If you’re a kid, the arrival of a new Skylanders game is like Christmas come early – it’s a game and a toy line in one, and thanks to Activision’s drip-feed release strategy when it comes to the latter, it’s potentially the gift that keeps on giving.
Meanwhile, if you’re a parent, the arrival of a new Skylanders game is a moment for reflection. A moment that gives rise to two questions:
1) Is it time to remortgage the house?
2) Why didn’t they have anything this good when I was a kid?
Committing fully to Skylanders is an expensive proposition. And yet it’s hard to say you don’t get your money’s worth. The toys are well made, and multi-functional: buy a Skylander and you’re not just paying for a figure, but access to a free browser-based universe, a couple of iOS spin-offs, and potentially a good deal more content in the game itself – and there’s a fair bit of that already. After 22 hours I’d finished Swap Force with a completion stat of 47%. That evidently doesn’t take into account the myriad bonus missions, nor the stars needed to increase your portal master rank. When I stopped to write my review my rank was 12. It goes up to 80. There’s a heck of a lot of game here.
What’s more, it’s put together with a level of care and polish that you just don’t see in other games for a younger market. It’s evident that Activision knew it was onto a good thing from the start – you don’t hire Hans Zimmer to write your theme tune if you’re not confident of a hit – but it’s admirable that the publisher has given its teams the budget to compete with the very best console games. This is a good-looking game with excellent graphics, a superb orchestral score and – praise be! – a camera that functions perfectly, without needing a right stick chaperone.
Of course, Activision is competing against Disney Infinity this year – not to mention the Telepod technology Rovio is using for Angry Birds Star Wars II and its forthcoming kart racer Angry Birds Go! I’ve not seen much of a marketing push for Swap Force so far (though as a family we watch a lot less kids’ TV than we used to, so it’s possible I’ve missed it) yet when I queued up in Toys R Us the other day just about every other trolley passing through was holding a Swap Force item or two.
It helps that this year’s gimmick is a good one. A checklist within one of the menus tells you which combinations you’ve tried, and you’ll see a lot of empty spaces for those you haven’t – which only gives younger players more ammunition to pester their parents with. But while it’s easy to be cynical that these are merely overpriced unlock keys, you’re getting something more valuable than extra content. Because here you can truly personalise your figure – give it a name, choose its upgrade path, and use it with any version of the game – and the swappable top and bottom halves take that a step further.
Compare it with Disney Infinity, which admittedly has fewer figures and sets to collect but asks you to pay for upgrade tokens, and Skylanders is a much better value proposition. You can finish the game without needing to spend more than the Starter Pack. To access every (optional) Swap Zone challenge in the game, you’ll need no more than six additional figures, and while the dual elemental gates seem to require a top half of one kind and the bottom half of another, you can pass through them in two player mode with two different elemental figures. It doesn’t differentiate between old and new, either: if you’ve got figures from the original or from Skylanders Giants, they’re good enough to bypass these obstacles. There’s extra incentive to use older figures, too: the level cap has been increased to 20, so you can continue to improve your favourite Skylander’s stats.
Alongside the Swap Force characters are a range of ‘standard’ newcomers, and Vicarious Visions has evidently taken great care to differentiate them more. Bumble Blast is an early favourite, with his ability to spit gobs of honey on enemies and then fire a swarm of bees at them. Grim Creeper’s Spook and Destroy attack, meanwhile, is almost like a fantastical take on Splinter Cell’s mark-and-execute system: in ghost form you can tag enemies that the living armour you leave behind will subsequently attack.
It’s a very inclusive game, too – as a general rule the characters are fairly universal in terms of their design, but it’s nice to see a game where female characters are as prominent as the males. The story is throwaway but good fun, told through impressively rendered cutscenes that don’t overstay their duration (and are entirely skippable if you’d rather get straight to the action). And while the levels give you objectives to head towards, it doesn’t hold your hand too tightly, allowing you to wander off the beaten track to locate collectables.
Indeed, it rewards the curious player better than most games: you’ll find treasure chests whose contents will pay for power-ups, winged jewels that give you a permanent discount on upgrades, and hats that give you stat buffs. You’ll earn stars for meeting certain objectives, and finishing a level with all items, which in turn increases your portal master rank. This unlocks additional content – bonus missions, extra items in the store – and allows you to place more legendary treasures on plinths around the leafy hub world, which convey permanent bonuses. There’s even a different kind of boost depending on which day you play: on Sunday it’s bonus experience, on Monday it’s extra speed. It’s a game that consistently gives you a reason to play.
And yet it’s so comprehensive that you wonder where Activision can take the series from here without things growing stale. While it’s a step forward for Skylanders, it’s definitely more evolution than revolution, and there are already signs of balancing issues. Sure, this isn’t a game where challenge is a crucial component, but using a Giant character is to pretty much play the game with a win button held down.
A far greater risk is that the fad for toy-based games might die out. With Disney Infinity seemingly in it for the long haul, there’s the same risk that the market could become oversaturated as with music games. Guitar Hero’s popularity dwindled massively after the third year: could the same happen with Skylanders? Perhaps in avoiding themed packs and multiple releases per annum it’s a trend that could continue for a good few years yet. Yet if the next edition of Skylanders may prove a make or break moment for the series’ long-term success, this year it’s given us an outstanding video game.