Developer: Vicarious Visions / Publisher: Activision / Release Date: TBD
Following the traditional evolution of the annualized toy franchise, this third year of Skylanders adds a new twist to their expanding creature line-up. If the main appeal of the series has been the dynamic toy swapping and seeing these characters instantly reflected in-game, Activision asks, “What if you only swapped in half a character?”
Skylanders creator Toys For Bob and Activision have entrusted the development of Skylanders: Swap Force to Vicarious Visions. While the studio is better known for mobile and handheld ports of numerous Activision games, it looks very competent in taking charge of Skylanders on consoles. If this fifteen minute demo was any indication, Swap Force will be the best looking Skylanders to date, judging by the real-time cutscenes and the well-rendered in-game textures.
The first new Skylander we got to see in action was the tech elemental Magna Charge, who is adequately equipped with throwing abilities and a rapid fire beam gun. He moves on a single electromagnetic wheel, which gives him immense mobility including bursts of speed. After a few brawls and some exploration, we came across an elemental specific area, one that would greatly benefit a water element Skylander, should you have one. On cue, the Vicarious Visions spokesman had Wash Bucker ready, an ink-shooting pirate squid with a cutlass and a bubble cannon. He can also climb, thanks to his tentacles.
Keeping with the same concise pacing of the last two games, it didn’t take long to come across our first miniboss: a fire elemental Gear Golem. For all of Wash Bucker’s close quarters combat skills, his movement doesn’t compare to Magna Charge’s uniwheel mobility. Having your cake and eating it too is the core of Swap Force, as you can actually take Magna Charge’s bottom half and replace it with Wash Bucker’s tentacles. This swap was immediately reflected in-game, which made this golem fight much more manageable. If we were this impressed seeing this decapitation/reattachment enhancement in action, the younger Skylanders fans are going to have their minds blown.
Beyond the experimental draw of swapping top and bottom halves of various Skylanders, there’s practical value as well, namely with mobility. Mirroring the eight elements that the toy line-up is based on, Swap Force categorizes its roster of interchangables under one of eight traversal types. Along with the aforementioned speed and climbing powers, there’s also bouncing and digging. Some areas of the game will only be accessible through specific traversal types, like using a rocketeer for flying challenges.
The beauty and genius of this franchise is how it keeps the older figures relevant. It’s one thing to see them depicted through Swap Force’s new graphics engine, but it’s another to take advantage of the meaningful improvements with each subsequent Skylanders release. Being able to finally jump in Swap Force might not sound like a big deal, but it is when you could only jump in previous installments with the aid of jump pads.
Another character who peeked our interest was Countdown, a Skylander equipped with rockets on his arms and who can even throw his own head. He’s also a walking timebomb, which is rare; normally you see such characters on the enemy side, such as the classic fireball Bomb from the Final Fantasy series. These Swap Force figures signal a big change for the series, but they do not appear to hamper the imaginations of the original Skylanders’ designers.
As far as the all-important roster count, the new characters Swap Force introduces are a fine compromise of sixteen traditional ‘core’ Skylanders and sixteen with Swap Force abilities. If you do the math, that’s 256 Swap Force combinations. Consumers will be able to try the body swapping right out of the box, as the game will come with two swappable characters and one core figure. While Activision hasn’t nailed down an exact release date, it has Skylanders: Swap Force scheduled for the 2013 holidays on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and WiiU.