place as a reinvention of childhood make-believe, but full credit to this title for giving it a shot even if time dictates that it doesn't quite come off. Parents rest assured. Children prepare to be enthralled.