When toys meet video games: a guide to Skylanders, Disney Infinity, and Lego Dimensions

In October 2011, Activision released a seemingly innocuous game called Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. It was a reboot of a forgotten family-friendly video game mascot, but also a line of toys: Each copy of Skylanders came with a portal that plugged into your console and scanned the action figures, unlocking their playable counterparts in the video game. What looked like a novelty that could last a holiday season has since turned into an annual franchise and a big business, raking in more than $3 billion and selling more than 250 million little action figures.

The game pioneered a whole new genre since dubbed toys-to-life, attracting giant media companies with beloved brands. 2013 saw the release of the first Disney Infinity, which takes the Skylanders model and adds characters from the Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars universes; last month Warner Bros. launched the first Lego Dimensions game, which features characters from The Simpsons, Back to the Future, DC Comics, and many other fictional worlds.

On the surface, the games are all the same; you have a video game, some toys, and a platform for transporting those toys into your television or tablet. But they’re each very different experiences. Since these games are among the most expensive around — with all of the available add-ons it’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars on one game — they’re also much more of an investment than a typical video game. You’re not just choosing a game, you’re choosing a whole product line — including future releases. Imagine a children’s toy box in which each toy only worked with certain other toys inside restricted video game environments. That’s the downside of the meteoric rise of toys-to-life.

With three big new games out now — Skylanders: Superchargers, Disney Infinity 3.0, and Lego Dimensions — the choice can be tough, so we broke down each game to help sort out which is best for you.

Skylanders: Superchargers

What is this game?

Superchargers is the fifth game in the Skylanders series (not including mobile spin-offs). With each new entry the franchise introduces a new gameplay twist, and the latest game offers perhaps the biggest change yet: vehicles. You can drive cars, pilot helicopters and planes, and delve deep underwater in a submarine. The game itself is a fairly traditional action-platformer: You run around levels beating up bad guys, solving puzzles, and figuring out how to navigate jumps. But the vehicle segments help break up the flow nicely; every so often you’ll need to speed along in a race car or find hidden areas beneath the sea.

Superchargers may seem straightforward, but it’s slyly inventive. The world the franchise takes place in is sort of like a mash-up of every '90s cartoon you can remember; think Street Sharks crossed with Bucky O’Hare. Characters range from skeletons with trumpet pistols to a hefty shark who shoots missiles from his arm. The levels are equally manic; one of the earliest challenges has you driving an incredibly fast car along the back of a giant dragon. You’ll venture to cities in the clouds, an undead wasteland, and a gravity-defying world with a Super Mario Galaxy feel. There are even 2D, side-scrolling segments. It’s pretty surprising just how big and varied the game actually is.

Skylanders: Superchargers

Outside of the standard story-driven campaign, Superchargers offers plenty of other diversions. The inclusion of vehicles allows for a racing mode — essentially a stripped down Mario Kart. The mode lacks the polish of Nintendo’s racer, but it’s still quite fun.

There’s also a mini-game called Skystones, a trimmed-down, kid-friendly take on Hearthstone. You collect cards throughout the campaign, and use them to battle other characters just like in Blizzard’s digital card game. The rules are simpler, and you can only play three cards at a time, but as a diversion it’s great. (It’s also a calculated inclusion; next year Activision will launch Skylanders: Battlecast, a mobile card game in which you can purchase physical cards as well.)

What do I need to buy?

The starter pack comes with the game, two characters, a vehicle, and the portal for scanning everything into the game. That’ll run you $74.99, and you get a lot out of it. The story campaign is long and involved, and you can enjoy the majority of it without buying anything extra. Where you’ll run into trouble is with the vehicles. The starter pack only comes with a car, and since there are also air and water-based sections, you won’t be able to play certain areas without buying corresponding vehicles. (When you come up to a point in the game that requires a certain vehicle, you’ll have the option to go another route on foot instead.)

Because of this, picking up a new vehicle (or two) is your best bet for add-ons. A new submarine or helicopter will cost you $14.99, and they’ll let you play through new, totally different sections of the game, as well as use them for races, since the air and water courses are locked off until you have the appropriate rides.

As for characters, since the game comes with two, additional ones aren’t really necessary. You can play co-op just fine with the base game, and while certain characters are stronger in specific levels, it doesn’t make enough of a difference to warrant spending $12.99 on a new toy. That said, many of the characters play very differently from one another — some are fast, some use projectile weapons, etc. — so if you (or your kids) find yourself playing a lot, grabbing a new character will add some variety. The game is also forward-compatible  — that is, old toys work with newer games — so you can use figures you may have lying around from older games as well.

Disney Infinity 3.0

What is this game?

The main conceit of the Disney Infinity games is that the toys are, well, toys. It’s like dumping out your toy box and playing with everything, regardless of what Disney-owned movie or show it’s from. The first game featured Disney and Pixar characters and worlds, while the sequel introduced Marvel. Now, with version 3.0, Star Wars characters are added to the mix.

The Disney Infinity games have always had a split focus, and 3.0 is no exception. On one side there are the "play sets," which are a series of third-person action-adventure campaigns. These have always been one of the weakest parts of the franchise, but the new Disney Infinity improves the play sets in a number of ways. The new Star Wars characters are more versatile; you can do force pushes and swing a lightsaber, and a number of vehicle segments let you pilot everything from the Millennium Falcon to a snowspeeder. You even get to reenact iconic scenes from the movies, like the Death Star trench run or the duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. Compared with other play sets in previous entries, the combat is deeper, the vehicles are more fun to fly, and the worlds are bigger and more open for exploration. The problem is that there just isn’t enough; the one play set that comes with the game lasts just a few hours.

Disney Infinity 3.0

But play sets are also just one facet of the Disney Infinity experience. The other half is the toy box, a place where you can build new things. There’s a lot you can construct, from actual game levels filled with enemies, to soaring race tracks that twist through the sky. It’s here that the various fictional worlds converge. You can have a swarm of guards from Aladdin running around a Nightmare Before Christmas level, while Princess Leia picks them off with her blaster. Or you could see if a tauntaun could outrun Abu the elephant. You can either build from scratch or use any of a number of prefabricated areas as a starting point, giving the mode plenty of depth.

The toy box is great in theory, and there’s a lot you can do with it, but it can also be frustrating. You can’t really just dive right in, as a lot of the content is locked away at the outset, forcing you to play through various challenges to get access. It’s also complicated, with a confusing array of menus and controls that takes a lot of time to get used to. Once you get the hang of things (and unlock lots of stuff), you can build some really cool levels, but it takes work to get there.

That said, the game also lets you share levels online; so if you're not so great at designing them, you can at least download and play the creations of other players. To date Disney has done a great job of curating this space, making it pretty easy to find new, fun stuff to play.

What do I need to buy?

The Disney Infinity 3.0 starter pack is is $64.99, and that gets you the base game, two figures (Anakin and his padawan, Ahsoka Tano), and the play set called "Twilight of the Republic," based on the prequel trilogy. What else you’ll need to buy depends on how you play. Since the play set that comes with the game is so short, those who enjoy pre-built campaigns will likely want to pick up the second play set, "Rise Against the Empire." It’s an extra $34.99, and comes with both Luke and Leia figures. That’s a hefty price, and while "Empire" is a longer and meatier campaign than "Twilight," it’s also padded out quite a bit with lots of mandatory missions that boil down to simple, repetitive fetch quests.

Disney Infinity 3.0

If you’re into the creative aspects of the game, there are some other things you might consider buying. The starter pack gives you a lot of tools to play around with, so you’ll probably want to exhaust those before you visit the toy store, but you can purchase packs of power discs ($9.99 for four) which give you new things to play with in the toy box. These range from new vehicles like Boba Fett’s Slave 1 to new themes you can use to make an entire level look like the ocean from Finding Nemo or the fiery Mustafar planet from Star Wars: Episode III.

Like in Skylanders, buying new characters in Disney Infinity isn’t a necessity. There are some character-specific missions, but you aren’t missing out on much if you skip them. That said, one of the best parts of the series is being able to mix and match characters from different universes, so it’s fun to have a range of people to play with. And because the games are forward-compatible there’s a huge existing number of figures you can snatch up. The $13.99 figures also serve a dual purpose; they’re absolutely gorgeous, so even if you don’t use them in-game much they still look great on a shelf.

Lego Dimensions

What is this game?

Unlike its competitors, Lego Dimensions isn’t a sequel. This is Lego’s first attempt at a toys-to-life game, and it’s fueled primarily by nostalgia. Like The Lego Movie, it’s a universe where fictional characters of all sorts mingle, just like in your box of Lego bricks. In the first world of the game I played as Gandalf driving the Batmobile along the yellow brick road. Things only got crazier after that. A small sampling of the licenses in Lego Dimensions includes Doctor Who, The Simpsons, Batman, Scooby Doo, Portal, and Back to the Future.

The game itself is much like previous Lego games, which are among the best family-friendly games around. It’s a third person action adventure with a heavy emphasis on combat and puzzles. One of the key features is that you’ll regularly be switching between characters, because each has unique skills; Gandalf can use magic to lift objects, for example, while The Lego Movie’s Wyldstyle can use her acrobatics to reach out-of-the-way locations.

What really separates Lego Dimensions from other toys-to-life games is the toys themselves. They aren’t simply statues you place on a platform and then forget about. You have to build them yourself; one of the very first things I did in the game was put my controller down and spend half an hour building a complicated portal. The same goes for the characters and vehicles, all of which are made of standard Lego bricks, and need to be assembled. They evolve along the campaign; for example, as the story progressed I had to tweak my portal to match events in-game.

You also have to move the figures around the portal throughout the adventure. Sometimes Batman might be caught in a magic spell, and moving his toy to a different part of the platform will break him free. Other times you’ll need to move characters to solve color-based puzzles. These can get a bit tedious at times, as they repeat a lot throughout the game, but they also help make Dimensions feel more like a combination toy / game.

What do I need to buy?

Lego Dimensions is the most expensive game in the genre. The starter pack — which comes with the game, portal, three "Minifigs" (Batman, Wyldstyle, and Gandalf), and a Batmobile — is $99.99. The good news is that the base price gets you a solid, lengthy campaign and you still get to experience a big range of virtual worlds. You’ll explore Springfield and the Tardis, you just won’t get to play as characters from those worlds.

If you want more than the base campaign, however, things get really pricey. You can buy additional "level packs" — that come with a character, a vehicle, and a new gadget — which open up new areas to play in the open-world section of the game, in addition to providing a new level to play through. They will cost you $29.99 each, and current packs cover everything from Doctor Who to Ghostbusters, though they vary in quality quite a bit; I found the Portal pack fun, while The Simpsons was largely forgettable. There are also "fun packs," which don’t provide new levels, but give you a new character and gadget for $14.99. Things can quickly add up, but at least all of the figures and vehicles double as actual Lego toys.

Lego DImensions

That said, one of the most frustrating elements of Lego Dimensions is how it constantly reminds you of what you don’t have. Throughout the campaign you’ll regularly come across sections that are only playable with a certain character; you could bust through a wall if only you had a strong character like Superman, or you could unlock this door if the Doctor were around. I’d often be excited at finding a secret location hidden in a level, only to learn that I wouldn’t be able to play it without parting with some cash. Not the greatest feeling when you’ve already spent $99.99.