Like all movie tie-ins, the Toy Story 3 game has been designed with the singular intention of making players feel better about the $12.50 they spent to see the film. The game is a series of foregone conclusions—can Woody stop a runaway train? Can Buzz fight his way through Zurg’s fortress and defeat him?—that begs you to suspend your disbelief long enough to find one iota of drama in having those questions answered.
Borrowing gameplay elements from better games, like Super Mario Galaxy and Ratchet & Clank, Toy Story 3 has a whiff of desperation. It seems, at times, vaguely insecure in its ability to entertain. Didn’t like that last joke? Look out! Here come 10 more!
As the sheriff of the gameplay world, you’re tasked with a never-ending string of borderline-meaningless tasks. You’ll collect plastic cows and return them to a plastic corral. You’ll run errands for Prospector Pete. You’ll purchase new toys from Al’s Toy Barn. Many of the tasks, like locating the LEGO-like boy who has fallen down a well, have been conceived with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. While none of the game’s gags have the punch to make players double over with laughter, they are consistently clever.
The star of the game is the Toy Box mode. It’s Grand Theft Auto: Toy Story. Surprisingly, this concept is far more interesting in practice than it sounds on paper. The game features myriad options for customizing the world to your liking. You can erect new buildings and paint old ones. You can put goofy hats on people. You can douse them with a special substance that makes them grow. You can grab a group of the LEGO-like beings and shepherd them into barbershops for haircuts.
In theory, this no doubt sounds small and predictable. Yet the whole operation miraculously coheres into something far more spirited and compelling. The game’s visceral pleasures are what make it cohere. Riding Woody’s galloping horse, Bullseye, is a bona fide aesthetic experience. Popping open the game’s gumball-machine bubbles? That’s as satisfying and addictive as working your way through a sheet of virgin bubble wrap.