Over the past year Skylanders has almost become a household name. The 2011 hit, Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure, seemed to whip everyone up into a frenzy as hordes of fans rummaged through their local Toys “R” Us and Walmart stores only to find themselves unable to secure that one last Skylander figurine they had been eyeing up for weeks. You could not find the toy figures anywhere before Christmas as the demand was through the roof. It was the highest selling console game for a period of time earlier this year, and let’s just say “Skylanders” remains one of COG’s most popular search items. A few weeks ago I had a chance to check out the developer Toys for Bob’s studio located in Novato, California where I managed to get some hands-on time with the next installment in the Skylanders franchise, Skylanders Giants. At the time I was impressed with the new and incredibly detailed Giants and Series 2 figurines. As for the game itself, Skylanders Giants showed a great deal of promise. Over the past few days I have had a chance to really put it through its paces as we received the final retail version of the game, and after some extended playtime I think it’s safe to say Activision has yet another massive blockbuster on their hands.
This year Activision sent COG the Skylanders Giants Starter Pack for the Xbox 360, which includes three new Skylanders including Jet-Vac, Cynder (Version 2) and a Tree Rex, a new Skylander Giant. Also included in the starter pack are a ‘Portal of Power’, trading cards, a poster, and the game. After I unpacked everything I put the disc into the Xbox 360 and started to play. It was clear that Toys for Bob really didn’t want to re-invent the wheel. There is no question Skylanders Giants is not a drastic departure from the 2011 game. Once you power up your ‘Portal of Power’ and slap down your Skylander toy on it the experience still feels very much the same. Yet this is not a bad thing as Skylanders Giants is every bit as enjoyable this time around as the original Skylanders game was. In fact, I found lumbering around with the new giant Skylander highly enjoyable and satisfying. Plopping down Tree Rex on the portal and having him appear on screen is a magical experience. The new animations and introductory greeting when your character appears on screen is also a pleasant little addition this time around. Sure the core gameplay remains the same but there is easily enough new in Skylanders Giants to completely justify the purchase.
Easily one of the best-selling features to Skylanders Giants is the fact you can use your existing Skylanders portal and characters from Spyro’s Adventure with Skylanders Giants. Yes, fortunately this little nugget of information will come as a welcome relief to those who have already shelled out big bucks towards the original game. Being able to play Skylanders Giants with your previously leveled up Skylanders figures is a feature that I absolutely love. In fact, the developers have given you incentive to play with those “old” characters as all the original Skylanders have been given a level cap increase and now top out out at level 15. The only downside is the new figures do not work on last year’s game, but feel free to use your existing collection on Skylander Giants without hesitation.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should tell you a little bit about the story in Skylander Giants which is a direct sequel to last year’s game. At the end of Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure Kaos was banished, frozen, and launched towards earth. Well not too long after this Kaos becomes unfrozen, manages to hop onto a portal and embarks on a journey back to Skylands. This time however Kaos is not alone as he has taken over a mysterious ancient species that has been in solitude for over ten thousand years. Soon after the Skylanders are summoned, including the Giants who have been banished for many, many years. As a Portal Master, your job is to harness the power of the Giants, and the rest of the Skylanders clan, in order to take down Kaos one more time.
Sure there is a little more to it than that but you get the idea. Regardless the story is merely filler to an otherwise highly entertaining experience. Lets face it; you are not buying the game for its riveting storyline, although having on at all is a plus. It is merely backdrop for the toys and the gameplay. As I mentioned, the gameplay feels very similar yet seems a little deeper this time around. Skylanders Giants campaign features 16-chapters as opposed to the 20 chapters from last year. This may seem like a disappointment to many; however, the levels are much larger in Skylander Giants. Completing each level and exploring all the ins and outs of each chapter can take anywhere from 45 minutes to well over an hour. Sure you can rush through the chapters, demolishing everything in sight while completely disregarding all the collectible aspects of the game but you would sadly be missing out. Within each level you can collect treasures, charms, soul gems, winged sapphires, legendary treasures, luck o’ tron wheels, keys, health, coins, Skystones, hats, etc. It is an impressive list of collectibles indeed and only serves to enhance the gameplay experience.
I have yet to mention any of the mini games in Skylanders Giants which also helps to mix things up a bit and infuses some variety into a game that can become repetitive at times. In terms of the mini games there is ‘Skystones’ which is a simple strategy game involving virtual Skylander cards. The lock puzzle game returns this year as well, and of course there is a glut of other puzzle solving sequences to challenge your skills.
Much like in the original game you spend the bulk of your time taking down cranky looking enemies, collecting, smashing things, solving puzzles, moving large objects, interacting with characters and doing whatever it takes to make it to the end of the chapter. There are sequences where you control a massive robot across a dam and other sequences where you will be firing watermelons towards an enemy. Controlling the robot and shooting said watermelons are not as smooth as they could be but kudos to the development team for attempting to mix things up a bit. Of course leveling up your character remains a massive draw to the game, and this time all your characters can level up to level 15 (up from 10). Of course there are also a slew of unlockables and upgrades for each character to find.
In Skylanders Giants you can play solo or alongside a friend in the comfort of your home. On the downside there are no online capabilities or plans for any DLC. Having no online play is somewhat understandable as Toys for Bob is very mindful of its target audience and not comfortable with the idea of younger children playing online with strangers on Xbox LIVE. In regards to any DLC, or new levels, in Spyro’s Adventure you could add new levels to the game by purchasing Adventure Packs, and I would assume there will be Adventure packs for Skylanders Giants but we will have to confirm this. Battle Mode also makes a return the year for players to battle it out for Skylander supremacy. It is still fun to pit Skylander against Skylander with a friend to change things up from the single player campaign.
So up to this point I have yet to talk about the new Giants themselves. Yes the biggest addition is the inclusion of giant sized Skylanders. The toys and their virtual counterparts are nearly double the size of regular Skylanders. There are eight Giants in total; however, not all eight will be available at launch, which is somewhat unfortunate. The feeling of lumbering around the levels demolishing absolutely everything in sight is satisfying. I almost found it to be a disappointment to play with regular Skylanders as playing with the giants is just so much damn fun. Despite being twice the size of regular Skylanders two Giants fit on the portal at the same time. This makes for some enjoyable 2-player co-op experiences with two larger than life Skylanders. The Giants can take a fair amount of damage but are by no means indestructible. There were quite a few times my character would die and I would subsequently have to replace my character on the portal. That said, I certainly enjoyed moving about the chapters with my mini Godzilla-like Skylander.
In addition to the eight new Skylander Giants, which just happens to represent one for each of the eight elements, there are 12 brand new regular sized Skylanders (including lightcore type) and 28 original Skylanders that are in new poses or are lightcore version. I have to say I am a little disappointed to see so many “old” Skylanders return. I would have preferred a larger number of brand new characters. There is just not that same level of excitement when opening a new-posed original Skylander compared to a brand new Skylander. Fans and collectors will still want them all but I still found it to be a bit of a letdown. On a more positive note, the new Skylanders (including the new-posed ones) have new powers, and as I mentioned can level up to level 15. What is really cool is how the Skylander Giants and regular sized Lightcore Skylanders light up. Yes that’s right, the Skylanders Giants figurines, as well as the Lightcore Skylanders, can actually light up when placed on the portal. This is very cool feature and compliments the already wonderfully detailed Skylander toy figures.
Much like the previous Skylanders game, you are encouraged to use different Skylanders in different situations. Solving some of the in-game puzzles can be tackled one way with the giants or tackled another way with the regular sized Skylanders. The giants hold certain advantages as they can perform ‘Feats of Strength’ whereby they pull giant chains and haul an island into land. They can also lift giant boulders and can smash through areas regular Skylanders cannot. But the beauty of Skylanders Giants is you can truly play the game how you like and with whatever character you feel like. Whether you want to mash away with the new giant Tree Rex or slice and dice you way through levels with Stealth Elf, Skylanders Giants will offer up a great deal of variety in terms of how you can beat the 16-chapters, and of course take on those nasty boss fights. Skylanders Giants features some epic and entertaining boss fights to say the least.
One of the few gripes regarding the previous Skylanders game was the lack of difficulty levels. Many mature gamers found the game too much of a breeze. With Skylanders Giants there are now three difficulty levels. There is an easy level, a normal level and a nightmare level for the hardcore fans who want a serious challenge. So now there is a level of challenge for all ages and all levels of gamers.
One of the least talked about features, but something that makes Skylanders a one of a kind experience, is the cross platform ability of the characters. For instance, while playing the Xbox 360 version I managed to level up my Tree Rex to level 7 and found a funny looking hat for him. After I equipped the hat, I immediately pulled my character off the Xbox 360 Portal and placed my character on Editor in Chief Kirby Y’s Portal for the Nintendo Wii. Just like magic, my character showed up in the Wii game as a level 7 character and there he was equipped with the silly hat. The technology is remarkable as each figurine stores its own stats, equipment, and other assortments. These stats then carry over as you take the figurine over to a friend’s and put it on their Portal for some cooperative fun.
As far as the visuals are concerned, Skylanders Giants delivers and is a step up from last year’s game. Everything seems much sharper and much more polished. The game is colourful and vibrant. The attacks look smoother and none of the animations seemed awkward or out of place. Even the game’s cutscenes have a high presentation value and simply look fantastic. Even some of the little things have improved. For instance, the detail shown in the giant’s footstep marks as they walk across the levels was pretty cool. Needless to say, Skylanders Giants is a great looking game and the development team have clearly upped the ante in the visuals department.
Much like the game’s visuals, I was equally impressed with the game’s overall sound package. For starters, Hans Zimmer, who could be crowned as the Heavyweight Champion of Hollywood movie soundtracks, is back again to compose the musical score. Skylanders Giants is a great sounding experience and much of the credit goes to the musical score which features whimsical acoustic sounds that should only be played in full surround sound. The music now blends nicely from one sequence to the next instead of stopping and starting. The voice acting is also top notch as some notable voice actors lend their voices. In addition to the regular cast you will find that George Takei, Bobcat Goldthwait and Kevin Sorbo also lend their voice to the game. Patrick Warburton is also back and once again is easily the most recognizable actor as well as the funniest. As for the game’s sound effects, all manage to effectively do the job and only enhance the gameplay experience. You will get a singing boss and a jukebox that plays various tunes too.
Last year Activision took a giant risk when they decided to back Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure, but that risk paid off big time; now one year later Toys for Bob has managed to pump out a direct sequel to the 2011 hit. What is quite remarkable is that Skylanders Giants does indeed push the franchise forward. The new characters, including the imposing Giants, the enhanced visuals, larger voice cast, more collectibles, smoother gameplay, and a deeper overall experience makes for a game Skylander fans will absolutely want to pick up. It also brings those new into the franchise a chance to experience a more refined title then the first. I do have to admit though, the new-posed original Skylanders that are labelled Version 2 are a bit of letdown as there are so many and I would have preferred a lot more brand new characters. At the end of the day, Skylanders Giants is a strong follow up to what looks to be a successful franchise for years to come.