Hands On: Skylanders: SWAP Force

We visit Vicarious Visions HQ to check out Skylanders: SWAP Force

It’s difficult to believe that the Skylanders franchise — a series that has sold millions of copies worldwide and has spawned a multitude of sequels and spin-offs — is only just turning two years old. Since the 2011 release of the series debut, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, the figure-based action adventure series has permeated the lives and wallets of so many gamers; yet it's still in its infancy. Showing no signs of slowing down, the now prolific franchise continues with the release of Skylanders: SWAP Force, the latest instalment that continues the adventure while managing to bring significant changes along with it. We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to tour the headquarters of Vicarious Visions, the developer behind the new title, and get some hands on time with SWAP Force before launch.

Delving directly into gameplay, one of the noticeable additions to the console game that anyone who played previous instalments will recognise, is the new option to jump. While this may seem like a trifling change, jumping actually adds a significant amount of depth, allowing for more intense and challenging puzzle platforming elements. Having your character jump also brings about the inclusion of much more hidden treasure that can only be found by players willing to take leaps of faith when exploring the lush environments.

Not only does the jump function open the game up for more exploration, but it is also implemented as an essential part of combat, allowing you to quickly dodge out of the way of danger. During combo attacks, pressing the jump button immediately interrupts your actions, allowing for a quick way getaway. Being able to stop your motion mid-combo and quickly dodge adds a level of fluidity to character movement that enhances the overall experience.

While the gameplay between the Wii U, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 versions remains the same, the Wii U GamePad’s additional functionality has not been ignored. Integrating the controller’s touchscreen, SWAP Force allows you to see your character’s stats, stage goals and online leaderboards without having to break away from gameplay. And though the functionality was not available in the build that we played, we were assured by several different members of the Vicarious Visions team that SWAP Force does, in fact, support full off-screen play, shrinking all of the action down onto the GamePad’s small screen.

Beyond the anticipated original story campaign featuring a fresh plot and setting, there are new Arenas that add a variety of options for both single and multiple players. Among the Arenas that we saw were Battle, a mode that allows you to fight against a friend, Co-Op Survival, a survival mode that pits you and a partner against waves of enemies, and Survival, a single player take on the aforementioned mode. While all three tend to be much more directionless and repetitive than the campaign, we did have a fair bit of fun plowing through baddies and our co-op partners.

The initial draw of the Skylanders series is its use of real-world figures that can be used as playable characters in game. Switching out one Skylanders character for another is just as easy as it’s always been with the Portal of Power quickly recognizing figures on the fly. The biggest addition to this new entry, aside from the aforementioned jump command, is the ability to combine elements of different characters that are deemed “swappable.” These character figures can actually be disassembled at their waist and joined with other figures to create entirely new combinations. The easiest way to think about the possible combinations is to understand that the top half of the figure will determine the character’s attack, and the bottom determines how the character will move. As you can imagine, there are plenty of unique and often hilarious combinations just waiting to be discovered.

Beyond combat and hilarity, the combinations are also used to access areas in each stage that would otherwise be closed off. For instance, if you come across an area that requires a Water type and a Fire type character to enter, rather than having to play in co-op to get the gate open, you could instead combine the torso of a Fire type with the legs of a Water type and you’ll be granted access.

The build of Skylanders: SWAP Force that we got our hands on wasn’t the final product, but it did provide an experience that is as close to complete as we’re going to see before the 13th October launch. Based on what we saw, it’s safe to say that this title not only continues to deliver on the fun and excitement that previous series entries have built, but it also manages to expand and improve on the formula. With the added ability to combine swappable Skylanders and effective implementation of the Wii U GamePad’s extra features, this is shaping up to be a title that is sure to surprise and impress newcomers and series veterans alike.