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Skylanders SWAP Force Allows Mix-And-Match Character Building

Take the top half of this robot and slap it onto these squid legs and come with me. There's work to be done.

Robot man with squid legs. Naturally.
Robot man with squid legs. Naturally.

With Disney getting out there a couple of weeks ago with its toys-that-show-up-in-the-game game, Infinity, I found myself wondering what Activision would be doing next with Skylanders, the franchise that popularized the whole concept. The first game was surprisingly good and the technology was super-impressive, making it something that stood out to me in spite of its kids game status. Giants, the second Skylanders game, felt like more of the same. Nice toy design, but the "Giant" characters made a slow-moving game feel even slower. The magic had worn off... on me, anyway. Apparently the toys are still cleaning up at retail, so I guess the kids that actually drive this end of the business are still feeling it. Last week I got to take a very brief glance at a bit of the third game in the line, Skylanders SWAP Force. And though I figured I was out of the Skylanders game for keeps after Giants, I... might be back on board. Maybe.

OK, so let's start with the toys. There will be 16 of the new "SWAP Force" Skylanders, and the catch is that you can rip them in half. The top half of the toy is held on with magnets, and you can just yank it right off whenever you feel like it. The point? To put that top half onto the base of a different Skylander. So if you want to give your robot guy some squid legs, take the top half of Blast Zone and drop it onto Wash Buckler. Bang, you've got "Blast Buckler," a combined Skylander that gives you the mobility and movement of Wash Buckler and the arm-based attacks of Blast Zone. Your character progress apparently gets saved in both parts of the toy, so your top-half upgrades travel over when you swap the pieces around.

This change brings more mobility options to the game, and much like every Skylander has a Pokemon-like affinity-like Earth, Tech, or Undead--the bottom halves of the SWAP Force characters are classified by their mobility options. So guys with rocket boots can enter flight-specific areas, Wash Buckler can climb things, other Skylanders can burrow, and so on. This mobility type is noted on the front of the toy's base (hence the ladder on Wash Buckler). Also, every Skylander can jump now. That's just an in-game ability for everyone. Hey, it worked for Bionic Commando Rearmed 2, right? Hmm. Never mind.

A magnet dude with squid legs? Sure, why not?
A magnet dude with squid legs? Sure, why not?

In addition to all the existing Skylanders--including the Giants--there will also be 16 new standard Skylanders, eight more of the glowy "LightCore" Skylanders, and 16 reissued "Series 3" Skylanders. The returning characters in new toy poses will yet again get a new power that isn't available with the old toys, which, much like with Giants, feels like it's over the line to me. The game will also require a new portal, presumably to handle the new SWAP Force crew.

It was hard to get a feel for how different the game would play by watching someone demo a super-brief bit of a level, but it was easy to see that the game's getting a substantial graphical facelift this time around. The characters, even the old guys, look significantly better on-screen and the game is coming out of an entirely different engine this time around--one that doesn't look like it started out as tech developed for a Wii-exclusive. Also, the game is coming out of an entirely different studio this year, as development duties for the primary console versions (Wii U, 360, and PS3) have moved to Vicarious Visions. Beenox will handle the Wii version. This leads to the question: What is Toys For Bob working on? It sounds like the character designers at the original studio are at least signing off on the new designs, but that's about it. In my mind, Activision liked what they did with Skylanders so much that they're now working on some other toy/game franchise, like Transformers or... Tony Hawk Techdecks or something weird like that. Best not to speculate, I guess.

That said, a Tony Hawk game that used those rad little fingerboards would be neat to see. Just putting that out there.

When I first sat down and saw a better-looking, faster-moving Skylanders game, it looked OK. Seeing those toys split in two and fit back together, though, feels like an appropriately crazy upgrade for a series that could use the boost. Will that be enough to keep Skylanders in the driver's seat when it hits this fall, months after Disney enters the market with Infinity? I have no idea, but at least it'll be interesting to watch the two companies go back and forth on this potentially huge corner of the market.

Activison's putting out a trailer tomorrow, if you're into that sort of thing. Until then, here is much of this same information in loud video form:

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+