- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2010

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Toy Story 3: The Video Game (from Disney Interactive Studios, reviewed for PlayStation 3, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $49.99).

Buzz, Woody and the gang are back in movie theaters with a new animated blockbuster and on entertainment consoles in a third-person adventure. One or two players control toys and can take part in a simplified version of the movie or explore the open-ended worlds of “Toy Story.”

What’s the story? Paraphrased from a Disney Pictures press release: Andy is grown up, and as he prepares to go to college, his beloved toys find themselves living in a day care center. The untamed tots with their sticky little fingers do not play nice, so it’s all for one and one for all as plans for the great escape get under way. It’s up to Buzz and Woody to orchestrate the break and make sure no toy is left behind.

Play the role: Control Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Jessie and occasionally Emperor Zurg (more about that later) and work through eight levels in a typical, though convoluted, story mode to rescue friends — or enter the sandbox-style Toy Box, where players roam around towns, customize citizens and buildings, and take part in gold-collecting side missions.

Besides the stars, most of the major and minor “Toy Story” characters make appearances in the game, including Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, Hamm the piggy bank, Rex the dinosaur, Slinky Dog, Twitch the bug man, Chunk the rock monster, Spark the robot and Wheezy the penguin.

In addition, players will visit familiar locations, such as Bonnie’s and Andy’s houses, Sunnyside Daycare and Al’s Toy Barn, and new spots, including Sid’s Haunted House, an asteroid and a haunted bakery.

Get to the action: Our heroes’ powers and animation styles come direct from the film franchise. Woody eventually wields a lasso (his pull string) to swing across chasms, Buzz uses a jet pack for short bursts of flight, and Jessie has super balance while jumping through multiple obstacle courses.

The trio also can lift and toss one another to difficult-to-reach locations  a trick that becomes a very effective strategy as the game progresses.

As players select areas to explore from a Game of Life-style board, the missions are multitiered adventures straddling gaming genres and giving youngsters a lesson in teamwork and sometimes patience.

One of the better missions under the story mode involves Buzz Lightyear traversing an imploding asteroid belt as he challenges evil Emperor Zurg’s robotic minions. Run-and-gun action using a slick laser weapon combines with high-speed canyon chases and platforming obstacle courses to set up a final confrontation with Buzz’s archenemy.

Also, a visit to the day care center finds three minigames to conquer (a balloon pop and block knock-down race and one target range) with a scavenger hunt to find all the pieces of Zurg.

Under Toy Box, the variety of things to do in and around Woody’s Western town should overwhelm the 10-year-old. After selecting from among Buzz, Woody or Jessie, he might run into Stinky Pete, who gives his character a pick so he can collect gold. He might need to collect bells for Slinky Dog’s cows, build a jail or perform a remodeling job on the haberdashery. He can take photos of characters and post them on a billboard in the town, ride Bullseye and drive a sports car, dress up residents in “Hamm for Mayor” T-shirts, rescue a trapped miner and even surf some high-speed train rails.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Freeing green army men and parachuting them to a phone stand, Woody riding Bullseye to catch a train, turning action figures into zombies, sliding down a wire as Woody with sparks coming off of his spurs, taking part in the Muffin Massacre, enjoying a confetti/fireworks display every time a Toy Box mission is completed, shooting cows at a gigantic witch.

Violent encounters: It’s Disney, folks, and our beloved heroes never succumb to a terrible, bloody fate — although I did witness a couple of electrocutions — nor do their adversaries suffer. Some of the treatment of ancillary characters is suspect, however. The downfall of bad guys (actually tossing little green aliens off the side of a train, for example) is a bit rough, and using the town’s residents to play a one-sided session of dodge ball or randomly bull-rushing them seems a bit cruel.

Read all about it: Boom Studios brings the Pixar universe to sequential-art life every month with the new, ongoing series Toy Story: Tales From the Toy Chest ($2.99 each). Or grab the trade paperback Toy Story: The Mysterious Stranger ($9.99), which compiles the four-issue limited series from earlier this year

Pixel-popping scale: 8.5 out of 10. Overall, crisp animations in cut scenes and still images in menus really bring the original Pixar effort to life. Some of the game-play action stutters and falls apart during high-speed moments, but youngsters will eat up this colorful playground.

Unlockables: While exploring Woody’s Roundup Western town and other locales and moving through missions, players will find gold coins and trading cards that help unlock items when visiting Al’s Toy Barn. Coins go into a chicken vending machine to buy new characters and pieces, such as wigs to customize residents. Or, collect a specific set of trading cards and open up new challenges, including a bowling minigame.

PS3 owners also get a special treat with the ability to unlock and control Emperor Zurg in the Toy Box universe.

Multiplayer: It’s definitely fun in the Toy Box mode to run around areas and cooperatively tackle missions with a friend, even though it is in a confining split-screen presentation. I much prefer the cooperative action seen in Activision’s Shrek Ever After, in which up to four players work together on the same screen to squash the plans of the evil Rumpelstiltskin.

What’s it worth? Toy Story 3: The Video Game gives the tween in the family a fun opportunity to take part in the animated universe and apply teamwork skills to conquer challenges. It breaks the mold of the typical licensed game by expanding the experience and enabling even older players to get lost in a Toy Box for hours of action.

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