The first time I played Skylanders at E3 I knew Activision had something special on their hands. Combining physical collectible toys and a video game has been done before, but not to the level where those toys are actually placed in and become part of the game. Once the game was released I jumped on the Skylander train, and while I found the game entertaining, it didn't hold my interest like it did for some. I skipped the next game, despite the solid reviews we gave Skylanders Giants. Now with my four year old daughter by my side, and a Disney Infinity review under my belt, I felt it was time to see what Activision had up it's sleeve this year with Skylanders Swap Force. Boy... I'm glad I did.
While the last Skylanders game saw two new types of characters with Giants and Lightcore figures, the new game has its own single addition. Swap Force figures split in half, held together by two magnets, creating the ability to swap top and bottoms to create new characters. There are 16 characters in the series meaning there are 256 possible combinations to create. The game will track which ones of you've actually used giving you another aspect of collection to complete to supplement your physical one. Both the tops and bottoms are upgradable in game with new abilities to purchase for each half, and just like all the other figures, those upgrades stick with the physical figure across platforms and games.
One impressive thing about Skylanders Swap Force is its the first game in the series that was clearly built for next-gen platforms. While the previous games looked decent, they didn't seem to push the boundaries. Swap Force looks great on the Xbox 360 with colorful, detailed textures and large expansive environments. When the Xbox One and PS4 version of these games launch the visuals should be even more impressive and it's something I'm looking forward to. But perhaps the biggest addition to the game is a new ability; new to Skylanders is the ability to jump, which means platforming elements play a big role in gameplay.
The core gameplay and levels in Swap Force are solid. Really, really solid. The game reminds me of a Ratchet and Clank title with the combined platforming and loot collecting. The R&C games have you collecting thousands of little gears while Skylanders have you collecting thousands of little pieces of gold treasure. Ratchet and Clank's recent adventures featured on rails sections, and Swap Force features similar with players sliding along tree trunks or railroad tracks. But these speedier areas aren't the only way the game keeps itself from being a straight platformer and brawler. Certain zones play like an arcade shoot-em-up, provided you have a Skylander with the climb ability. This ability comes from one of the Swap Force bases new powers, indicated by a little emblem on it. You'll also find flying, jumping, digging and other areas that can only be accessed if you have that powered character. While this sounds like you're missing out on content, these sections are merely challenges and bonuses to gain extra gold - you won't miss out on story.
While the previous games always gated you off from an area by the Skylander's base element or had an area that was stronger to a certain element, Swap Force encourages you to switch your character's tops and bottoms by having areas require two elements to get through. The slick thing is, in co-op you can still get through these gates even if you don't have Swap Force characters with them simply by having two characters each with one required element. I was impressed to see that my series one Skylanders popped right into the game with their levels and customizations in tact just by placing them on the new portal which is required for this game. I had almost forgotten my Spyro had a giant pot on his head. Yay for silly hats.
Swap Force is really a game made for co-op play, especially since the game and levels are designed around a lot of the duality of elements thanks to the swap characters. With two players it's easier to have the bonuses from this without necessarily having the physical Swap Force characters required. Of course swapping pieces between a few characters you can traverse a level with four elemental powers, meaning you'll be getting up off the couch less to swap in a new Skylander.
There are a lot of little touches I liked in co-op too - shared gold and experience, a subtle "tether" to show where your partner is and which direction they are headed. I never felt cramped by the fixed camera either, and while my co-op partner and I couldn't go off on our own, the screen area it kept us in was ample in size. I really think the fixed camera makes a huge difference for younger gamers; my four year old daughter had some trouble grasping the character movement in Disney Infinity which employs a free camera, but she had no problems in Swap Force.
Skylanders Swap Force is just as flexible as the previous games too, you can simply take characters on and off the portal to drop in and out of co-op games at a whim. Player 1 or Player 2 can take full control at anytime and all the collectibles and progress gets either saved to the character or the save slot the game was played in.
I found the story entertaining, and the fully voiced cut scenes featured plenty of humor from Patrick Wharburton (Flynn) to keep fans of his work happy while kids chuckling. You'll be on a quest to stop Chaos from "Evilizing" the creatures of Skylanders by saving four giant elemental creatures who want to jump in a volcano. The boss battles that revolve around them utilize some light puzzle solving and plenty of platforming keeping things challenging for adults while easy enough for kids to figure out.
If there's a "downside" to Skylanders Swap Force it's that you've got 16 new figures to collect at $14 a pop...which comes out to over $200. Luckily I never felt as though I was missing out on anything in the game by not having a certain figure and in fact, the sheer amount of content and things to collect in the game and unlock is staggering. After 10 hours of play I was only 20% complete with unlocking everything. On top of the campaign there are arenas and bonus missions you can unlock which reward you in yet further unlocks. The carrot and stick are strong with Swap Force.
Overall this is the best Skylanders game to date and on top of that, it's simply a fun game to play. There's an inherent addictive element to so many aspects of Skylanders Swap Force that it's almost criminal. I'm not even sure what happened, but after only a few hours of playing a box from Amazon showed up a day later filled with half a dozen new figures. At least the investment in the figures aren't stuck with one game, and if the future games improve like Swap Force has, I'll be continuing my addiction - even if it's just the jump to next-gen.