The season draws close for a spate of new titles, and Activision Blizzard — the newly independent gaming behemoth — plans to make sure you won’t forget about the next installment of the billion-dollar franchise Skylanders.
Last week, Activision let us preview a new level from the latest entry in the toy-meets-game series, Skylanders: Swap Force. I am still stunned at two things. The new release, hitting multiple platforms on Oct. 13, has an incredible amount of variety. You can swap the top and bottom halves of the real-life figurines representing 16 new characters, resulting in 256 combinations. At the same time, the gameplay seems repetitive as ever.
The saga’s original idea was to “bring toys to life,” and Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure and Skylanders: Giants developer Toys for Bob did this well. The result is that Skylanders is the top-selling game franchise in the industry right now, with more than 115 million toys sold. That sales rate is exceeding the number of Harry Potter or Star Wars toys sold. Accordingly, Activision Publishing’s chief Eric Hirshberg has poured everything he can into the kid-friendly intellectual property. The new title comes from Vicarious Visions while Toys for Bob is no doubt working on something secret.
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Those performance figures are better than I could have predicted, so take my own analysis with a grain of salt. But I keep wondering when the series is going to run out of interesting ideas. It has sold well so far because the concept of taking toys and combining them with videos games is cool. But Nintendo’s Pokémon Rumble U, Disney Infinity, and Rovio’s Angry Birds Star Wars are providing plenty of competition.
Those are some serious rivals, and against that, Activision Blizzard has the ultimate gimmick: swapping. This cool notion works because it’s dynamic. You can take the bottom half of one Skylander and mix it with the top half of another. Then, you can set it on the portal that connects to your console. In the game, you get a new creature with the characteristics of the combined being. With that, you can replay levels with new twists or enter areas that you couldn’t access before. Co-op play is as easy as dropping in and dropping out.
You also get a richly detailed, high-definition 3D cartoon world, compared to the standard-definition Skylanders: Giants from last year and Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure from the year before. Your characters can also jump. That’s right. Now they can jump around and get themselves out of nasty cul-de-sacs. The Skylanders can also fly, climb, and teleport to special areas in the environment. The level cap is now 20 for each character. That makes the title more difficult to master.
Players will have more than 100 forward-compatible toys available from the three games — including never-before seen non-swappable characters from the upcoming release. For some, that’s bound to get a little confusing. But the new Swap Force characters have symbols on the bases of their toy counterparts that tell you what type of Swap Force power they have. The marks indicate where you can best use those creatures in the Skylands.
As Portal Master, you will embark on a new adventure in the mysterious Cloudbreak Islands in the sky. They are the home to a mystical volcano that erupts every hundred years to replenish the magic in the Skylands. During an epic battle, the volcano’s eruption hit a group of Skylanders, blasting them apart and giving them the ability to swap halves. The evil leader Kaos has come back with a scheme to “evilize” characters using the power of petrified darkness. The Portal Master must buy as many Swap Force creatures as possible (are you listening parents?) and reassemble them into new forms to save the Skylands. Actually, that’s a joke. You can get through the whole experience with the three heroes in the $75 starter pack.
New characters include the water-focused Freeze Blade, the chicken-like Free Ranger, the stealthy Ninja Skunk, Night Shift, Stink Bomb, and Rattle Shake. I played with Magna Charge, who has some pretty powerful magnetic-tech weapons. In addition to the 16 Swap Force personalities, this new game comes with 16 new regular Skylanders, eight LightCore Skylanders, and 16 returning Skylanders with additional in-game powers and abilities.
I like the humor and the cleverness behind each creature. But the gameplay is very repetitive. It’s easy until you run into a someone you can’t beat. You can swap combatants and halves to beat that enemy. But if you don’t have the right option, you might be out of luck. That’s pretty harsh.
I played with the same Skylander in one level for as long as I could. I switched characters a couple of times for the sake of variety. I could have gone pretty long with Magna Charge, but I smiled when I found different ways to blow away the bad guys.
The Wii U version lets you keep track of stats and view leaderboards on the GamePad tablet. You can also fully play the title on the GamePad in case somebody commandeers the TV. Customizations like that will help Activision get its Skylanders more entrenched in the lives of gamers. Disney and other foes are going to have a hell of a time kicking those creatures from kids’ homes.
The game will debut on the Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, the Wii (built by Beenox), and the 3DS (built by n-Space).
As we’ve noted before, parents, consider this a warning. Your children might go crazy for this stuff.