In preparation for the time when me and my boy will be playing video games together, I've already marked the Lego games as certainties, and the other series on my radar is Activision's Skylanders. Friends with children a little older than mine are already well versed in the series, with collectable figures already piling high in their respective houses. It looks like a money sink, there's no doubt about it, but when there's the opportunity for co-op play with my boy, I think that this might be worth the investment.
For the uninitiated, those who've seen the collectibles stacked on shelves at your local specialist retailer but have never really considered how it all works, the concept is a simple one: figurines are placed on a portal and immediately appear in the accompanying game. If you're a wide-eyed child, it's nothing short of magic. The proof being the unbelievable popularity of the franchise that's now attracting competition from powerhouse opposition like Disney and Pokemon.
Skylanders, whether you care or not, has single-handedly kept specialist retail ticking over during the final years of the console cycle. Why else do you think they dominate shelf space in so many stores? They sell in huge numbers, hence why Disney and co are aiming to get into this lucrative sub-market. The base games are ever-present in the multi-format charts, and these don't even take into account the sales made at toy stores.
Skylanders Swap Force follows in the footsteps of Spyro's Adventure and Giants, being the third entry in the series. Where Swap Force differs from the previous games is in the figures that'll be launched later in the year. There's 16 all told, but each one can be split in half and reassembled with any other character's opposite half. The 16 characters suddenly become 256, and subsequently the variety in gameplay increases as a result.
The base game itself is very polished. It's full of vibrant colours and interesting characters. Just as visually stimulating as something as polished as Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, but as accessible and instantly playable as the Lego games. Controls are intuitive, and for the first time in the series characters can now jump, rather than being rooted to the ground. This opens up several gameplay opportunities, and brings the series in-line with what an older generation of gamers have come to expect.
We were able to sample two of the levels that are set to feature in the game, and both were distinct and instantly appealing. There's plenty to admire, which makes playing with the kids more appealing than just letting them get on with it in their own time (which they'll do, incessantly). Players control their character, whose name changes depending on which two Skylanders have been mashed together, and take out a variety of colourful enemies with both melee and ranged attacks, releasing them from the monster-like form and turning them back into cute little critters (much like a certain blue hedgehog has been known to do).
The different characters all have different abilities. Some have ranged attacks and fire projectiles, some can spin like a little tornado. What makes Swap Force really interesting is the potential to interchange the various character's skills, combing them for specific effects. If you like two different skill-sets you can combine them and create a new character that embodies both abilities.
There's certain areas and mini-games that can only be unlocked with certain types of characters, and whilst that initially feels like the game's incomplete, when viewed from a DLC perspective, it becomes less irksome. The base game will be playable in its entirety, and as your child's collection of figurines increases, they'll be able to enjoy more content.
The figures themselves are really well made. They feel solid and durable, and are nicely detailed. It's clear from the short demonstration we receive that a lot of effort has gone into making them. The quality of their build has no doubt helped ensure the series' success, and in this respect we can't see Swap Force dropping the pace. Both halves of the figures slot together easily, and they've been designed in a way that each combination looks decent.
At the end of the day, Skylanders: Swap Force looks set to continue the success of the series. The customisable figurines are more than just a gimmick, they genuinely feel like they'll create more choice and be more exciting to play with. Parents will need to start putting some money away in preparation for the game's release in October, because Skylanders doesn't look like it's going away any time soon.