Skylanders is a series I have pretty much no affinity for. Walking into my E3 appointment to see Skylanders: Swap Force, this year’s entry into the series, I was expecting something aimed squarely at kids. At best I thought it would look ok, with bold, bright colours that firmly established “This is for children”.
I was cynical about the toy aspect of the series too. While I’ve actually always thought that the Skylanders approach is much better than the character unlock DLC you often see these days, giving you a physical object to go along with your digital content, I felt that the game was pretty much built solely as a way to sell those toys, a big market that games rarely tap into effectively.
I’m now happy to admit that I was at least partially wrong about the game. Oh it’s certainly full of bright colours, and does a fantastic job of selling toys too, but that’s all sitting on top of what looks like a great game.
It’s worth saying that I’ve only seen the home console version of the game, which is a 3D platforming affair. It’s also got some 2.5D elements mixed into some of the new challenges that have been introduced (more on that later), but mostly you’ve got a typical third person camera view.
While I didn’t manage to go hands on with the game, the core combat and platforming elements of the gameplay look solid enough, and perhaps slightly more advanced than I’d expected. You can’t just mash buttons and hope to come out on top in a fight, instead you’ll need to time some of your attacks and use special abilities to help you out against certain enemies, such as teleporting to avoid flying enemies when they swoop.
If you’re even vaguely aware of the Skylanders franchise though you’ll know that the truly interesting stuff is delivered by the Portal of Power. This is the electronic reader that allows you to drop your Skylanders into the game, and I was really impressed by just how fluid the drop-in/drop-out elements of this system were.
You see, I’d sort of assumed that at the start of a mission you’d pick your Skylander and that would be that. In truth you can swap out your Skylanders whenever you feel like it, allowing for some really tactical thinking if you’ve got enough characters to choose from.
It’s incredibly smooth too, with the game responding pretty much instantly if you remove the physical toy from the portal, and recognising your new choice quickly. There did seem to be a couple of quirks in the demo I was shown when putting two Skylanders on together, but that was more a case of repositioning the toys so that the portal could read the identifiers from both together than anything being fundamentally broken.
So far Activision has confirmed that they’ll be forty new characters to collect in Swap Force, as well as sixteen new versions of existing characters with new powers or abilities, and much like Skylanders: Giants there’s a twist with some of these. Sixteen of the forty new characters are Swap Force characters who have the ability to split their torso from their legs before recombining to form a new character.
For example you could take Wash Buckler and Stink Bomb, split them in half, and recombine them as Stink Buckler, a new character who takes elements from both of the original characters. If you’re any good at maths then you’ll have worked out that splitting and recombining this way with 16 characters gives you 256 possible combinations, a pretty impressive feat.
On a physical level, the Swap Force toys use magnets in the base and torso to keep the two halves together, and they don’t seem like they’ll come apart accidentally, even if you’ve got kids who tend to get a bit over enthusiastic when they’re playing. The system uses a triangle of magnets in each half, not just to improve stability but to make sure that you can’t stick the top half on the bottom half back to front. It’s a nice touch, although I’m sure there are many who’d quite like to have a Skylander with a backwards head.
As well as the ability to form new characters, Swap Force Skylanders have specific powers that will come in useful in a set of discoverable mini-games called Swap Zone Challenges. The example in the demo was a climbing challenge, which meant that a Swap Force character with the climbing symbol on their base was required. It seems to be only the base that matters though, you can combine it with any other character you want.
The mini-game itself was pretty simple, featuring a vertical scroller where a Skylander climbed a wall while debris fell towards them and, eventually, missiles targeted them. Obviously some dodging was required, with various bits of cover popping up to help during the ascent.
These challenges look like a fun little break from the main game, although the fact they require you to have a Skylander with a specific ability is a fairly transparent attempt to drive more toy sales. Although that’s not necessarily a bad thing, after all amassing a collection of Skylanders is part of the game, I can certainly see it being frustrating if you’re missing a character with the required attribute.
Perhaps the biggest fundamental change to the game, even beyond the introduction of the new Swap Force characters, is the fact that you can now jump. Apparently this is something that fans have been clamouring for, and seems like an odd omission in previous games. It’s here now though and I can report that whatever Skylander you’re using does actually jump to a reasonable height.
I’ve got to say that Skylanders: Swap Force left me genuinely surprised. I wasn’t expecting a huge amount from the game, but I left actually wanting to get into the series and play Swap Force. However, I’ll have to settle for an earlier game in the series until Swap Force arrives in October for current generation of home consoles and the 3DS, or perhaps even pick up a next gen version when those platforms launch.