E3 10: Preview: Epic Mickey

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As a fan of many of the older Mickey Mouse and other Disney platformers, I was excited to hear that a new titlewas on the way.  This new one, Epic Mickey, looks much darker than the old ones, and it looks like there are a few odd twists to the expected gameplay. I wasn’t banking on the next Castle of Illusion, but this new title employs ideas that seem quite a bit less “Disney” than usual.

A lot of the deviation from the expected comes from the fact that Warren Spector is heading up this project. He has aimed to take the best of platforming, role-playing and action-adventure games, and mix them up in Mickey’s world. Inspired by Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda titles, Spector wanted to promote player choice and have them explore the consequences in Epic Mickey. On paper, it sounds totally unconventional, and like something that wouldn’t work well. It does, though, and manages to be just as much “Disney” as you’d expect.

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Epic Mickey revolves around the themes of creation and destruction, and all of that happens through paint and paint thinner. Mickey can change the world that he’s in by splashing paint to do things like create platforms and change bad guys into good ones. Paint thinner can erase bad things, and also create opportunities in platforming, like erasing barriers. The goal here is to use Mickey’s brush to change the world to solve problems, which makes for some pretty interesting game design that has less to do with platforming and more to do with your personality and attitude. More on that later.

The developers dug through 80 years of Disney history to create Epic Mickey. And they were very open to any Disney-related inspiration, using films, archives, and even the Disney theme parks as ideas for their game. In fact, areas of the game are based on themed areas of Disneyland and Disneyworld, and you’ll see design parallels and even characters and set pieces that Disney park frequenters would know well from their visits. All with a dark twist, of course.

The first area I encountered was based on the Adventureland area of Disneyworld, and I could see that the Swiss Family’s Treehouse and Tiki Sam’s Tiki Hut were represented. This is what a representative told me was a “quest space,” where there were no enemies, and you were only able to walk around and talk to the locals, who all happen to be Disney characters.

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In one of the many quest examples I saw, Mickey encountered a character who had a crush on a cow named Henrietta.  This one situation served as an example of the game’s good vs. mischievous mechanic. You, as Mickey, could talk to them both and make a love connection with your knowledge. If you were good. But a mischievous Mickey could use some of the knowledge gained — like the fact that Henrietta is lactose-intolerant — to mess things up for the guy. The good guy would have told him to buy her her favorite flowers, but instead I told him to get her ice cream as a gift. He did, and that triggered a beautiful cutscene, which was rendered in a retro Disney storybook fashion. These are all fully voiced and pulled from Disney’s massive archives. I was told that if I were to go the good route, I would have seen a totally different storyboard cutscene.

In another more extreme case of mischievousness, Tiki Sam was looking to collect three tiki masks that had been scattered around the level. You could actually just find two and then use Mickey’s paint thinner brush to run around to the back of the hut to paint a hole in the wall and steal one that you presented him earlier. Then you could enter the front of the shop and act like you found the third mask. Mickey, I’m ashamed of you!

Of course, there’s full-on platform gaming too. We had a chance to run Mickey around a dark, gray world that was just begging for him to paint it and make it lively again. It was called Skull Rock, and was inspired by Peter Pan’s story. The first major enemy we encountered was a Teacup Beetle, which was a mechanical spider with a back that looked like one of the famed Disneyworld Tea Cups. With basic enemies, like the brooms from Fantasia, you could either paint them to make them friendly to help you out, or dab with with paint thinner (called “Terp,” for turpentine) to overcome and progress. The Teacup Beetle required a bit more work, though. While you could move in to fight it, it was easier to find a television that could be placed to distract the enemy and move past.

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Unfortunately we were having such a difficult time taking down this Teacup Beetle and other enemies that we had to ask for help. The enemies became quite aggressive, and we found ourselves dying frequently. Some of this related to confusing camera control, though we later learned of an enemy lock-on function that would make combat less disorienting and frustrating.

Epic Mickey‘s control reminded us of Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy in that you used the Wii Remote and Nunchuk to navigate and interact. The controls lined up closely with Nintendo’s game, all the way down to flicking the control to begin a spin attack. Of course, the painting and thinning aspect of Epic Mickey adds a totally different spin to 3D platforming, though we were overwhelmed with so many enemies that this aspect was a bit difficult to explore. We did see that with paint, you’ll be able to do things like create platforms to jump on to reach normally unreachable areas. Thinner could remove obstacles that would let you proceed. Both are used in platforming puzzles, too.

Beyond the 3D platforming are more than forty 2D side-scrolling levels, each of which lasts about a minute or two. We were able to play one that featured Disney classic Steamboat Willie, and playing through the stage made you feel like you were actually walking through the old cartoon. It was presented in black and white and had an old-film-like look. The stage featured multiple path platforming, much like the early Sonic the Hedgehog games. We were told thatthese stages were added as a treat to Disney fans, and were meant to break up the 3D action a bit.

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As you can tell, Epic Mickey lives up to its name, especially in scope. There are so many game concepts going on here, and they’re all so interesting. The presentation is absolutely packed with Disney references, ranging from obvious choices to very subtle winks — the Disney fan is going to have a field day with this. As for how it plays, the questing and 2D segments impressed easily. We’d have to give it another go in the 3D parts with this new knowledge of camera control to make a fair call on that.

Look for Epic Mickey this holiday season.


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