Thursday, May 31, 2012

Disney Epic Mickey: The Power of Two


Double Feature: Mickey and Oswald return to save the day in not one but two Epic Mickey sequels!

THERE WAS A TIME when Mickey Mouse could legitimately include “video game star” on his considerable list of credentials. Those days had begun to seem a distant memory until Warren Spector and his team at Junction Point jump-started the mouse’s lagging career with Disney Epic Mickey. The game was a critical and commercial success, and now Mickey looks to continue his comeback with a pair of brand-new installments in the Epic Mickey saga—The Power of Two for Wii and Power of Illusion for Nintendo 3DS.

Disney Epic Mickey: The Power of Two

“The response from fans has been overwhelming,” says Spector while looking back on the original Epic Mickey. “I’ve never received so much heartfelt fan mail about a game.” That’s impressive given the veteran developer’s extensive body of work, which includes such all-time greats as System Shock and Deus Ex. Offering a boldly creative take on Disney history, unique paint and- thinner game mechanics, and a “"playstyle matters” approach to choice, Epic Mickey obviously struck a chord with players. The Power of Two retains those core elements and adds what Spector tells us was the number-one thing fans wanted from a sequel: cooperative play. While one person controls Mickey, a second player can hop in at any time and join the fun as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. As before, Mickey wields the power of paint and thinner with his magical brush. Oswald, on the other hand, brandishes a remote control that can emit bolts of electricity. The device has a variety of applications, from activating all sorts of different machines around Wasteland to shortcircuiting the mechanical Beetleworx so they fight alongside our heroes (similar to how Mickey can use paint to befriend Blotlings). What’s more, should mouse and rabbit “cross the streams” of their respective powers, the potency of Mickey’s paint or thinner will be amplified. Such teamwork can erase or befriend even the toughest foes in record time. In addition to his remote control, Oswald possesses a couple of unique abilities that further differentiate him from Mickey. He can spin his ears like a helicopter to hover midjump, for example, or detach one of his arms and use it like a boomerang. As bizarre as the latter may sound, it’s actually a nod to Oswald’s classic cartoons, in which he would pull himself apart in all sorts of bizarrely useful ways. (If you haven’t seen those old shorts, do yourself a favor and track them down.) The most obvious function of the “boom-arm-rang” is to retrieve items from afar, but as we observed during our demo, it’s also useful for smacking Mickey upside the head if player two is feeling mischievous. “There is ‘griefing’ in the game,” confirms design director Chase Jones with a laugh. “Mickey and Oswald have this great comical relationship in the story, and we wanted to make sure we reflected that in gameplay.” Friendly rivalry notwithstanding, the two can also lend each other a helping hand. If one character falls in battle, the other can revive him. Only when both heroes kick the bucket will you have to restart from the previous checkpoint. Even during solo play, Oswald remains an integral part of the experience as an AI-controlled partner. “He’s with you every step of the way,” explains Spector. “And I’ve got to say, the team really stepped up. His AI is pretty darned good. He genuinely does helpful things.” Beyond that, the lucky rabbit’s constant presence brings a heightened energy and personality to the proceedings. He often stole the show despite limited screen time in the first Epic Mickey, so we’re happy to see him figure more prominently in the sequel.


Despite the aforementioned flood of fan mail about the original game, Junction Point recognized there were certain shortcomings that need to be addressed. Foremost among them was the camera. Spector points out that the mix of platforming and adventure-style gameplay presents a unique challenge when it comes to providing the ideal perspective, as does the player’s ability to erase entire portions of the environment. “But we can do better,” he insists. “We’ve made hundreds and hundreds of changes. We’ve worked with Nintendo directly and they’ve given us great feedback.” Indeed, even at this early stage of development, the improvement we saw during our demo was dramatic. The camera does a much better job of following Mickey’s brush and framing the action than it did in the first game—so much so that we felt compelled to manually adjust our viewpoint on only a couple of occasions. The second big change is that all of the dialogue will be fully voiced this time around. Spector admits that the decision to forgo voice acting in the previous game was a mistake. “I thought about games like Mario and all of the Japanese RPGs that I’d played over the years,” he recalls. “They have what I call ‘bark’ text. And so I said, ‘Let’s do that.’ We used the real Disney voice actors. So it’s really Mickey. It’s really Donald. And they did amazing stuff with grunts and groans and squeaks. But in [the sequel], every character says every word, and it’s magical. Obviously you can get more emotion out of a line of dialogue than you can out of even the most effectively acted grunt.” To accompany the official Disney vocal talent for the established characters, Junction Point secured Frank Welker as the voice of Oswald and Cary Elwes as Gus the Gremlin. The studio also enlisted award-winning comic-book writer Marv Wolfman to help pen the dialogue and contribute to the story. Finally, Spector and his team want to do a better job of living up to their “playstyle matters” mantra—of ensuring that the choices you make have lasting and meaningful consequences. “When all was said and done, the lack of persistence was the thing that most disappointed me with the first game,” Spector admits. “Your choices really didn’t matter as much as they could have. We’re working very hard to make sure that’s not the case this time. Persistence is hugely important in a game where playstyle matters.” The most basic example of that comes when you make the effort to paint or thin everything on a level. Not only will there be repercussions for doing so this time, but those changes will remain even after you leave the area. Your decisions also have enduring ramifications on how the denizens of Wasteland respond to you, and even affect what Mickey is able to do. The mouse will actually gain or lose abilities based on how you interact with the world, though Junction Point isn’t ready to divulge specifics on that just yet.


After detailing co-op play and discussing how his team was going to improve upon their previous effort, Spector showed us the beautifully rendered intro cinematic for The Power of Two. It opens on Oswald and his fellow Wastelanders cheerfully working side by side to rebuild their home after the events of the first game. Suddenly a massive earthquake strikes, and in the ensuing chaos Oswald finds himself face-to-menacing-face with a Beetleworx. Just then, the villainous Mad Doctor from the first Epic Mickey swoops in on his flying machine and… breaks into song. “We’re doing the first-ever musical comedy game,” effuses Spector. That’s certainly not a statement we expected to hear during this visit, but the Mad Doctor’s highly entertaining number sells us on the idea immediately. In it, he claims to have seen the error of his ways and offers to help Wasteland’s citizens battle an impending threat. Oswald is won over by the doc’s performance, as well, and elects to join forces with him. Less convinced are Gus and Ortensia (Oswald’s girlfriend), who thus summon Mickey back to Wasteland for help. But first, our hero must take a detour to retrieve his magic brush. That leads to Yen Sid’s lab, which serves as the site of a Fantasia-themed tutorial, complete with marching brooms and familiar “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” music. It also introduces the game’s new physics engine. At one point Mickey reaches a series of floating globes in the middle of a large chasm. Only the bottom halves of the globes can be erased, but doing so causes the top halves to fall. Mickey can then paint the bottoms back in and use the newly flattened surfaces as platforms to cross the chasm. Though a rudimentary example, it illustrates how physics will play a bigger role in the game’s puzzles. From there, our demo leaps ahead to a new type of area called Dahl Engineering Corridors. In the first game players would travel between the different regions of Wasteland by jumping into film projectors and traversing 2D levels based on classic Mickey cartoons. At the beginning of The Power of Two, those projectors are offline due to the earthquake, so Mickey has to use the DECs to get around. These underground passages were cobbled together by the gremlins (the real-life brainchildren of author Roald Dahl) using forgotten Disney memorabilia, and as a result they’re sort of like giant Rube Goldberg machines. To knock down a giant doll head blocking our path, for instance, we rolled a ball onto a pressuresensitive panel and set off a series of events involving a mechanical turtle, a hamster wheel, and flying pies. The constant background activity really makes these levels come alive, and hardcore Disney aficionados will get a kick out of trying to identify the various relics. (We spotted a Chip portrait, as well as the whistles from Steamboat Willie.) As for the projectors, Jones promises that they will go back online eventually and provide a whole new batch of cartoon-inspired 2D levels. “And they’re done in a different way to support Oswald being there,” he teases. Our time with The Power of Two concluded in OzTown, which was one of the hubs in the original Epic Mickey. Things have changed quite a bit since then as the burg’s residents have banded together to spruce up the place. Unfortunately, their efforts have been temporarily interrupted due to a flood of thinner caused by the earthquake. Mickey can lend a hand by placing sump pumps near the source of the flood, but he has a couple of options as to how to go about that. Gremlin Prescott points out that Mickey can get the job done much faster by retrieving just one pump and supercharging it. Animatronic Goofy thinks that’s too dangerous and recommends gathering all three pumps and running them at normal speed. Though it’ll take a bit longer, we decided to follow Goofy’s suggestion. The pumps are scattered rather inconveniently throughout town, and recovering one of them requires use of the new Fairy sketch. As in the previous game, sketches are sort of like spells that allow Mickey to summon the corresponding subject for a variety of purposes. The Fairy sketch causes its target to float, which in this instance enables us to retrieve the pump from of a pool of thinner. (During our first attempt to use the sketch, we accidentally hit Goofy, causing him to humorously hang upside down in midair.) Once all three pumps are in place, the thinner is drained from OzTown and Goofy gives us a unique pin for our efforts. Pins return as a special collectible and a nod to the real-life pin-hunting phenomenon at Disney’s theme parks. “But we’re taking the concept a step further this time,” Jones hints. He also explains that we would have received a different reward for taking Prescott’s shortcut, but that supercharging one of the pumps would have caused thinner to spray all over the surrounding homes. Though brief, our return visit to Wasteland was a blast and left us anxious to see what else The Power of Two has in store. The folks at Junction Point established a solid foundation with the first game, and they seem to be building on it in all the right ways. “Now we can take things to a whole new level in terms of quality and depth of story,” says Spector. “It’s about taking all the things we did well in Epic Mickey and doing them even better.”

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