This past week, I got to visit the Toys for Bob studios in Novato, California for some hands-on time with their follow-up to last year’s breakout hit, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. The second chapter of the game entitled Skylanders: Giants is bigger (both figuratively and literally) and packed full of a lot of the things the team wanted to implement into the first game. The most obvious change is the addition of the Giants characters, but there is a lot more that has gone into making this a much better overall experience. I got to sit down with both the Wii and Xbox 360 versions of the game, and came away impressed.
For our play session, I got to toy around with Tree Rex and Swarm for the new Giants characters, and Fright Rider and Jet Vac for the new regular-sized characters. Playing as a Giant is a lot of fun. You move much slower than regular characters, but pack a massive punch. You can also lift and toss objects that normal Skylanders cannot. The one question I had for the team was how hard it was to balance a game that has so many variables. Having a Giant on your team gives you access to alternate routes, but no part of the game is inaccessible by regular Skylanders. In fact if you wanted to, you can complete the entire new game with your existing toys; never having to buy another one if you didn’t want to.
That said, you can bring your original figures into the mix. This time around they have a max level of 15, so you can actually upgrade older characters even further. There will also be a collection of Series 2 characters from the first game that add new abilities to their arsenal. These figures will work on the original title, but without their new abilities. When talking to the design team, it is evident that character creation is a labor of love around the offices. Animators are married to one single character, and the creation process is brutal. So when you see the final product, you appreciate the amount of work that went into it.
At its core, the game feels strikingly familiar. Characters still have two abilities mapped to face buttons, and collecting treasure now means more, as you can buy items at stores. You can also collect hats again, which give you boosts to your stats and the treasure chests return, but now they are set to a specific number per stage, which makes going back to collect them much easier. Heroic challenges also return giving players more reason to go back.
There is also a new mini-game that seemed to pop-up more frequently than I cared for. This is a card game similar to Eye of Judgment, where you have a deck you play against the computer, usually to obtain keys. While it was overly offered up, I did like the collection aspect for the cards. Defeating characters gets you new cards to use in future hands. It is a good idea, especially for gamers who love to collect, but in the parts I played, it felt overused.
Co-op again uses the tether mechanic so that players can share the same screen while playing together. I did ask about Achievements considering the first game only supported earning them for the primary profile. The developer told me he believed it was legacy, meaning player two is once again out of luck. Hopefully this is not the case, and both players can share in the virtual point collecting. Co-op serves a better purpose this time around though, as having one regular, and one giant really helps smooth out the journey. Online is still not available, but again this was an entirely conscious decision based on the age demographic of the game.
Difficulty levels have also been added. When talking to the team, they mentioned that gamers that played with their kids enjoyed the simplicity, but when they took over by themselves the game was far from challenging enough to keep them interested. You can now select between easy, medium and hard. Once you complete the game, you can then select nightmare where things get really nuts. The challenge is definitely there, and a special unlock awaits those who beat it on nightmare.
The one last thing I wanted to talk about for Giants is the upgrade to the sound department. The actual score is still as engaging and incredible as the first game, but there have been a host of upgrades. For example, every character now has a voice actor assigned to them, including names like Kevin Sorbo and even Bobcat Goldthwait. This really brings the characters to life; even more so than in the original. Little touches such as a pseudo Airwolf theme playing during a helicopter sequence or the dubstepping boss are incredibly awesome. Also, be sure to stop at the jukebox on the hub ship with each character; you won’t be disappointed.
Skylanders Giants is less than a month away from release, and playing this late build has once again ignited my excitement for the game. If you enjoyed the original, there is plenty of reason here to dive back in, especially if your kids are fans. This is easily the best co-op title I have seen in ages, and it spans all ages and demographics flawlessly. The new Giants characters and features are fantastic, and I cannot wait to once again get lost in collecting the figures. Activision and Toys for Bob have a wonderful franchise on their hands; and it feels like it is just getting started.