Epic Mickey is an odd bundle of seeming contradictions. Talk to Warren Spector, and he'll tell you how he wants the player to really role play, to make the main character into his own unique vision. But when your main character is one of the most famous cartoon icons in the world, how much role play can you actually do? It's a game about choices, but a game without judgment - one choice is no better than another, merely different, insists Spector, but when being asked either to grab a treasure or save a helpless gremlin - more specifically, to prevent him from being flung a country mile by a catapult - is anyone really going to pick the loot? Really?
I don't have the answers to those questions yet, and probably won't until I see the final credits roll. For now, I have to content myself with playing through just a few levels of Epic Mickey, which served as the player's introduction to the world of The Wasteland. Much of what I got to play was the kind of tutorial faff that will help ease newcomers into the game world, while inspiring more experienced players to jam on the A button as fast as possible to skip through Gus the Gremlin's explanations. Yeah, spin attack, I get it, let me at the blots, already! You can skip the expeditionary cut scenes too, but they're so beautiful - and genuinely funny at times - that you probably won't want to, no matter how much experience you have slinging a controller.
The very first level of Epic Mickey picks up where the introductory movie leaves off, with Mickey trapped in a lab, trying to dodge the machine that wanted to pull out his heart. Shutting down the out-of-control device is a simple matter of smashing a few control panels, then platforming your way to the exit. As you make your way down the hall, you learn the core concepts of paint and thinner: Paint restores areas that are missing, while thinner removes "toon" objects - which can then be replaced with a judicious application of paint. It's a very basic idea, but its application can be satisfyingly layered. Thinner will only remove certain objects, so while the big slab of rock blocking your way might be thinner-proof, the floor it's resting on probably isn't, so just paint a hole, wait for the obstruction to fall through the now-gaping hole, then fill in the gap and go on your merry way. Enemies can be tackled in the same way. Splashing them with thinner is the more obvious choice, but dousing them in paint will turn them to your side, and they'll actually fight in your favor. They'll also give you a friendly little wave to let you know you're pals, which was reason enough for me.
Each area of Epic Mickey ends with a movie screen that leads to a "palate cleansing" 2D platforming level; the one I got to try was modeled after Mickey and the Beanstalk. It wasn't terribly long, but it let me collect a bunch of E-tickets, Epic Mickey's currency, and get a feel for platforming. Castle of Illusion this is not, but I was pleased by the level's design and that, while not crushingly difficult, it wasn't a pushover, either. I also unlocked "Mickey and the Beanstalk" as I was playing, but what exactly that means remains unclear. Perhaps we'll be able to watch clips of whatever inspired each platform level.
Disney is known for its striking visuals and intense attention to artistic quality, something Mickey takes to heart. Not only is the game gorgeous, but every area is an amalgam of locations and visual cues from Disney movies, TV programs, and theme parks. One of the levels I played took place in an amusement park that clearly drew inspiration from Disneyland, from the towering spires of Cinderella's castle all the way down to that damn teacup ride. I hate the teacup ride, I'm just putting that out there. It makes me nauseous. So when Tim the Gremlin (named after one of the game's environmental artists and the team member walking me through the demo) asked me to go find the wrench he'd left behind on the ride, I was not pleased. I had the same visceral reaction to the virtual teacups that I have to the real-world ones, because the game does such a marvelous job of evoking the Disney experience. (I must admit, I took perverse joy in thinning the teacups to find the wrench and making a point of not putting them back. Take that, ride!)
Once you've completed an area's main objective, you're free to move on to the next area straight away, or you can stick around to explore the area, complete more quests, and perhaps track down some of the game's collectibles. E-tickets are waiting to be found in barrels and chests, but I was more interested in the golden pin I was awarded for finding Tim's wrench. Taking a nod from the pin-collecting culture of the Disney Parks (Spector just had to get a second display cabinet for his own burgeoning pin collection, clearly a man after my own heart), the pins are broken into categories like Limited Edition and Uncommon.
It's a small snapshot from which to base an opinion, but Epic Mickey looks as though it's going to be a layered experience that both new and experienced gamers can appreciate. And if you're a Disney fan, too? Forget it, you'll go berserk just admiring all the little details and homages to Disney properties. It's like having one of the parks right in your living room, but without the $12 hamburgers. I can't wait to play more. Those pins aren't going to collect themselves, you know.
Epic Mickey is a Wii exclusive and is due out this holiday season.