Disney Interactive Studios
April 21, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

If you’re at all familiar with the popular Skylanders series — and if you’ve shopped Target’s videogame aisle with your tykes, you probably are — then you’re halfway to understanding what Disney Infinity is all about. Much like Activision’s super-successful toys-meets-games mash-up, Disney Interactive Studios’ ambitious new project also pairs collectible playthings with interactive fantasy adventures. While the Mouse’s take on the kid-friendly concept is similar on the surface, though, Infinity significantly separates itself from the competition with a few key features.

For starters, Infinity doesn’t just incorporate characters, but also corresponding Play Sets that the plastic figures can be unleashed in. As in Skylanders, the toys are brought to in-game life when placed on a portal-like peripheral; Infinity takes the fan-pleasing formula a step further, however, by then having those characters star in standalone stories based on their established universes. Represented by small blocks placed on the base beside the figure, Play Sets transport the character — and the player — into 4-6 hour self-contained campaigns inspired by popular Disney Pixar properties. The Infinity starter pack, for example, is bundled with three characters — Mr. Incredible, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Sulley — plus one Play Set based on The Incredibles, another inspired by the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, and a third tied to the forthcoming Monsters University movie.

Of course, this trio of characters and their accompanying Play Sets only scratch the surface of Infinity‘s, well, infinite potential. Players can expect plenty of Disney Pixar properties past, present, and future — to also get the Infinity treatment, either through dedicated Play Sets or individual characters that can be inserted into existing interactive narratives. A Cars Play Set has already been announced and fan-favorite characters, from Jack Skellington to Phineas and Ferb‘s Perry, have figured heavily into the game’s pre-release marketing.

While the opportunity to relive Captain Jack’s swashbuckling adventures or continue on Mr. Incredible‘s crime-fighting path already builds on the base concept introduced by Skylanders, Infinity takes things another step further with Toy Box mode. Entirely separate from the standalone character campaigns, this do-what-you-please mode encourages players to mix and match avatars and props from the different Play Sets in one giant imagination-piquing playground. You see, progressing through Play Sets unlocks items, such as vehicles and signature character gear, that are permanently placed in the virtual Toy Box. So acquiring, say, Buzz Lightyear’s jet pack in a standalone Toy Story adventure will allow players to strap that bad boy onto any character in Toy Box mode — imagining Jack Sparrow soaring through the sky with Buzz’s flying tech stretches an especially big smile across my face.

Creating magical mash-ups with characters and props is just the beginning though. Thanks to an intuitive tool set, budding designers will be able to craft their very own challenges, games, and mini-adventures within the interactive toy chest. These creative minds could race Lightning McQueen against Dash on a customized track, conduct a contest of wits between the savvy Captain Jack and smart Phineas Flynn, or maybe pit Buzz and Woody against Captain Barbossa’s baddies in some Olympic-like challenges. Endless opportunities for cooperative and competitive play also factor into the fun, as Infinity supports up to four players online in Toy Box mode and two in Play Sets.

While Infinity‘s two modes promise to pack the fan-service high for Disney-loving gamers, the toys should also appeal to every kid’s collector side. On top of detail-drenched sculpts that would look as pretty on a bookshelf as they would in front of an Xbox, Infinity supports collectible Power Discs; sold in blind two-packs, these circular and hexagonal wafers add character buffs — such as increased power and premium props, like Cinderella’s carriage — to Play Sets and the Toy Box, respectively, when placed on the base.

For parents wondering if all this fun will cost more than a day at Disneyland, here’s the breakdown: The starter pack, with base, three characters and their Play Sets, will retail for $74.99. Once that initial investment is made, you can plan on prying the wallet back open for individual Play Sets, characters, and Power Disc 2-packs for $34.99, $12.99, and $4.99, respectively. Character 3-packs will also be available for $29.99. So, if your little one likes Disney, video-games, or — gasp! — both, you better start saving or getting real friendly with Santa Claus. Also, while you won’t be able to play Infinity on your George Foreman grill, it can be enjoyed on just about every other platform known to man, including home consoles and mobile devices.

Like a fistful of Pixie dust, Infinity holds unlimited promise and potential for what, during my recent demo, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios’ chief creative officer John Lasseter dubbed ”creative play.” Disney geeks, gamers, and toy collectors — not mention card-carrying members of all three camps — can begin sprinkling Infinity‘s magic when it arrives this August.

Follow Matt @gamegoat

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