Skylanders: Swap Force

[Hands-On] We Were Handed The Controller For Skylanders: Swap Force

And then we went and made a mess of things.
Author: Aram Lecis
Published: August 22, 2013
If you've been around grade school kids in the last couple of years, chances are you've heard of Skylanders by now. As a parent of two such children, I've had to get deep into both Skylanders and the sequel Skylanders: Giants so I know just how terrible Kaos can be. Since I've got that intimate familiarity with the series and I'm hip to what the kids are grooving on these days I was glad when I was invited to a hands-on media event for the newest entry, Skylanders: Swap Force.

As we gathered in a small hotel suite early in the morning (just a few floors up from my own room!) mere hours before our flights back home from the Call of Duty: Ghosts reveal there was a tension in the air that you get when people are worried about missing planes. That tension quickly eased as we saw the lush landscapes of Skylands and the smiling faces of a pair of Vicarious Visions employees.

While we had seen a demonstration of the game at E3 we hadn't gotten the chance to really ask questions or of course get a chance to play the game. After a brief recap on some of the new Skylander abilities, we all took a crack at playing the game.

Scariest and most adorable concept art

With each successive generation the games have added a new mechanic that calls for new Skylanders. First it was Giants, leading to new larger Skylanders and a rather uninspiring addition of big things that could only be smashed by Giants to the game. Mostly they just served as a point of frustration if you lost your only Giant early in a level then came across a chest or area you couldn't access later unless you completely restarted the level. They did absorb more punishment at least.

This time around the change is more profound. Sixteen new "Swap Force" characters will now separate into a top and bottom half that each have a unique set of powers. Those halves can be interchanged with any other Swap Force character to form all new units. 16 tops and 16 bottoms means 256 possible combinations! Assuming you buy all 16 characters, of course. There will also be at least 16 new non-swap characters just in case you were worried.

A gorilla with a drill. Crazy.

They new gameplay innovations these bring along are also deeper than last year. While it is a bit of a simplification to say that the lower half of each Swap Force unit is the basis for locomotion, that is their primary function while the main attack is usually associated with the upper half. Thus Grilla Drilla may be able to drill holes (ok that isn't exactly locomotion), Boom Jet flies around on a little jet engine, Wash Buckler scuttles around on tentacles... you get the idea. Throughout the levels you'll comes across certain locked zones that will only be accessible to Sklyanders with a certain type of movement. You might need to be a flier, a climber, a digger or any of the other base types. Swap to the correct character and you'll gain access to a challenge that's definitely more challenging than the main game. The one we played was a little like a pinball machine, and we also saw a sort of lane-changing grab the coins race sort of event.

The core game remains largely the same from what we saw, with one significant change in that all Skylanders can now jump. That was a pet peeve of my daughter in the earlier games. Rest assured, all Skylanders from past games still work in Swap Force, and not only have they all learned to jump but they can also level up to level 20 now. A new portal is required, and therefore the only version of the game this time around will be the full Starter Set with 2 Swap Force characters, one new standard character, the new (slimmer!) portal and a copy of the game.

It's easy to be a bit jaded with this series since there it's undeniably a vehicle to push merchandise, but spending time with the people who worked on the game and you can tell that they aren't looking at it that way at all. You can also tell just by looking at the game. Considering the mismatched bodies of things like eagles and octopodes or a skunk and a jet engine it's amazing how seamless the animations are no matter what two combinations you come up with. It would have been easy to skimp and just accept some stuff that looked out of place but instead I really do think it looks fine for a gorilla head to be attached to a snakes tail.

Look at that incredible balance!

That same level of detail carries over to the unique powers that each Skylander has. While many of the attacks may amount to the same end result, each one in carried out in an often hilarious fashion that matches that units theme. Throwing out attack frogs, hiding in stink clouds, launching environmental objects, the lists is really diverse and every attack has complex animations. If this product is designed to be a shill at least it's a well-crafted shill.

Heck, even the naming conventions are well thought out. While I've always gotten a kick out of the puns and wordplay in the names of the Skylanders and enemies, the new Swap Force Character also swap names and you can tell they put in effort to make stuff that can still sound reasonable after a swap. Who doesn't want to combine a Stink Bomb And Boom Jet to get a Stink Jet and Boom Bomb? Or a Free Ranger and a Zoo Lou and a Slobber Tooth to make a Free Tooth, Slobber Lou and Zoo Ranger? And then all these characters also play differently? It really is quite a feat.

Of course Swap Force's new visuals are helped along by being on next-generation hardware. The version we played was running on a PS4 and should be available at launch on that platform. It's also coming on the PS3 about a month earlier so you don't have to wait. I asked about a disc-only version for PS4 to make it cheaper for folks who upgrade systems in November to upgrade the game, but it looks like that won't be happening.

Our time with Swap Force left us feeling really good about the commitment to the franchise. With Disney Infinity setting up shop and horning in on what had been a monopoly Activision can't afford to rest on their laurels. Right now it looks like they are committed to continuing to evolve the franchise.

I had a nightmare about this guy

In case you were wondering, we "made a mess of things" when I spilled a bit of orange juice all over the carpet in my earnestness to get at the controller and take my turn. Poor Lou from Vicarious had to clean it up, much to my eternal shame. I owe you one Lou!