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Skylanders Giants review: Big toys, small changes

Jason Dobson

Of all the good fortune I've been afforded in my life, little compares with the joy of becoming a parent. That probably goes without saying. However, being able to justify the ludicrous cash outlay that comes in the pursuit of a hobby was, for me at least, an unexpected side benefit of having a son. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, Activision and developer Toys for Bob's experimental marriage of gaming and collectible toys, was just such a ridiculous expense. Fun, truly, but ridiculous just the same.

A year on, Skylanders: Giants deviates little from this tradition, with new purchasable plastic figures to collect and gameplay that again feels a bit like experiencing Diablo or Gauntlet through the lens of a Saturday morning cartoon. It's simple, yet addictive, and like Spyro's Adventure before it, Giants has quickly become a household favorite. Countless late nights and early mornings have already been victimized by this game's ability to draw us in for "just one more level."

Gallery: Skylanders Giants (Gamescom 2012) | 9 Photos

Changes to the formula in Giants are minimal, mostly favoring cosmetic shifts over anything approaching a leap in game design. That is, of course, unless you consider remixed character voices, or opening doors with buttons instead of thumb sticks, something to get excited about. So little has been changed, in fact, that you could easily read our review of Spyro's Adventure and decide if Giants is the game for you.

While Skylanders' core gameplay remains rooted in classic button mashery, the game's versus modes hearken more to the Capcom classic Power Stone, as two players scramble on a small field of battle, collecting power ups and throttling each other in gameplay that often favors manic desperation over strategy. And yet, like the original, this mode also carries the lion's share of the game's fun and replay value, as players pit their experienced figures against each other in one-on-one battles for gold, experience and bragging rights.

One of Skylanders: Giants most notable additions over Spyro's Adventure actually has nothing to do with gameplay at all. The new "Portal of Power" peripheral, used to transfer figures to the game world, remains tethered to the console via several feet of USB cable, a change from the previous game's battery-guzzling original. While the Giants Starter Kit, which includes the new portal, demands a $15 premium over the less expensive Portal Owner Pack, I dare say that our household dropped more than that in batteries to fuel the original's wireless alternative.

Of course, the figures themselves play the starring role in Skylanders: Giants, and the kid-friendly sequel bumps up the toy line with 48 new collectible figures over the original 32. Obviously the biggest change over the original game (literally) is the inclusion of new giant figures, which tower inches over the core toys and carry boosted in-game stats and abilities to mirror their larger frame.

These and other Skylanders figures, including those designed for use with Spyro's Adventure, can be dropped onto the Portal of Power and be instantly transported onto the television screen as a playable character. Characters can be swapped out as needed, and in what continues to be Skylanders' chief innovation, each earn their own experience, wearable hats and money that's stored within the toy itself. Even upgrades earned in the original game carry over to Giants, thankfully lending added value to the embarrassing amount of time and money some have already invested in the franchise.

Predictably, this support doesn't work in reverse, as new figures designed for Skylanders: Giants, when dropped into a game of Spyro's Adventure, are met with an error screen. Alas, lumbering across the original game's landscape as a gigantic tree or herculean, anthropomorphic whale remains relegated to the throes of fan fiction.

Conversely, there are many Skylanders: Giants figures that make a repeat showing from the original game. In fact, of the 48 toys in the new collection, 27 are characters previously released as part of Spyro's Adventure. The toys depict new poses, and some are even designed to light up when placed on the portal, but it's nonetheless disappointing to see so much of the game's roster devoted to familiar faces already sitting on my shelf. These new versions of existing figures can be used in either game, and can earn higher levels and new powers. That said, while your favorite character might look dapper in his newly scored top hat, any upgrades earned in Giants remain unusable when stepping back into the original game.

Any critique written here, however, melts away when pitted against the joy of child in the grips of Skylanders' addictive and inoffensive gameplay. As a parent, I can recall few series that I've enjoyed more while spending time with my son, whether we're scrapping against each other in a battle arena or rifling through the latest shipment at the local toy store, searching for a rare figure that continues to elude us. I have no reason to believe this obsession will abate with Skylanders: Giants. Already my son and I are plotting which characters to buy first and which ones will be our favorites, particularly as we face each other down Thunderdome-style in versus mode.

The question, though, is if there is enough that's new in Skylanders: Giants to warrant another trip down Activision's money mountain. It is entirely possible to play through the game using just the three figures that come packed with it, thereby sidestepping the financial minefield upon which Skylanders: Giants is so precariously stationed. Possible, but not particularly realistic. Much of the fun and variety in Giants comes from the abilities lurking inside its many different characters, and with an estimated $500 in new figures to collect, Giants becomes even more difficult to recommend.

That is, unless, you already have a collection of figures sitting idle at home or can somehow restrain yourself (or your children) from the near-insatiable desire to collect them all. If so, you're a better person than I.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PlayStation 3 version of Skylanders: Giants, provided by Activision.

Jason Dobson wears many hats, some of which even fit, and has covered video games for more than a decade for Gamasutra, Joystiq and other outlets. When not roaming with the buffalo in Oklahoma, you can often find him on Twitter (@etoychest) gabbing with anyone who'll listen about board games, hit points and mana.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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