If you ask us, Disney Infinity 3.0 was the first time the series got almost everything right. The game was co-op out of the box (unlike the first game), the story paid homage to a much loved franchise in the best possible way, and the free form, level creation Toy Box mode actually had a little bit of structure to it. Everything was coming up Disney - even the expansion packs were great! Yet for its Marvel Battleground expansion, the team at Disney felt the need to mix things up a bit. And the result is something of a mixed bag.
Much like the other "Play Set" expansions, Marvel Battlegrounds adds a whole new mode to your game - only this time, rather than a co-op adventure to play through, you get access to an arena based brawler, where you, and up to four players can duke it out across a variety of button mashing modes. It's a fast paced, close quarters combat affair, with simple controls - all you really need to know is there's a fast three hit combo on one button, dodge on another, and the ability to grab and throw your opponent using a third, and you're good to go. Pick up and play to a T, this is a game that anyone can find their footing in quickly.
The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that magic number - four - is equally unusual for a Disney Infinity expansion - previously, the game's only allowed for two players to play together, but, thanks to some technical wizardry, this time up to four folks can pick up a pad, and get brawling on the same console. There is, however, no online multiplayer mode - so friends and family who are further afield won't be able to join in the action.
The way the magic works technically is that, rather than placing the figure you want to play as on the game base (as per usual for Disney Infinity), you instead have to scan your characters in first. Plonking them on the base just once will unlock that character for the rest of the play session - and any Marvel character you own is compatible. From Star Lord to Hulk, from Iron Man to Black Panther, from Vision to Thor, any super hero from either Disney Infinity 2 or 3 can be used, giving you a great reason to dust off the old figures.
The game itself is split up into two modes. There's a loose story mode, which lets you play through a very brief "story", that mostly consists of a short cutscene tying together six or so stages of button bashing action. Playable either in single player, or two player co-op (your other two friends will have to sit it out), the story sees you facing off against robotic clones of popular super heroes, in another of Loki's dastardly plans - complete the gauntlet, and you'll be rewarded with a still picture, and a bit of text, telling you what your main character did next. It's a bit of a disappointment, to be honest, as anything to spice things up - a branching storyline, some exclusive stuff to unlock, even a high score - would have given you a lot more reason to go back. As it stands, there's really not much reason to play through the story more than once.
So, with the story out the way, the meat of the game here comes from the competitive multiplayer, where any combination of human and AI characters can battle it out in an up to four player brawl. There's a few modes on offer here, too - Battlegrounds is a one life affair, where the last hero standing wins; Hero of the Hill sees you earning points for standing in a circle - and keeping everyone else out of it (it's actually a lot of fun); Rumble is a straight up "most kills wins" affair, while Super Hero is perhaps the most complex of the lot. Here, one character gets to be the "hero", and becomes bigger, and stronger than the rest. They're also the only one who can earn points - so the idea is to be the one to take down the hero, so you can become the hero yourself, and then smash everyone else into little pieces. That's easier to achieve as some characters than others.
As you'd likely expect, each of the characters has had their move set tweaked for Battlegrounds, in an attempt to make things a bit more of a level playing field. Characters that could previously fly infinitely now can only hover for a short amount of time, and there's dozens of other tweaks under the surface. Each character has a melee move, and a ranged attack, along with the ability to dodge, and grab/throw their opponent. However, some people's ranged attacks are much more effective than others. Play against Star Lord and Groot in a King of the Hill game, and you'll find yourself coming up against an almost unbeatable combo - Star Lord's blasters can pick enemies off from across the stage, while Groot has the ability to summon a giant tree branch fist, which shoots up out of the ground right below an enemy, even if they're nowhere near to Groot. It's great if you're the one taking advantage of it, but it can be a bit frustrating to come up against it.
Still, there's undoubtedly fun to be had here - it's just hard to put a price on what it's worth. Disappointingly, and a first for the Disney Infinity play sets, the game only comes with one figure - Captain America in his "first avenger" garb - as opposed to the usual two, yet it doesn't seem to be any cheaper in UK stores. While in the US, we're assured the Play Set is weighing in at substantially less than the Play Sets usually cost, in the UK, we've struggled to find it for more than £5 less than the normal asking price. When the figures are worth £15 on their own, and we're one figure down, we were expecting a more substantial discount than that. It also presents a problem for those who're new to Disney Infinity as of number 3 - if you don't have any other Marvel characters, you'll need to buy an extra figure to be able to play for any prolonged period of time in one of the game's multiplayer modes. Again, this could have been got round if retailers had a "buy this, get any Marvel character free", but there's nothing like that in place. Instead, the game has a built in system of "trial tokens", which you earn by playing multiplayer games, and can spend to unlock a character for just one round. But once they're gone, they're gone - so owning the figures is the only way to ensure you'll be able to play together in multiplayer.
While it's never a bad thing to see studios trying something different, Marvel Battleground seems to fall somewhat wide of the mark. While multiplayer's a lot of fun - especially in King of the Hill mode - the co-op is somewhat limited, having only a single character in the Play Set feels a bit cheap, and the combat itself sometimes feels a little bit on the clunky side, as opposed to the smooth, fluid combat of its nearest rival, Dreamcast legend Powerstone. Still, for the right price, and if you've got plenty of Marvel figures on hand, Battlegrounds could be a worthwhile investment.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360