Skylanders SWAP Force (Wii U) Review – A Franchise that Continues to be so Much Fun.

Well that time has come. The time when fall leaves are hitting the ground, there is a chill in the air, and Activision is set to release a new iteration of the Skylanders franchise. Skylanders SWAP Force should be on store shelves when you read this. Having two kids of my own (aged 7 and 9) this franchise has found a home with them. We’ve been lucky enough to play the series since its inception and this latest release is the third in the series. A few new gameplay elements have been introduced to “spice” things up.  So, how does SWAP Force fare? Well, I’d have to say not bad, not bad at all.

For those few of you who have been oblivious to the whole world of Skylanders, the game allows you to take toy figures and transport them into the game by putting them on a portal. Each time you level up, buy a new skill, collect money, or find a famed Skylander hat and equip it, it saves it to the character itself. You can also take your figurines and play it at a friend’s house even if it is a different console (3DS, Wii, Wii U, PS3, or Xbox 360) too.

Right off the hop I need to tell those who are returning to the world of Skylanders that you can use your previous characters from Spyro’s Adventure or Giants. Yep, Activision has enabled Skylander fans to use their previous figures in this latest version of the game. They have increased the level cap to 20 this time around too, so there is more reason to play with your favourite figurine/character in this year’s game. The neat thing about this fact is that if you already have characters, there is no need to buy a boatload of new figures in order to fully enjoy the game.

The biggest feature this year is the new swappable characters. Along with Series 2 and Series 3 characters (both are returning characters from previous games) and some newly introduced characters (go Slobber Tooth), there are total of 16 swappable characters (not all available at launch), each with their own abilities and elements. You can swap their top and bottom halves for a total of 256 combinations. It is a neat new feature as you can pick and choose what style you play by combining features of each SWAP Force character you like. Watching my kids take to the new figures brought a smile to my face as they loved to experiment and find some neat combinations. Of note is that the starter pack comes with two swappable characters and one regular character and not all swappable characters are available at launch.

Each character in the game has a skill tree. When you are upgrading the skills of your swappable character, the top and bottom halves each have their own skill tree too. The skill tree for all characters has a branch in the middle that allows you to choose one of two directions. Usually this branch will affect how you play with the characters and once you choose a specific path it is ‘set in stone’ as you cannot change it.

Ok, enough about the figures.

Skylanders SWAP Force takes place in the Cloudbreak Islands where a volcano erupts and spews magic every 100 years replenishing the magic in Skylands. That bumbling evil villain Kaos is back and he has made it his mission to send out “evilized” darkness with the volcano magic and turn Skylands into a state where he will rule all. In order to do this he needs to find one of the four ancient elementals and use them to ‘infect’ the magic. There is a new addition to the world of evil too, Kaos’ mother has seen her inept son fail once too many times and she has come to help him this time around. I won’t ruin anymore of the main story points, but bottomline it’s up to you as the “Portal Master” to take control of the Skylanders and work with the inhabitants of Skylands to save this world from Kaos’ evil plans.

I have to say that if there is one thing that SWAP Force doesn’t lag in it is in the number things to do. The story mode will take up most of your time. Here you’ll play through the games numerous levels and watch as the story unfolds in front of you. As in the past you can go straight through the game making your way from point a to point b and onto the next level. You don’t have to collect anything nor fully explore the levels you traverse, but where is the fun in that. You’ll want to search for everything that you can as it will not only add to your “Portal Rank” (more on this below) but you’ll see more of each level when you do this too.

Returning to the world of Skylanders are elemental zones. Each of these zones is only accessible with a Skylander that matches the element (Life, Earth, Fire, Water, Air, Tech, Undead, Magic). Some of these elemental zones require two different types of elemental zones for you to open it. If you are not playing cooperative (2-players) and you come across one of these elemental zones you can use the swappable characters, swap halves, and find the right elements to enter the zone. This is a great little feature as it allowed my kids to play with each other, or by themselves, and still have fun while accessing these special zones.

Along the same lines of the elemental zones are the newly added swap zones. These special zones are specific to swappable characters. These characters have logos on the base of their character (e.g. speed, bounce, climb, rocket, dig, spin, stealth, teleport) and it has to match that of the swap zone. These were pretty neat and I found myself kind of addicted to completing them, as did my kids. Once they are completed they are opened up for challenge in Woodbury (the game’s main hub) to earn more stars. This is yet another addition to the franchise’s addictiveness.

A new feature to the world of Skylanders is your “Portal Master Rank”. As you finish each level you will earn stars that eventually goes towards this rank. Stars are also added to this rank as there are 67 accolades that you can complete as you play the game. The Portal Master Rank is more of a bragging right, but your rank also allows you to access pedestals in Woodburrow (game hub) where you can put items on them to increase your armour, health, elemental effects, gold find, etc. for any equipped character. As you progress through the game you’ll open up the Portal Master area too where you can access the arena challenges, swap zone challenges, re-do story levels (in different difficulties), and bonus missions. After you complete the story mode you also open up time attack mode and score mode.

I feel I have covered the major new additions to the single player experience that make a difference. Sure I could go on forever and speak about the new shops that you’ll find in Woodborrow (game hub), the new fishing game mechanics, the new Spark Lock mini-games, the new on-rail shooting sequences (e.g. Ice Sled and Fire Airboat), and all the extra stuff that opens up in Woodburrow as you venture through the game’s story, but I don’t have enough room. Take it from me though, everything adds to the game experience.

I played Skylanders SWAP Force on the medium skill difficulty. This skill level is quite doable for kids, and although I was challenged now and then most kids will be able to make it through. For those really young ones who want to play, knock it down to easy and they will have fun. For the older or skilled gamers in the family looking for a challenge, play the game on hard and once you finish it try playing on the ‘Nightmare’ skill level. Booyaaa. In regards to gameplay length, I found that if I was collecting everything, the level could take around and hour or so to get through. If I rushed through the level just trying to make it to the next chapter, this could decrease to about 40 minutes or so.  So really, even if you rush through it there is still ample playtime as you’ll get around 10-12 hours minimum…and of course there’s a lot more playtime should you check out every nook and cranny of each level.

Along with the single player story SWAP Force adds some great and addictive local multiplayer. From playing the story mode cooperatively to playing in the arena modes, there is a lot to do even after you’ve finished the game’s main campaign. In regards to the arena modes, you’ll find Solo Survival, Team Survival, Rival Survival, Battle Arena and Ring out. In regards to my experience, especially with my kids, they loved to just ‘beat the tar’ out of each other on-screen. I found the rival survival pretty interesting as playing cooperatively while trying to best your cooperative partner added a bit of spice to the regular survival mode. Given how my kids, and their friends who own Skylanders Giants, have played the arena modes to death in the past, I think it’s safe to say that there will be lots of multiplayer played again. Nothing says fun as sitting on the couch with a sibling and trying to beat them in a friendly battle in one of many arenas offered. I should note that online functionality comes in the form of checking out a leaderboard as well as your friend’s Skylanders collection.

Visually I have to say that I am just amazed at how great this game looks. The Wii U has some horsepower, and believe it or not in Skylanders SWAP Force it shows. I have had the opportunity to see the PS4 and Xbox One equivalents of this game, and I have to say that the Wii U version is pretty darn close. The only discernable difference is some of the shading the PS4 and Xbox One utilizes that provides a more 3D look for such things as various stone walls, ripples in the sand, etc. Bottomline, this is a great looking game. There is ample use of special effects like lighting, shadowing, particle effects and transparencies. From walking across icy paths, snow-laden mountains, to walking through waist high shrubbery, through a snowy blizzard, under the shade from a tree, or through the clear water of a fountain, there is a lot of eye candy, especially for a kid-focused game.

The diversity in level design is pretty amazing. You’ll find so many different environments to explore, from lush green jungles, neon inspired mountainous areas, an icy island with dinosaur bones that are frozen in and out of the ice to a forested island with evil fires burning all around. A lot of effort went into creating new levels for each chapter (level) of the game. All that work really does bring this game alive. Along with the different levels are the varying enemies that you face in each level too. You’ll find a wide array of enemies to battle, and the brief intro scene for each one is humorous as it introduces you to what foes will try to stop you next.

Technically speaking I didn’t find any clipping, screen tearing, slowdown or glitching. The game ran at a smooth framerate and there was nothing to take away from the visual experience. As for the cutscenes, they are stunning, and really do look like a kids computer animated movie. You’ll want to watch all of them as they just fit into the game so well and really do help tell the story. I would venture to say that Skylanders SWAP Force is the best looking Skylanders game to date.

In regards to the SWAP Force’s audio, it wraps up an excellent presentation package. Hans Zimmer once again has his hands in the music department and you’ll find the soundtrack very engrossing while not overbearing. The music has a unique knack of fitting everything you do on-screen, from battling enemies, entering a new elemental or swap zone, or even just standing there. As for the voice acting, it is solid. The voice actors deliver their lines in a manner which suits the Skylanders universe. There is proper emphasis on certain things that make the atmosphere up the ante when it needs too. There is some great humour in the writing too. Finally the game’s sound effects manage to solidly convey everything you do on screen from eating a health power up to walking on different surfaces to using your various weapons.

Given that I played the game primarily on the Wii U, I should quickly talk about the GamePad integration. One of the neat things is that while playing you can use the GamePad touchscreen to check out the stats of your Skylander, check your collection, and you can check out all the details of your game. You can also play the game using the GamePad screen only, which I did a lot of. Man was I surprised with how great it looked and sounded on the GamePad’s screen. Throw on a set of headphones and look out. It was like having a high definition portable gaming system in my hand, the only caveat was having to keep within about 30 feet of the Wii U. I really like how they used the GamePad features and Wii U fans will appreciate it.

The biggest issue people may have with SWAP Force is what the game will cost. You’ll need to add a few more figurines in order to open everything in the game, including all the elemental and swap zones.  And as mentioned earlier not all the new swappable characters are being released at launch. That being said, you don’t have to do this right away, and you can buy previously owned figurines (different elements) from at various stores. At the end of the day it’s not as bad as people think, and you don’t need to own every single character out there.

Skylanders SWAP Force is a great game, especially when you consider it’s a title that is really geared for kids, but adults will be hooked as well. Activision and Vicarious Visions could have just used last year’s game engine, added a new story and released it as a new game, but they didn’t. They have taken the existing franchise, added a new twist (swappable characters), upped the visuals and sound, and made a game that is better than those before it. Add to this that the value of being able to use existing figurines that gamers already own and you have a game that supports returning fans. After playing this game alone, and with my children, as a parent I can easily recommend it, as it is a title that the whole family can play over and over again while having lots of fun.

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