Skylanders has come a long way from its origins as a bizarre Spyro spin-off. The game that integrated real-world collectibles and busted many a parent's wallet has spun its way into a full-blown money-making powerhouse for Activision. Even as Disney approaches a similar concept built around much more recognizable characters, a look at Skylanders Swap Force shows why the House of Mouse has a real fight on its white-gloved hands.
Like Giants, this version of Skylanders has a new gimmick to keep veterans engaged. Notably unlike Giants, this gimmick is much more fun than the addition of slow, lumbering characters. The Giants trudged through the environments so slowly that they were better avoided. The Swap Force characters, by comparison, feel like a new twist that appropriately leverage the real-world aspect of the toy-game hybrid.
In a brief hands-on with Swap Force, I experimented with different combinations. I familiarized myself with Hoot Loop, an owl Skylander of the Magic type, before removing his legs and attaching another random nearby toy. This created Hoot Zone, an amusing accidental pun created from the legs of the fire-type Blast Zone. Then I replaced the Hoot portion with one from Freeze Blade, making the ice-fire type Freeze Zone.
This mechanic effectively creates a wide variety of customization options. The demo wasn't long enough to form a strong affinity for one type of attack or movement, but once those preferences are set, players won't have to choose between the two.
Movement is split into several categories, and like the elemental gates, certain areas are roped off to certain movement types. During a hands-off demonstration, we were shown the climbing tentacles of Wash Buckler used in a mini-game to climb a wall for bonus rewards. Elemental gates return too, but are sometimes split between two types for you to either use a combined Swap Force Skylander, or the combined forces of a co-op partner of the correct type. The example we saw, a Magic-Fire hybrid, looked nicely designed as a combination of the two concepts, lending more to the idea of other such combos.
These additions come alongside a few long-overdue improvements. The ability to jump seems obvious in retrospect, but playing with it puts the stifling lack of it in previous games into stark contrast. This Skylanders is also significantly better-looking, with added detail and texture that creates a more vibrant world that still fits wholly into the Skylanders style.
Like Giants, Swap Force will be compatible with existing Skylanders toys, who will have their level caps raised to 20. Even more sinister for the truly obsessive Portal Masters, the upper and lower body parts are upgradeable separately. This means you can pour your currency into one or the other if you mean it towards another combination. If you're the sort to max out everything you can in level-building games, your task has effectively been doubled.
Between the various combinations of body types, elementals, level tree upgrades, and hidden areas, Swap Force seems designed to devour your time. Maybe that's the point. If you're busy upgrading your myriad Skylanders, testing different combinations, and plumbing the depths of each stage, you might forget all about the challenger from Disney.