Skylanders: Swap Force Xbox 360 Review

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It’s crazy to think that a new series from Activision, which was using the Spyro name as a way to bump interest in the game, has become so huge in so little time, to the point it’s eclipsed everything else in UK video game sales apart from Call of Duty and FIFA. The Spyro name seems a thing of the past now that Skylanders has become its own giant, raking in millions of pounds for Activision. Now in its third year, the Skylanders franchise is ready to make kids go crazy all over again with a new game that comes with a fresh idea that requires a different starter kit to obtain the new portal stone, and plenty of new toys to buy and play in the world of Skylanders: Swap Force. With Disney jumping in on the video game toy interaction with Disney Infinity, can Skylanders fend off the new kid on the block by making the series better with this latest release?

Swap Force brings you, the portal master, and your collection of Skylanders to the world of Woodburrow, a place that is under threat from an evil little man known as Kaos. Returning pilot, Flynn, is here to help, along with newcomer Tessa, a fox-girl who moves the Skylanders around on Whiskers, a huge bird that acts as a transport to the game’s stages. One thing that I was shocked to find is that I was enjoying the game’s story. It’s nothing remarkable in regards to the plot it tells, but it reminded me of myself when I was a kid and enjoying the cartoons on TV. The story can be enjoyed by anyone thanks to great voice work, fantastic CG animation and the chemistry of the characters. The game might be targeting kids, but the dialogue and animation means that anyone can enjoy it and join in with laughter at the antics on screen without feeling that Swap Force is too childish for them. It’s a similar feeling from experiencing a Disney or Pixar film.

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Vicarious Visions (Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2) has taken over the reins from Toys for Bob for this third instalment. A different development team means numerous new ideas for the franchise.  The biggest addition, which is probably obvious with the name “Swap Force,” is the inclusion of a new Skylander type called Swap. These new toys allow the player to detach a model in half and apply another half from any of the other swap models to combine them into a new creation. The game is happy to tell you that if you own all 16 swap toys, then the total combination is 256, which a tick chart is used to let you know which combinations you have discovered. The starter pack comes with three Skylanders, two swap models – Wash Bucker, the pirate octopus with a tentacle for a moustache, and Blast Zone, a metal knight that is powered by fire – and a normal Skylander, the little guy called Ninja Stealth Elf.

This doesn’t mean your old Skylander toys suddenly become irrelevant; you can still use them in Swap Force, but, to get the most out of the game, you will certainly want to make use of the Swap type. This is because each half of the toy is, in essence, its own property. When you generally level up a Skylander, they only have one skill tree and must follow specific skill paths. With the Swap toys, both the top and bottom sections have their own skill trees, meaning that you can combine your favourite aspects from two models and blend them into one. Using the starter models as examples, you can blend the fire boosting legs of Blast Zone with the pirate sword skills of Wash Bucker to get a hovering fire-legged octopus. There is something about messing with swapping Skylander parts that makes it more entertaining than it should be.

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New Skylanders aren’t the only fresh inclusion for the series, as a core mechanic, jumping, has finally been implemented into the gameplay. In previous titles, you were locked to the ground unless a jump pad was implemented to allow you to get up to places. In Swap Force, the addition of the jump allows for much better level design, giving levels a sense of depth that was missing in previous titles. It also allows the developers to create better hidden secrets, by making the player explore areas of the game that would be out of reach in the previous titles. An early example is the hidden Soul Gem in the main hub world of Woodburrow. This gem sits on top of a tree, but the only way to get to it is by jumping up on the leaves that hang on the outside of the trunk.

The core action of the game remains the same – this is a baby version of Diablo or Torchlight that sets the player on a straight-forward path to hack up enemies with the Skylander’s attacks, gain cash to upgrade and gain experience to level up. Each toy eventually gains three attacks, which can be modified by unlocking buffs that alter how an attack will work. Ninja Stealth Elf, for example, unlocks a move that allows him to follow up his x attack combo by holding down either Y to create a whirlwind attack or B to spew out poisonous gas. It’s still possible to finish the game by using the very basic of attacks when playing on normal difficulty, but the option is there to deal more damage with these skills.

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While the game is fairly linear with its environmental design, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of side paths to explore. In fact, the world of Swap Force is littered with hundreds of areas to discover that branch off the main route. These are often hidden behind a wall that requires a specific Skylander type or ability. This is where your existing Skylanders come in useful, as unlocking walls blocked with various types, such as magic, undead or air, won’t be available with the starter set. The game also takes this to the next step by having gates sealed with two elements, which either means you have to be playing cooperative where each Skylander is one of two required elements, or combine two elements into one toy using the swap feature. These sealed areas often hold a few jumping platforms or a task that leads to gaining rare treasure or money. They aren’t a requirement to beat the game, unless you’re going for a 100% completion, then you will have to cough up some money or borrow a friend’s toy.

This is also the same for the new mini-games that are only accessible to Swap Skylanders. This is due to every Swap toy’s bottom half representing a mini-game symbol, such as the ladders on Wash Bucker or the rocket on Blast Zone, which allows access to the flying ring challenges and the wall climbing challenges. There are others, but since I only had access to those with the starter kit, I can only describe those two. Both are simple mini-games that add to the variety of gameplay that is jammed in Swap Force. Mix this with the standard level design, like grinding on rails in the wild west stage, akin to Sonic Adventure 2, doing ilomilo-esque electric puzzles to unlock a door, or riding on a raft and floating down a river, dodging obstacles that come at the raft, in the jungle area, make Swap Force a constantly changing game that should keep most people interested in it till the end of the story.

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Even when you’re done with the decent length of the campaign, there is still score attack, time attack, an incredible amount of secrets, bonus missions to complete, and numerous side-quests such as the challenge arenas to complete. This is a game that keeps on giving fun even after the credits roll. All missions, on completion, add points to your portal level, which allows you to use special modifiers found in the game’s levels that will buff the active Skylander. The more you have, the stronger you get, which is perfect for beating the game on the hardest difficulty that unlocks once you have finished the game. Of course, you’re going to have to spend money on the toys to gain access to everything, but at least there is plenty of content to jump into that doesn’t make buying new toys feel like objects you have to purchase to unlock a tiny area of the game.

Skylanders: Swap Force is a game packed with a variety of content for people of all ages. Kids will obviously find lots to enjoy with all the improvements to the gameplay, polished cinematics and fantastic voice acting that make this the biggest and best entry in the franchise to date. If parents are looking for something friendly for their kids, or a game where  adults can join in the fun with their sons and daughters, then know that Skylanders: Swap Force is a game that might perfectly meet the crazy shapes our modern families take.

8/10

by

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Version tested: Xbox 360

Also available on: PS3, Wii, Wii U, 3DS, PS4, Xbox One

Developer: Vicarious Visions

Publisher: Activision

Genre: Platform