Which is the best toys-to-life game this year?
When Activision hit upon with the novel idea of combining video games with lumps of NFC-enabled plastic, we imagine that the company's shareholders had dollar signs flashing in their eyes.
2011's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was the perfect example of a product creating its own genre in the market; now, "toys-to-life" is a booming sector of the gaming market, and while Activision is still a solid contender, it doesn't have things all to itself any more.
Over the past few years we've seen challengers from the likes of Disney, Nintendo and, most recently, Lego – officially the world's most popular toy, which kind of gives it an unfair advantage when you think about it.
This increased competition is great for the still growing toys-to-life sector, but it presents a daunting purchasing challenge for gamers. Which brand should you back? Which delivers the best toys, and which gets the gameplay right? Most importantly, which one manages to find the right balance of both elements? Allow us to educate you!
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Lego Dimensions vs Skylanders Superchargers vs Disney Infinity 3.0: The Toys
Lego is the new kid in the toys-to-life category, which is ironic because not only is the Lego brand well-established in the gaming sphere, it's also the most popular toy of all time.
Unsurprisingly, Lego Dimensions utilizes the same block-based system seen in the main Lego range, with the unique hook being that players have to assemble characters and vehicles before "placing" them in the game. In a neat touch, you don't actually get any instructions with each toy. Instead the steps to build them flash up on-screen in the game, creating an additional layer of interaction and immersion.
Despite this hook, the process is entirely optional – the game only reads the NFC disc that is stuck to the base of each model, and has no way of knowing if you've actually constructed anything – but it's all so enjoyable that you'll want to anyway.
Over the past few decades the Lego brand has extensively used licensed properties to entice kids to spend and Lego Dimensions benefits from this immensely. Characters from properties such as Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Jurassic World, Ghostbusters, Doctor Who and Scooby Doo all feature in their own toy packs and levels, giving a degree of variety which will keep players interested long after they're done with the basic starter pack.
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However, Disney-owned characters – such as those taken from the Marvel and Star Wars universes – aren't included, despite being available as both physical Lego toys and in separate licenced video games. The reason is undoubtedly connected to the fact that Disney has its own toys-to-life franchise on the market in the shape of Disney Infinity. Don't expect to see Iron Man and Luke Skywalker in Lego Dimensions any time soon. Even without these characters, this is an impressive showing, and If Lego Dimensions had purely been based on Lego's own IP – such as Ninjago - then wouldn't be anywhere near as appealing.
More so than its rivals, Lego Dimensions delivers toys which actually function as toys away from the game, and that's a massive advantage which cannot be underestimated. While the figures included with Skylanders and Disney Infinity are cool to look at, they offer very limited scope for play. In that respect, Lego Dimensions takes some beating.
The range that started it all has been forced to diversity this year, bringing the concept of vehicles into the mix. Like the core Skylanders figures, these are equipped with NFC chips which allow you to drop them into the game at will. They feature free-rolling wheels and an amazing level of detail, but the big drawback is that the characters themselves can't actually "ride" inside them – you place both on the portal to merge them in-game.
Unlike its rivals, Skylanders is a self-contained universe so there's no chance of Spider-Man or Darth Vader dropping into your game. However, that's not to say that the Skylanders series is totally devoid of crossover potential. The Nintendo editions of the game have exclusive Skylander amiibo figures for Donkey Kong and Bowser. What's really cool about these two is that they can toggle between Skylanders and amiibo functionality, which means you're effectively getting two toys for the price of one; they'll work in Skylanders Superchargers and in Nintendo's own amiibo-compatible releases. However, if you're a Sony or Microsoft owner, these figures will hold little appeal.
Each Skylander figure – and vehicle – is meticulously detailed and full of character; these toys have a charm which has enabled the brand to win the hearts and minds of youngsters the world over. However, this will be the toughest year yet when it comes to reaching this audience – the legion of famous media properties showcased in Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions could make the cast of Skylanders seem a bit ordinary in comparison.
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Disney Infinity 3.0
For the first Disney Infinity outing, it was all about The House of Mouse. The cast was made up of famous faces from Disney movies, including Aladdin, Stitch and Buzz Lightyear. The second game added Marvel's formidable selection of comic characters to the mix, opening up the game world in new and exciting ways. However, this third game has got the timing absolutely spot-on. It's giving fans Star Wars characters to play with, just as The Force Awakens, turns the entire planet Star Wars crazy.
It's impossible to understate what massive impact this single fact could have on the toys-to-life war this Christmas. Parents considering which brand to support will walk into a store and see Star Wars on the packaging, almost making it a no-brainer. It helps that aesthetically, the Disney Infinity toys are perhaps the best-looking of the bunch; designer Jeff Bunker has a talent for taking existing characters and applying a unique cartoon style which somehow seems to suit them, regardless of which universe they happen to originate from.
In a neat twist, Disney Infinity also offers special Light FX Star Wars figures, which look even cooler when you're playing. We could see Disney Infinity's Star Wars figures selling briskly, even being purchased by people who won't play the full game.
Lego Dimensions vs Skylanders Superchargers vs Disney Infinity 3.0: The Portals
Out of the three games covered in this piece, Lego Dimensions has perhaps the most unique portal. Not only does it require assembly (this is actually optional but it looks amazing when fully built and ties into the game itself), it can accept multiple characters and vehicles simultaneously.
The big drawback is that once you've fully constructed the portal, it's a complete and utter pain to pack away and store, unless you fancy spending 30 minutes building it each time you play. After a while, you'll probably do what we did and remove all of the Lego blocks and just use the base itself.
The big news this year with Skylanders is that you can use your old Portal of Power to play the game, so if you're an existing Skylanders fan then you can save a few pennies by investing in the cheaper digital copy of the game.
However, the portal included with the Starter Set has some cool engine detailing, and we imagine that most hardcore fans will want to own it regardless.
Other than that, there's not a whole lot to report. It's clear that the characters and their vehicles are the stars this time around, and the portal itself has taken something of a backseat (no pun intended).
Disney Infinity 3.0
Disney has kept things consistent with its toys-to-life franchise, retaining the same "Infinity Base" for each outing. That's great news for existing fans, as you can keep your old base and simply purchase the game via digital download.
The base itself is pretty basic, but the series has always been about the figures anyway.
Lego Dimensions vs Skylanders Superchargers vs Disney Infinity 3.0: The Game
Developed by Traveller's Tales – the same studio which has created all of the other critically acclaimed Lego video games to date – Lego Dimensions is all about mixing up the various properties in a gripping "good versus evil" storyline. As is the case with the other Lego games, humour plays a massive role here, and the co-operative gameplay makes it ideal for families.
The gameplay is a mixture of exploration, combat and puzzle solving, and while it never really gets any more complex than that, it's still a lot of fun – especially when you introduce vehicles like the DeLorean from Back to the Future, which can be upgraded with special features. In the spirit of the Lego range, you can actually tweak and build alternate versions of many vehicles as well.
Read our Lego Dimensions review
The big change in Skylanders this year is that you can now drive in vehicles, and this has quite an impact on the gameplay. As well as the usual on-foot sections, you're expected to participate in Mario Kart-style races across a wide range of detailed environments. If you buy additional figures and vehicles you can even take part in aerial and underwater races, which are particularly fun.
Another unique twist is that online play is included, which means you're never short of human interaction. It's worth noting that the Wii and 3DS versions of the game are different from the others – the limitations of the hardware mean that these editions are focused entirely on racing.
Read our Skylanders Superchargers review
Disney Infinity 3.0
Disney Infinity does things a little differently to its rivals. While there's a freeform Toy Box mode which allows players to let their imaginations run riot, much of the gameplay is built around different content packs which have self-contained game worlds and offer unique gameplay.
They're even developed by different studios, so Sumo Digital (Outrun, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed) handles the racing game Toy Box Speedway while Ninja Theory (DmC: Devil May Cry) is in charge of the combat-heavy Twilight of the Republic.There's also a new Force Awakens playset, and a cutesy platformer based on the Pixar movie Inside Out.
Read our Disney Infinity 3.0 review
Lego Dimensions vs Skylanders Superchargers vs Disney Infinity 3.0: The Price
As any parent will know, Lego isn't cheap and that sadly carries over to its toys-to-Life offering. Lego Dimensions is the most expensive of the three titles we've covered here, with the starter pack coming with a recommended retail price of £89.99. Since launch, retailers have dropped their prices a little, but in general, Dimensions will cost you more than its rivals. "Fun" packs cost £14.99 and give you new characters to control, while level packs – costing between £24.99 and £29.99 – introduce entirely new worlds. To see everything the game has to offer you'll need to purchase all of the packs, and collecting everything is going to cost you a pretty penny. But hey! At least you can use the Lego bits and figures with your normal Lego toys, so that's a bonus.
- Starter Pack – Between £70-£75
- Level Packs (include two characters, two vehicles and game level) – Between £25-£30
- Team Packs (include two characters and two vehicles) – Between £20-£30
- Fun Packs (include one character and one vehicle) – Between £10-£15
The RRP for the Superchargers starter pack was close to £70, but in the weeks since launch that has dropped dramatically, and it's now possible to pick up the last-gen version for as little as £24.99. Figures cost around £12.99, with vehicle sets retailing for £34.99. All of your existing Skylanders toys will work with the game - which is a bonus for cost-cutting parents - and while it's possible to finish the game using the parts included in the starter kit, you'll need other figures to access certain bonus levels.
- Starter Pack – Between £29.99-£49.99
- Figures – Around £15
- Dual Packs – Between £20-£30
- Racing Pack – £29.99
Like Skylanders, Disney Infinity 3.0 has been subject to some pretty aggressive discounting at retail. Initial prices for the starter pack were in the same league as Skylanders, but savvy shoppers can now pick one up for around £29.99, depending on platform. Options for expanding the universe come in a wide range of price points; power disc packs offer unique unlocks and items and cost around £5-£7 depending on retailer, while Toy Box expansion packs retail for around £14. Larger "Play" packs, which include figures, discs and the promise of new content, cost around £30. The figures themselves are £12.99, and you can use your existing Disney Infinity toys with the new game.
- Star Wars Starter Pack – Between £30-£40
- Playsets (include two toys and a new story campaign – £19.99- £29.99
- Figures – £9.99
- Toy Box Expansion Games – £8.99
Lego Dimensions vs Skylanders Superchargers vs Disney Infinity 3.0: The Verdict
So which of these Toys-to-Life challengers is most worthy of your cash?
As you might expect, that's not an easy question to answer – it depends on what you want from the game, and if you've already invested in the two established series, Skylanders and Disney Infinity.
From a cost perspective, Lego Dimensions is expensive, and there's the added danger of losing bits to each toy which could prevent you from playing with them again in the future (although the fact that the game doesn't actually know if you've built anything makes this rather moot).
However, on the flipside, Lego Dimensions is much more successful in bringing the actual toys "to life". Unlike its rivals, you interact a lot more with the toys and building them outside of the game beforehand is an enjoyable experience. Lego is on to something with this, and if it can keep expanding the gameplay with fresh packs and new IP, there's no reason why the series can't become as established as Skylanders and Disney Infinity.
Skylanders has perhaps the most to prove this year, thanks to its status as the pioneer of the genre. Superchargers is a fun expansion of the gameplay, but it's hard to shake the feeling that the concept is becoming a little tired. Without the ability to call upon other media properties like Star Wars, Ghostbusters and Lord of the Rings, Skylanders is restricted a little. Although this is balanced by the fact that Skylanders in itself has become a pretty fearsome IP, especially with youngsters.
The big strength that Activision's franchise has is its wealth of existing content. All of the figures you own are supported by the new game, and this will help tie fans in with each new release. It also helps that the racing gameplay is incredible fun, of course.
Disney Infinity 3.0 has the opportunity to grow the most this year, thanks to the timely addition of Star Wars to its burgeoning toy chest. Disney has been wise in recruiting external studios to help design its toy packs, and this has resulted in self-contained modules which are practically good enough to stand apart as games on their own. With other Disney and Marvel IP fleshing out the ranks, it's easy to argue that Disney Infinity 3.0 has perhaps the most alluring selection of toys, and that could prove instrumental in winning the war this festive season.
Ultimately, all three games are worth a look, and the increased competition between them means that prices are dropping all the time. Each game's starter pack has headed south in price since launch, meaning you can now pick up all three for a lot less than it would have cost you a few months ago. It might sound like a cop-out, but we'd recommend you seek out all three games if you're genuinely interested in the toys-to-life sector; each offers its own unique take on the concept, and will keep you entertained for many hours. Just make sure you have room for some more plastic on your shelves.
But if you want to buy one to start off with you can't go wrong with Lego Dimensions. It might be the most expensive, but the innovative portal and the way it becomes part of the game, as well as the wealth of content available is just unbeatable.