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Open the toy box


Toy Story 3, the video game, is what happens when a design team channels its love for a movie into a clever stand-alone game concept, translating the spirit of their source into the playful language of games. Avalanche Software deftly sidesteps the sinkhole that's devoured innumerable movie tie-in games, and they do it by situating their game at the center of the Toy Story universe: Andy's imagination.

Toy Story 3 contains two modes: Story and Toy Box. Reviewers have praised both, but have mostly dismissed Story mode as derivative platforming and puzzle-solving. That's fair, I suppose, but if you or your kids have enjoyed the Toy Story trilogy, I think you'll get a big kick out of the campaign, which can be played in its entirety in splitscreen co-op. (More on co-op, which is terrific, in a moment.) 

Pixar gave Avalanche the freedom to build a game inspired by the film, but not tied down to game-ifying its narrative. So Toy Story 3 contains bits and pieces, locations and characters from the film that lend themselves to gameplay. If, like me, you saw the film and found yourself translating the train chase scene into a game level as it unfolded, Avalanche delivers the goods.

If you care about such things, cross-media influences/homages run rampant in that train scene, which clearly pays tribute to classic Western films like The Great Train Robbery. Not coincidentally, a new Duplo/Lego set, called The Great Train Chase, lets kids re-enact the scene from the film. So your kids can play Lego-ized versions of toy versions of TV characters based on movies characters...originally taken from dime-story novels. We might toss Mario in there too if we wanted to account for gameplay genre, but let's jump off this train before it rolls off the tracks. Heh.

Toy Box mode - a free-roam, open world designed for imaginative play - is where things get interesting in Toy Story 3. Players can take on missions, alter the environment, redesign buildings, meet new characters and other simple-fun, no-pressure tasks. Having recently played Red Dead Redemption, I was frequently startled by the similarities between the two experiences, wandering around a Western landscape looking for things to do. Don't get me wrong; these are two very different games, but as open world designs go, you may be surprised by Toy Story 3's depth.

The genius of Toy Box mode is that it functions exactly like...well, a toy box. The game immerses you in a world of play straight out of Andy's imagination. If you've ever watched kids play with toys, you quickly discover they rarely play with them as they were "meant to be played with." Toy Story 3 captures this beautifully, offering players a wide range of toys from Andy's room (and some new ones invented by Avalanche), and their functionality is rarely limited to their obvious purpose.

My very most favoritest thing about Toy Story 3, however, (wow, channeling my daughter now) is its co-op. The whole game - Story mode and Toy Box mode alike - can be played and completed in splitscreen co-op. In story mode, this can lead to fun working together, accomplishing tasks that are easier and more fun with a helper. 

But co-op shines most brightly in Toy Box mode, where each player is free to do whatever she likes, anywhere in the sizable world of "Woody's Roundup." This can lead to constructive play, silly play, explorative play, mission-based play - all forms of self-directed play that kids (okay, kids of all ages) will find fun, with enough content variety to remain engaged for a long time. Toy Story 3 borrows from the entire Toy Story universe, so there's a lot of familiar stuff to keep you busy, especially if you're a fan of the movies.

Avalanche has captured the essence of Pixar's art style beautifully. The controls feel a little loose, especially in platforming sequences, and a few of the story levels are less than inspired, but overall this is a wonderful game that thoroughly refutes the good movie / bad game formula we've come to expect. If you're looking for a low-key but smartly designed game to play with someone you love - your kids, your spouse, your significant other - I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by Toy Story 3.