Around this time last year, Disney Interactive was throwing all of their marketing muscle behind Warren Spector's highly ambitious Epic Mickey. Following fans' mixed reactions to the rodent-starring Wii exclusive, though, the House of Mouse is making a much safer bet this holiday season with Disney Universe. While the family-friendly game doesn't break any moulds or take many risks, it's packed with enough personality and pick-up-and-play appeal to please anyone who's ever donned a pair of mouse ears.
The simple set-up sees a virtual Disney world, meant to be a digital dream destination for fans, infected by a virus. As an anonymous avatar sporting a mischievous smile, players don costumes of their favourite Disney characters and set out to save this special place from the no-good hacker trying to corrupt it. Doing so involves plenty of platforming, puzzle-solving, and baddie-beating, while progressing through six extensive worlds based on popular Disney and Pixar film properties such as The Lion King, Monsters Inc., and Pirates of the Caribbean.
The core gameplay isn't all that inspired; players mash buttons to beat up bad guys, push blocks and pull triggers to solve puzzles, gather items to build things, collect coins, and generally complete goals that won't seem all that foreign to any gamer who's lost a few hours in a LEGO game.
Despite the familiarly, however, the action rarely grows repetitive because you're never tasked with doing the same thing for very long. While the moment to moment gameplay's mostly of the accessible-to-all-ages variety, and there's little punishment for failure, frantic pacing and a vibrant pop-off-the-screen-presentation keep things engaging. Furthermore, surprisingly clever enemy minions -- that actively attempt to foil your progress -- as well as the occasional goal or challenge specifically tailored to a particular film franchise, keep things fresh.
What ultimately makes this universe worth visiting, though, is the brimming fan-service. From the 50-plus costumes encompassing characters contemporary (Jack Sparrow, Wall-E, Nemo) and classic (Mickey, Minnie, Donald), to colourful worlds drenched in Disney-themed details, there's no shortage of sights, sounds, and surprises that'll stretch a smile across any faithful fan's face.
Before jumping in and decking yourself out in Pumba's tusks, Stitch's fangs, or Donald's beak, though, I recommend recruiting one or two Disney-loving pals to join you. The cooperative -- and occasionally competitive -- chaos perfectly complements the game's lightning-quick pacing and limited-consequence challenges. Going solo can become boring over long stretches, and bringing a trio along (the game supports 4-player local co-op) is often more frustrating than fun -- playing as a pair works best.