Skylanders Swap Force review: Swappin', not stoppin'

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Skylanders Swap Force review: Swappin', not stoppin'
Skylanders is a tough sell for adults. No matter what sort of gameplay lies beneath the surface, it's difficult to reconcile the fact that playing Skylanders means you're playing with children's toys.

If you have a healthy inner child (or, at the very least, no sense of shame), you'll discover that the Skylanders series is secretly a total blast. Similar in premise to Gauntlet Legends and the Diablo series, the Skylanders games are lightweight, action-heavy dungeon crawlers that offer a surprising degree of depth, with gameplay bolstered by expansive skill trees and stat-boosting loot.

Skylanders: Swap Force continues that tradition, and if you can stand a few funny looks when your friends see you playing with figurines with ridiculous names like "Grim Creeper" and "Stealth Elf," you'll discover that this is the best Skylanders to date.The Skylanders toy line now spans more than 150 figures and variants, and you'll want to buy at least a few to get the most out of Swap Force (the starter kit itself includes 3 figures). In Skylanders, players summon characters in-game by placing figurines on a USB-connected "Portal of Power." Experience, gold, and any equipment a character earns during gameplay is saved to the figure itself. That's a boon for younger players, who can easily tote a favorite toy over to a friend's house and launch a co-op session with all progress intact, regardless of which of the many available platforms the game is played on.

Each figure boasts a unique arsenal of attacks and an elemental affinity. Characters of specific elemental types can open matching (and optional) gates scattered throughout Swap Force's levels, giving access to new equipment. Of course, these gates also require additional figures if you don't have one with the right elemental match.

Skylanders Swap Force review Swappin', not stoppin'It's easy to think of Skylanders' collectible figure component as a cynical cash-grab, but in practice it meshes well with the series' beat-'em-up gameplay. A small but smartly chosen collection of figures grants access to the majority of the games' optional bonus content, and assembling a large Skylanders army allows you to exploit enemy weaknesses with specific elemental attacks, providing a tangible benefit to gameplay beyond aesthetics.

Furthermore, while the new Swap Force figures give access to unique paths and mini-games within each level, players will still be able to access the majority of Swap Force's content if they already own a full elemental set of Skylanders from previous games. All figures released to date are compatible with Swap Force. Even the Giants from last year's game are supported, and they provide access to a series of Giant-specific treasure chests hidden throughout levels. (Swap Force figures, unsurprisingly, are not compatible with previous Skylanders games.)

Skylanders Swap Force is the first console entry in the series developed by Vicarious Visions, which previously created the Nintendo 3DS version of the original Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. Its framework sticks closely to previous Skylanders games, as Vicarious Visions focuses on improving the series' core gameplay without making drastic changes.

The Swap Force figure line adds a new wrinkle to the standard formula, allowing players to mix-and-match character abilities and elemental attributes. The Swap Force figures themselves are split between top and bottom halves that magnetically snap together with a satisfying clack – a touch that's bound to please kids and easily-entertained adults.

Swap Force characters introduce an element of strategy to the series. By pairing Rattle Shake and Blast Zone, for instance, you'll create a character who has both a powerful ranged attack and a rocket-powered dash, making it easy to run away from enemies and pick them off from afar. If you'd prefer to take down enemies while their backs are turned, you might opt to combine Hoot Loop's teleportation ability with Wash Buckler's powerful melee attack. Character tops and bottoms can be upgraded separately, giving them more options in battle as they level up.

Otherwise, combat retains the satisfying light action-RPG feel of the previous Skylanders games. Each character has a distinct style that demands mastery on an individual level; the newly released Zoo Lou, for example, can summon ghostly partner animals that attack enemies, while Flashwing earns a healing ability after several upgrades, making her valuable during co-op play. The sheer variety of character-specific combat options defines the Skylanders experience, and helps to add value to your figure purchases.

Swap Force also gives characters the ability to jump, which isn't as drastic of a game-changer as it might seem; it mainly serves to give the game's environments greater variety and vertical depth. In earlier games, land-locked Skylanders would need to use bounce pads in order to reach higher ground. This proved troublesome in co-op, as players could easily become separated after a poorly timed bounce. Jumping eliminates many of the traversal-related snags of previous Skylanders, and makes co-op play significantly smoother.

Jumping also brings major changes to Swap Force's boss encounters, which ditch the shoot-'em-up inspired fights of the first two Skylanders games in favor of basic melee attack patterns. Many bosses now focus on area-wide attacks, requiring the player to make timed jumps as they chip away at their health. Though these new fights provide a solid challenge, I miss the boss encounters from the previous games; they showed that the series wasn't afraid to incorporate a variety of gameplay concepts. Swap Force's reworked boss fights feel generic in comparison.

As with last year's Skylanders: Giants, other changes to the Skylanders formula are more incremental. Swap Force offers many upgrades over previous games, with co-op play in particular being noticeably improved on all fronts. Players now share experience and money earned during battle, and both characters now benefit from health items, ending the frequent "I needed that fruit, you jerk!" arguments of the past.

Multiple difficulty modes aid players in exploring Swap Force at their own pace. In Easy mode, kids will face little difficulty as their Skylander pals effortlessly tear through enemy swarms. Hard mode, on the other hand, is a genuine challenge more suited to seasoned players, giving an experience boost at the risk of increased damage and fiercer enemy attacks.

Skylanders Swap Force is fun from start to finish, and outclasses its predecessors in depth and breadth of content. Compared to the recent Disney Infinity, Swap Force appeals to a broader range of players; the main quest is straightforward but challenging on the higher difficulty levels, and its optional content will keep older fans hunting for secrets long after the credits roll. If you've overlooked the series previously, Swap Force makes for a great starting point, and if you're a parent, don't be surprised if you find yourself enjoying the quest just as much as your kids.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Skylanders: Swap Force, provided by Activision.

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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