Skylanders: Swap Force Preview
Boy, did I miss out on the whole Skylanders craze until this point.
Sure, the idea made sense when I heard of it and I'm not surprised at all that the series so far has been hugely successful, because after all, combining a kid-friendly action platform game with actual toys that physically store the player's RPG progress with an embedded chip is a brilliant idea right off the bat. But after two games in the series, it was the perfect time for a new wrinkle in how Skylanders is played, and after our visit to developer Vicarious Visions in Albany, New York, I can see precisely why this long-time developer was chosen to become the creators of the first big change in how Skylanders are used and played - and why they built a whole high-quality game around it.
The new game, Skylanders: Swap Force, carries on the same basic premise: a USB-connected device called the Portal of Power sits near your game console. One or two players can put their toys on it and those characters appear in the game to be played, leveled up, and improved as the players do the things you see in kid-oriented action platform games: you know, fight enemies, collect items, find secrets, and thwart the plans of the evil boss in the big bad fantasy world. All the while, your RPG-like leveling up and skill tree selections are stored on the toy for you to take with you. But this time, the new wrinkle is that some of the Skylanders toys can be split apart at the waist; the tops and bottoms of two entirely different characters can be put together to custom-make a new character to play in-game. So for example, Magna Charge is a robot with a laser gun for an arm and a wheel he rolls on, but you can swap the bottom for Wash Buckler, a walking octopus pirate with a pistol in one hand and a sword in another. The end result is Magna Buckler, a character who has the attitude and firing properties of the robot, but the movement of the walking octopus. What makes this interesting is that you're mixing and matching both element types - something that's already established in Skylanders - along with combining different attack and movement patterns. You see, you press X and Y (on a 360 controller) for your top-half attacks, and B is your dash/movement ability that is borrowed from whatever bottom half you've got loaded up.
Not only does this give kids the chance to mix and match their toys in the real world, but it gives their in-game characters new customization options, too. Throughout my time playing with the 3DS, Xbox 360, and PS4 versions of the game, this worked perfectly, and the cross-platform nature of bringing toys with you to play them together with a friend, even if the friend is on a 360 and you're on PS3, all works perfectly. It's pretty good on 3DS, too, with a little adapter that lets you set up the Portal of Power thing at home to put your toys on, but unlike with the home consoles, you can save your toy collection in the 3DS itself so you don't have to carry the thing around with you on the go. On top of this, Skylanders: Swap Force doesn't actually require that people buy new toys at all, as the game is something like 90-95+% playable, all the way through the end, with any previous-generation toy. You'll miss out on specific Swap Force mini-games and such, but the developers wanted to make sure that the act of buying toys is something players will want to do, not something they have to do.
As the toys go, no, these don't quite have the articulation of GI Joe, Transformers, or Barbie, but they are pretty detailed characters and from my understanding have proven to be pretty sturdy as well. One thing I do like is that the swap-enabled toys magnetically click together satisfyingly, making it easy for kids to do - from what the usability people at Vicarious Visions told me, their tests with kids showed that nearly everyone figured out the swapping on their own or only had to be shown it once to get how it works. All of that is important when you're adding complexity to what is ostensibly a kid's game, so I'm happy to say that this is just as fun to jump into as previous Skylanders games.
I got a chance to play the PS4 version of the game for a little while, and while the 360 version looked pretty solid for what we'll soon be calling "last-gen", the PS4 version just looks so much better. Vicarious Visions are rendering the game at 1080p at a solid 30fps, which is about double the pixels of the 720p rendering seen on 360 and PS3, and there are new and enhanced special effects to add depth and lighting to the environments on the next-gen versions. On PS4, there's also a very smooth motion blur that's used on specific fast-moving character animations (not on the entire scene, as that'd turn it into a big mushy mess) and a higher texture quality used all around - the end result is a look and style that, when compared to what current-gen consoles can deliver, looks much closer to the animation that Pixar and Dreamworks films have been doing for the last few years. While we didn't actually see the game being played on Xbox One, the developers say that what they have running on it is basically identical to what's running on the PS4.
If you've already been invested in the Skylanders franchise with games and toys and portals of power and all that jazz, it's pretty much a no-brainer to jump into Swap Force. Even if you don't buy a single toy, the game's got a ton of new stuff to play through, and yeah, it's actually fun for adults to run through, although I think it's probably one of those games that's at their best when played with a kid at your side in cooperative mode. But the new toys also add a cool and simple new wrinkle to the whole thing, and even for a crusty old PC-oriented gamer like myself, I have to admit that mixing and matching toy parts and dropping them into a game is pretty wonderful.
Skylanders: Swap Force is set for release on PS3, 360, Wii U, Wii, and 3DS on October 13th, and it'll be a launch title on the PS4 (November 15th) and Xbox One (November 22nd). Here's a recently-released trailer for the game that should get you up to speed on more details about what's new in Swap Force: