Disney Epic Mickey was a big hit at E3 2010, atoning for its earlier disappointing screenshots with a more refined graphical style and a gameplay system described as "playstyle matters" by Warren Spector. We got the chance to give the rodent a run-out at a recent event, and came away with admittedly mixed feelings.
Taking on one of the 3D action-adventure stages called Skull Island, Mickey uses his paintbrush and the power of paint and thinner to achieve several goals. The primary objective is to float the pirate ships by locating their anchors and using thinner to make them disappear, but there are other secondary objectives that let you choose how you tackle the level. For example, the pirates themselves can be killed with thinner or recruited with paint: once on your team, they attack other enemies, hopefully recruiting them to your side too.
It's not all direct confrontation, however: pressing – drops a TV set playing a cartoon that distracts your opponents, allowing you to sneak by. The robots on Skull Island hate television, however, so will slice open the set with their saws, short-circuiting themselves in the process and inadvertently giving you the upper hand. Sometimes it's fun to recruit an enemy, set down a sketch and see how the action plays out, rather than throwing yourself into the mix.
If you're still bloodthirsty and want to take down all the enemies at once, there are several machines within the level that can be filled with paint or thinner to either restore or destroy the pirates accordingly; you must choose to fill all the machines with the same liquid or nothing happens, and this feeds into the "playstyle matters" system. As you use paint or thinner consistently, a bar fills up below your health; at each of three levels it grants you a guardian that automatically attacks enemies to either recruit or destroy them, depending on which liquid you use more often. Exercising the opposite option will slowly deplete the bar, so playing consistently is important.
Although the entire landscape isn't affected by paint and thinner, there were a dozen or more points that could be changed, from machines to walls and bridges as well as enemies. Generally the items that stand out are the ones that can be changed: imagine in the cartoons where animated elements look slightly different than the backgrounds and you'll get the idea.
The Steamboat Willie level was also playable though very short, clocking in at only a minute or two of gameplay. Graphically it looks very close to the original cartoon and makes good use of some smaller details, but we certainly hope these levels are made longer and more challenging in the final game.
In terms of handling, Disney Epic Mickey feels smooth and responsive, with a Remote swing to attack and other actions mapped to buttons, and the camera was rarely an issue, if at all. On the whole the game was graphically impressive, with good liquid effects and the sight of huge rocks disappearing and reappearing when painted or thinned was a sight to behold.
It's difficult to gauge the long-term appeal of Disney Epic Mickey from such a short hands-on session, however. On the surface it's a pretty straightforward 3D adventure, so we'll have to wait to see how much the "playstyle matters" approach impacts gameplay down the road. The game's success depends on this ambitious system: without it, this could have been a rather bland outing for Mickey. The platforming elements we played were hardly Mario-calibre, and some of the lengthy dialogue sections didn't come across well in the environment set up for us to play, where there's always something else to play and long cutscenes can kill some of your enthusiasm for a game.
Although not overwhelmingly stunned by the game, we certainly came away wanting to spend more time with it to find out how deep the gameplay really is, and whether the platforming challenge is going to be adequate for the more experienced gamers who will no doubt want to pick this one up when it's released later on this year.