For all you Skylanders fans -- or parents of Skylanders fans -- Activision has officially unveiled the next installment of its popular franchise and it has a twist to it: new characters that have swappable tops and bottoms.
That's right, with the upcoming Swap Force "inter-action" figures, you can separate the top of the toy from the bottom and mix and match the halves with other characters. Needless to say, it allows you to create characters with hybrid powers and moves -- if you collect all 16 new Swap characters, you can come up with 256 combinations.
In case you've never heard of Skylanders, it goes like this: you put your physical character on the Power Portal, which connects via USB to your game console, and the virtual version of that character enters the game. What has helped make the game so popular and a huge money-maker for Activision is that kids love collecting the various characters and seeing how they perform in the game.
Last year, Activision brought out Skylanders Giants, a larger form of the inter-action figures that cost more. In order to use those characters, you had to buy the new Skylanders Giants game, though your original Skylanders could be used in the new game. The same is true for the new Skylanders Swap Force game: you need it to play with new Swap characters but it's backward compatible with existing Skylanders figures.
Activision says Swap Force features new abilities –- such as flying, climbing, digging, bouncing, or teleporting –- "which can be used in previously unexplored areas of Skylands centered on these play mechanics." On top of the aforementioned 16 new Swap figures, the game features eight new LightCore characters and 16 new versions of "fan favorite" Skylanders from previous games. The company has also improved the graphics of the game and redesigned the Power Portal with colored lighting that now bleeds out the sides.
I got a quick demo of the Swap Force game and can attest to the sharper graphics. My first reaction to the swappable characters was, "Gee, this is a ingenious way to lure kids into making their parents buy more Skylanders characters." The tops and bottoms adhere magnetically and there's a definite urge to see what happens when you combine one Swap Force character with another. Some people jokingly refer to Skylanders figures as "crack for kids" and the new figures seem to up the addiction ante.
Activision reps acknowledged my cynicism but also said kids would appreciate the new "play patterns" the combination characters generated. It's hard to argue with folks who've created a billion-dollar franchise, but I don't think all parents will be so excited about the new play patterns when they're dropping $50 -- or whatever these things will cost -- on a couple of new characters. Of course, you can always make your kids sell their old Skylanders on Amazon or eBay, where there are active markets for them, to raise funds for new Skylanders.
The new game will launch this fall on Nintendo Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. No word on how much a starter pack -- which would include the game and a figure -- will cost, but I suspect it'll be somewhere in the neighborhood of $70.