Version tested: Xbox 360
"Steady as she goes" might well be the design mantra for this third entry in Activision's hugely successful kids franchise. Vicarious Visions takes over from series originator Toys for Bob, and while comparisons with Infinity Ward and Treyarch's shared custody of the Call of Duty series may be premature, this certainly has the feel of a second studio on babysitting duty. There are additions and improvements here, but it's more a refinement of the template put in place by last year's Skylanders Giants than a meaningful step forwards.
The headline change is the arrival of the SWAP Force toys. These split in two at the waist and can be recombined into different configurations in a pick-and-mix style. There are 16 SWAP Force characters, two of which come as standard with the game, totalling 256 potential combinations. There's even a handy stat screen which ticks them off as you try them out.
They're fun to play with, as appealingly sculpted and sturdily built as the previous toy lines, but the gameplay benefits are harder to pin down. Where Giants felt like it was designed around its oversized new characters, the SWAP Force concept never feels like it's at the heart of the game.
The benefit is that SWAP Force characters come with two upgrade paths, one for the top half and one for the bottom. With enough extra figures, it's clear that the swapping mechanism leads to a lot of inventive and even strategic upgrade decisions - something that has always felt a little undercooked in the previous two games.
Where the SWAP Force mechanic makes itself most obviously felt is in how many locked doors it places into the game when playing with just the initial two figures. Frugal parents who enjoyed the fact that kids could technically get 100% completion on Giants with one Skylander from each element and the pack-in Giant toy will find they're going to need to splash out a lot more this time around.
There are SWAP Zone challenges which only activate for swappable characters with a particular base skill. Climbing, sneaking, teleporting - that sort of thing. There are eight such skills, meaning you'll need another six toys to access them all. More expensive still are the combination elemental gates, which will only open for SWAP Force characters made up of two specific types, such as Air and Earth.
There's nothing essential behind these locked doors, of course, and you can finish the game without ever unlocking them. Kids, being curious by nature, won't want to do that, obviously. This isn't to damn the game for encouraging players to buy more toys - that's the nature of the beast, after all - but requiring two toys to open gates that previously only required one does feels like an escalation of the game's commercial aims.
That the move doesn't feel exploitative is down to the generosity elsewhere. The story unfolds across 17 stages, including a few boss fights, and involves a pleasing variety of gameplay styles. Few will surprise experienced gamers, of course, but whether shooting from turrets, firing catapults, grinding on rails or flying through the air, there's little chance for kids to get bored.
Crucially, the long overdue addition of jumping means that more traditional platforming elements have at last been woven into the existing Skylanders action RPG formula, and the effect on the level design is liberating. Going back and playing the other two games, with their rather clumsy reliance on bounce pads, seems positively quaint now.
Skylanders remains the most hardcore of the leading kids franchises... Unique among its peers, this is a kids' game where failure is most definitely an option
Beating the story takes longer than most grown-up action games, especially if you crank up the difficulty. Skylanders remains the most hardcore of the leading kids franchises, and playing through on Hard is a genuine challenge, while the Nightmare mode is well named. Unique among its peers, this is a kids' game where failure is most definitely an option.
It's in the long game that SWAP Force more than justifies its reliance on collecting more toys. With replaying built into its DNA, as kids get more figures and level them up, this is arguably the most feature-packed Skylanders to date. For the sake of a quick number blast, there are 147 collectable hats offering different stat buffs, 48 legendary treasures that can be placed on pedestals in the game's hub and 44 unlockable charms, all of which offer more status effects. There are also 20 bonus missions and 42 SWAP Zone challenges, plus five two-player arena modes, to extend the gameplay beyond the story.
That's not even taking into account the wealth of fun little diversions dotted around the hub, with more features and mini-games appearing as you progress. There's a welcome sign that activates a daily boost to your gold or XP and a hidden Mario-style bonus level that offers a renewable treasure trove of coins. Even the rotating lock puzzles of old have been ditched, replaced with a mini-game in which you must reunite two sparks via moving platforms, fans and conveyor belts. It's great, and could easily stand as a puzzle game in its own right.
There's a whole host of things to do in the margins of SWAP Force, and it's all tied together by the game's best addition: the Portal Master Rank. Previously, the games had all been about levelling up the toys. Now, the player levels up alongside them, thanks to accumulated stars earned for beating levels and completing challenges. As well as all-important playground bragging rights, the higher your Portal Master Rank, the more stuff you'll be able to buy from the in-game shop, and the more pedestals you'll be able to use to activate your collected treasures. It's a background addition, but one that provides vital glue to the overall experience.
The additions to the formula aren't headline-grabbing in nature, but they've been thoughtfully implemented and improve the game in genuinely beneficial ways. Parents will no doubt balk at the prospect of yet more toys to buy, but kids will love the mix of the familiar and the new that SWAP Force offers. Most importantly, the game never takes the devotion of these young players for granted, and seeks to reward and challenge them at every turn. "Steady as she goes" may be the ethos behind any second sequel, but Vicarious Visions has provided a confident and reassuring hand on the tiller.
8 / 10