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(Pocket-lint) - Infinite Arms is a toy-game cross over aimed at fans of Gears of War, Halo and big Transformers style mechs. It’s a sophisticated RPG for iPad and iOS generally, where adding weapons to model robots instantly sees them appear in the game. It aims to tick both boxes: Skylanders for Halo fans and Halo for Skylanders fans.

When Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure exploded into living rooms in 2011 a new genre of game was created. Combining physical and virtual play it convinced young players that the figurines were not just a key to unlock digital content but in fact were an extension of the on-screen character. The toys magically saved progress, lit up and were something you wanted to hold and keep with you while not playing.

Financial success led to other manufacturers joining the toys-to-life arms race. Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions each brought their franchise-rich weight to the formula and saw similar success. But the toy tide is now turning, signified not just by Disney’s withdrawal from the sector but the rise of new innovative start-up competitors to these incumbent behemoths.

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Anki Overdrive combined toys-to-life gaming with Scalextric style real-world racing. Sick Bricks injected irreverent character play controlled by mix and match Lego style heads and leg bricks. Angry Birds Telepods offered toy cars and projectile playsets that also unlocked in-game characters. And Osmo combine character recognition with educational play.

Infinite Arms is a new player in the sector but with quite different ambitions. Not only does it leverage talent from traditional console games like Gears of War, Halo and cult classic Gitaroo Man, but also toy expertise from Transformers and Tamogotchi.

Infinite Arms preview: Not just for kids

Spending just a couple of hours with the game it’s clear this isn’t just for children. The toys are huge articulated robots that cross a Transformers and Mech aesthetic. Snap on up to four of the 10s of weapons initially available and they instantly appear on the screen of the tablet game.

Talking to CEO Keiichi Yano at E3 he outlined the importance of escaping the need for a portal and for both the toys and the game to be valid in their own right: "We've been working on this idea for three years," he said. "Toys-to-life as a segment could be much more than we've seen in the past. Now we have the technology to take Star Wars style toys out of the physical and seamlessly work with mobile games.

"That bridge between the physical reality and the virtual reality, the closer you can get them out of sync and into sync the more you feel like those lines are blurred. The speed that accessories get reflected in the game was super important for us." 

Chris Esaki, chief creative officer at Yano, expanded on why its robots needed to be free from wires and tethers to create a convincing connection between them and the game: "It's not just an extension of the game but it's a part of the whole. Being able to play, pose, customise and put weapons on the physical toy was really important," he explained.

"Being artificially tethered to something just didn't work for us, they had to be autonomous action figures like we grew up with. That unlocks all the play possibility of a real action figure.”

Infinite Arms preview: Toys-to-life for gamers

Infinite Arms leverages this technology to create a deep and complex experience aimed at an older player with the sophistication and strategic thinking to do more than simply grind through levels. It forces players to make intelligent choices about load-outs and upgrades.

"We set out to make an experience we ourselves wanted to play, with older tastes," said Esaki. "The sophistication of the game skews more to Call of Duty, Halo and Gears of War, both in terms of the gameplay and the detailed figures."

What this doesn’t get across is just how deep the gameplay is. Working through the early levels of the campaign with Esaki and Yano at my side I soon found my mind boggling at the sheer number of combinations and upgrades to choose from.

While the robots impress in both size and articulation it’s the weapons that are the star. Each weapons has multiple branching upgrade trees that effect how they perform and interact with each other. Beyond this, players can fuse different upgrade elements to create further refinements.

Equipping your robot from this finely honed arsenal becomes like picking a deck for a card battle, only here you have customised each of the cards to work perfectly with each other.

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Infinite Arms preview: Console gameplay on a tablet

The game itself revolves around a battle system where waves of enemies must be brought down leading into boss encounters. Each round is unique and offers a different challenge. By completing these you can earn a variety of items to then further upgrade your weapons.

It's played on tablets but looks much more like a console game. The large depictions of the robots perfectly match the physical toy, both in scale and currently equipped weapons. The iOS version we tested felt snappy and intuitive to control although it did take a little getting used to.

We played some one-player levels in the room but you can also jump into online multiplayer games where two of you bring in customised robots to the fray and battle through the different enemies. There were many more modes and challenges in the menu we didn’t get a chance to test.

Infinite Arms preview: Rebooting toy retail

Existing as a tablet rather than console game is a risky strategy for Infinite Arms, but one that is taken knowingly. There’s a tension between the fast turn around of updates and in-app purchases in tablet games and the slow pace of toy development.

Here we find Infinite Arms' real innovation. It solves this problem by offering players new physical toys, the weapons and add-ons, via Amazon and other online outlets on a bi-weekly basis. It seems almost unbelievable at first with toys usually taking 6 months to a year to bring to market but Yano was robust in this part of the experience.

"It's very accelerated, we wanted to have a service-based model that means releasing toys on a bi-weekly basis. It's a lot like card games when new cards would come out,” he revealed.

Grasping this nettle not only means that the company can avoid over-producing any one toy (and the over-stocking problems that are rumoured to have hampered Disney Infinity), but it can also iterate the most popular items that players want based on real-time stats from the game.

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It can also offer short time limited runs of special weapons that are only available for two weeks. Special editions based around different real world events are also a strong possibility, something that could fit well with licensed partnerships with other brands.

Provided the virtual and physical prices for these weapons are easy to understand and offer good value, this could be a popular way to expand the experience when launched. This clarity will become more challenging as the product matures and multiple variants are in the wild, so a long term plan will also be important along with a clear way to communicate how this all fits together to consumers.

First Impressions

All this is poised to take the toys-to-life world by storm. It just needs to be discovered by players who fit its older demographic of sophisticated, avid toy collector and game fan. It works for either those who have outgrown Skylanders and want something more substantial or fans of games like Halo and Gears who want more toy action in their hardcore gaming.

Of course, the road from here to there is paved with challenges but first impressions suggest that Infinite Arms could create another Skylanders moment - either way it looks like we need a new name for these games because toys-to-life simply no longer does them justice.

Writing by Andy Robertson.