It's a shame that some of the best family films of all time have inspired some of the worst family games, and up 'til now that's been the case with the games of Pixar's films. Even the best have been mediocre, generic platformers, while the worst ... well, the general idea seems to have been watch the movie, string together a few action sequences based vaguely on key moments, and hope that nobody notices the second-rate gameplay and short running time.
Maybe we're being cruel. Maybe there are exceptions that we don't remember. Yet of all the Pixar movie-inspired games we've played only one sticks in the mind as being any good, and that's last year's Toy Story Mania; a Wii light-gun game with decent replay value.
From the off, it's apparent that Toy Story 3: The Video Game is a very different kettle of fish. It looks good, it's fun to play, and it's packed with genuinely interesting ideas. It seems to have been designed and developed by people who actually cared what they were doing, and were given the time and resources to produce a brilliant game, with a little help from Pixar too. If that's the case, it's worked. Toy Story 3 is the best game based on a family film for several years.
It's also a game of two halves. On the one hand, Toy Story 3 takes you through the story of the new movie, kicking off with the film's barnstorming opening Western sequence, and carrying on through, throwing in additional sequences based on old Buzz Lightyear video games or the playtime hi-jinx of little kids wherever these make sense. There's some solid platforming, some brilliant blasting, and a few cool stunt-racing challenges to pull off, and these levels are absolutely stuffed with collectibles, giving kids (and obsessive gamers) the replay value that they crave.
And for once, these levels aren't dull, repetitive or painfully generic. Sure, there are some low-points, with an extended spree through Emperor Zerg's secret base going on a bit too long, and there are some points at which the game's fixed camera angle makes progress infuriating (though sensible checkpoints and infinite lives help a lot). Overall, though, it's the high points that you remember, like a superb sequence that begins in a child's bedroom with a rising sea of coffee and a menacing witch, and ends up in space with rails to grind, planetoids and rocket ships in need of repair.
At times it's Super Mario Galaxy-esque, but, to be honest, we mean that as a complement. You'll play different sections as Woody, Buzz or cowgirl Jessie, and each has their own abilities to bring to the table, which the game exploits with a certain ingenuity. For once, it's not a platform-by-numbers affair.
Now, however, we come to the really good bit. After you've cracked the opening level, Toy Story 3 opens up the Toy Box mode. This takes Woody to a Western-themed open-world locale, centred on a town populated by blocky figures, Toy Story aliens and his posse of pals. Wander around and different characters will give you missions, some to do with collecting five of this or ten of that, and some to do with rounding up outlaws or finding a missing character.
A little more play adds further tools, like a pick-axe you can use to mine gold or a camera you can use to take photos, and these in turn open up further options. For instance, there are photo challenges where you have to recreate a specific shot, with the right location, characters, outfits and poses, or frantic checkpoint races to be won.
The more you explore, the more areas open up, and the more missions and challenges you'll unlock. Best of all, everything is customisable. Earn gold by completing missions or mining and you can spend it to buy in new stores or civic buildings for the town, in turn opening up new features, areas and opportunities. Other toy characters can be purchased, and the ones you have already can be customised, with tailors and barber shops that allow you to change haircuts and add costumes. The buildings themselves can be painted and customised, and generally there are dozens of ways to make this Toy Box your own. Adult gamers will like it, while younger ones will love it, and that makes Toy Story 3 a family game of unusual depth.
Finally, kudos to the team for doing such a great job of replicating the look and the banter of the film. Of course, you can't expect a console game to fully replicate what Pixar's render farms can do, but Toy Story 3 gets close enough, and in some areas it's actually spectacular. Voice work, too, is top notch, with the majority of the stars from the film onboard, and decent alternatives where that's not the case. Once again there's an impression that this was a game built with real love for the movies, and to show what a good video game can do.
Toy Story 3 should be held up as a shining example of how to do a family game right. While it has its flaws in the camera and controls department, the story mode leaves the pitiful platforming of most rival licensed games for dead, and the Toy Box mode is guaranteed to keep the kids busy in the long run. In fact, it's so much fun that the biggest danger is you'll buy it for the kids, then hog the controller for yourself!