Skylanders SWAP Force (Xbox One) Review – The Unstoppable Swappable Fun Continues as the Next-Gen Consoles Arrive

Given that I have reviewed no less then three other versions of Skylanders SWAP Force, it was only natural that I be tasked as my final review of 2013 to give my impressions of the Xbox One version.  Given we are a Skylander’s family, as my kids just love it, I actually was looking forward to playing a next-gen version of the game.  So, how did Activision’s game fair in on a next-gen console?

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, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One). Of note is that you can use your previous characters from Spyro’s Adventure or Giants. They have increased the level cap to 20 this time around too.  This is great as 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. There will be a total of 16 swappable characters, each with their own abilities and elements. You can swap their top and bottom halves for a total of 256 combinations. There are also Series 3 characters (returning characters) and some newly introduced characters (go Slobber Tooth and Zoo Lou).  Every character 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.

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?

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 elements 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.

Along the same lines of the elemental zones are the newly added swap zones. These special zones are specific to swappable characters as they have logos on the base of their character (e.g. speed, bounce, climb, rocket, dig, spin, stealth, and 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 goes towards this rank. Other stars are also added to this rank via 67 in-game accolades that you can complete as you play. As you progress through the game you’ll open up the Portal Master area 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, 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 bonus 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, levels could take an hour to an hour and a half 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.

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.

To date I have reviewed the game on the Wii U and Wii and up to now the Wii U looked the best.  In regards to the Xbox One version, although it’s not a major step up there are some notable differences.  The power of the Xbox One provides a more 3D look for such things as various stonewalls, ripples in the sand, wooden floors, fences, etc.  I even noticed that the already great draw distance of the Wii U is improved too.  Of course there is ample use of special effects like lighting, shadowing, particle effects and transparencies which is to be expected.  Bottomline, there is a lot of eye candy, especially for a kid-focused game as everything from the levels and characters to the cutscenes are well designed and the game looks ever so close to a Pixar movie.  The next-gen versions are truly 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.

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 right away. That being said, you don’t have to buy everything, and you can buy used previously owned figurines (different elements) from 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.

If you have recently bought and Xbox One and have not experienced the world of Skylanders, you can do no wrong picking up a copy of SWAP Force for you and the family to play.  The visuals and sound are top notch and the new story provides a lot enjoyment too.  As a parent with two kids of my own I can wholeheartedly recommend this game as you’ll be playing it long after the holiday season has come and gone, I know we are.

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