Review | 11/8/2011 at 4:09 PM

Disney Universe Co-Op Review

Not-so Magic Kingdom

Disney Universe takes place in a futuristic Disney theme park in which guests dress up as Disney characters and act out their Disney fantasies with the help of evil looking robots. As anyone who’s seen Westworld could predict, something goes wrong and the robots start attacking everybody. It’s up to the player to strap on a Disney costume and rescue all the stranded guests.

Sounds like a compelling story, doesn’t it? No? Actually, it’s a threadbare setup – just an excuse to get players in and out of the game as quickly as possible. Disney Universe consists of six movie-themed worlds: Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Wall-E, Monsters, Inc., and The Lion King. Each world has three levels which are in turn broken up into three sections a piece.

Every time you enter a level, you’ll need to select a costume. Initially only a few are on offer, but every time you beat a level and rescue a guest, that person’s costume becomes available for purchase. The costumes range from Disney mainstays like Mickey and Goofy to live-action PotC and Tron characters. Each suit can be leveled up three times by collecting stars from within the levels, greatly increasing its attack power.

While Disney Universe’s costumes are obviously influenced by LittleBigPlanet (sans customization), the game plays almost exactly like the LEGO games. One or more players run around a 3D environment beating up baddies and collecting jillions of LEGO pieces, I mean, Disney coins. These can be spent to unlock characters and levels. Nothing wrong with the basic template then – it’s the execution where Disney’s entry falls a bit short.

First, let’s talk about the Disney trappings. Even though the developers clearly set out to make a Disney version of LEGO Pirates of the Carribean, etc. it feels like they only went half way. Costumed versions of popular characters don’t exhibit nearly as much personality as the real things; these characters have no unique voices or abilities, so they’re really just a bunch of skins.

The costume thing wouldn’t be so bad if the levels made up for it. But look at the strange assortment movies they chose to base levels around – Tim Burton’s Alice? Why not the classic Disney one that everyone actually loves? Besides, hardly any of the environments actually feel like the films they supposedly represent. Instead of reliving famous moments from the source material, each level consists of switch puzzle upon switch puzzle. Seriously, there must have been a sale on switches when the designers were building Disney Universe that was just too good for them to pass up.

The few deviations from the formula are hit and miss. Manning a cannon while riding a train through the Lion King (Remember that part of the movie?) proves to be the most boring rail-shooting experience in memory.  But running through a forced-scrolling level in Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders as lava nips at your heels works much better, and the Wall-E levels manage to look and sort of feel like the real thing as you protect a plant from the oppressive robot enemies. Still, on the whole the game is only Disney-esque rather than Disney-ful.

But enough about the lack of Disney trappings. Many gamers will pick this game up for the 4-player local co-op only to find the multiplayer experience is a mixed bag. First off, if you don't have the player 2-4 controllers turned on when launching the game, it simply won't recognize them when you enter the World Select. You'll have to exit to the dashboard and restart the game to enable multiplayer, which is goofy.

Worse, on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, only the main player earns Achievements or Trophies. The target audience of little kids probably won’t mind that glaring oversight, but it does limit the appeal to older gamers. Disney Universe is a pretty long game – a single level takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour (they kinda drag on) if you’re trying to collect everything in order to earn a Gold medal. Not only are there 18 levels, but you have to beat each one twice if you want to unlock all of the costumes. Getting a partner or two to go through such a lengthy game without their fair share of Achievements won’t be easy.

But wait, there’s more. Did you ever wonder why the Lego games don’t support more than two players? It’s because you can hardly tell what’s going on with that many players running and jumping through a level. Coordinating the team’s efforts to solve the puzzles (which vary slightly compared to single-player) takes way more time and effort than just playing by yourself. Everyone is locked to the same screen, so a single straggler can throw a serious wrench in the monkey-works. The camera certainly doesn’t help – it’s tilted at an awkward angle, making it difficult to see players and objects near the top of the screen and judge platform alignment in general. It can’t even track a solo player all that great, to be honest.

Friendly fire also mars the multiplayer experience. That’s right, everyone can hit each other at all times and it can’t be switched off. Even with only two players you’re bound to kill each other regularly. The game does provide infinite respawns, but each one counts against your level rating. That, combined with the camera and puzzle coordination issues, makes it incredibly tough to earn Gold medals as a team.

Powerups and power downs also work differently in multiplayer than solo, though not for the better. When playing with others, items spawn intermittently. Then they proceed to chase a player down – there is no escaping one, so you’ll need to put up with whatever silly effect it brings. Completely unnecessary. Worse, powerups and power downs alike prevent players from carrying objects or pulling switches while they are in effect. At any given time you’re likely to be in the act of dragging an item from one place to another or pulling a switch, so the items the game forces down your throat always interrupt the flow of fun with aggravation.

The bright side to Disney Universe’s multiplayer is its host of competitive Challenges. Even in single-player, you can optionally take on a random challenge whenever an arcade machine pops up on the playing field. But Challenges are way more fun with a group. These 30-second contests include killing the most enemies as while transformed into a chicken, retrieving rag dolls scattered about the level, dodging lightning strikes, and dozens more. The Challenges are so enjoyable with friends, I can’t believe they aren’t selectable as their own mode, independent of the main game. Major oversight there.

Disney Universe isn’t a bad game. It just could have been a lot better. The designers at Eurocom didn’t put nearly enough effort into capturing the magic of Disney’s fantastic properties, resulting in a game that’s more Euro Disney than Disney World. While co-op can be fun with only a couple of players, it’s a shame that the game simply works better as a single-player experience. But if you’re not concerned with Achievements and actually doing well, multiplayer can still provide some silly chaos. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy Disney Universe for a kid who obsesses over Disney stuff. It could still be a good buy for adults and co-op couples with the patience to overlook its many faults, assuming they get a good deal, of course.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.