We're big fans of Skylanders, the trans-media phenomenon that allows players to collect a range of collectible figurines and level them up within a light and frothy action-RPG (or cynical stopgap designed to replace Activision's lost peripheral sales after Guitar Hero went down the tubes, depending on how you look at it). It's a perfect example of how toys and videogames can compliment each other, using NFC technology, onboard chips and the 'magical' Portal peripheral to make models come to life. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was a deserved success, and Toys For Bob plan to follow it up by embracing the philosophy of "bigger is better."
Giants is the result: a full sequel rather than an expansion, which heralds the launch of the Series 2 toy line. Alongside new versions of the original cast, who'll ship in a range of different poses, debut the titular Giants, enormous hulking models that stand at over double the height of their predecessors. Lightcore figures also make an anticipated appearance, using current derived from the Portal to illuminate them from within despite possessing no internal battery.
I was able to check out both the new game and new model series at E3 2012, and emerged from the Activision bunker suitably impressed.
In gameplay terms, Skylanders Giants will provide a functionally similar experience to its predecessor. You'll manifest your plastic heroes into battle by placing them on the Portal and guide them around some fairly expansive environments; battling enemy creatures, finding hidden secrets and persistently improving your characters with friends. Some areas can only be accessed by particular varieties of elemental Skylander, meaning that you'll need to play with someone who has the right toy do unlock some bonuses and extras. The action is accessible, breezy and great fun in multiplayer, exactly what you'd expect from the series. In a concession to more hardcore players, multiple difficulty levels will provide a much sterner and rewarding challenge should you seek it out.
As you'd expect, the Giants provide some new gameplay opportunities. Their massive size and strength allows them to heft massive boulders without breaking a sweat, throwing them at enemies or unlocking alternate paths. Floating islands can be dragged towards the mainland, granting access to their smaller fellows. They're also devastatingly powerful in combat and surprisingly agile despite their massive, lumbering frames.
The toys were the stars of the show, however, and formed the main thrust of the presentation.
Tree Rex, the hulking anthropomorphic tree, aptly demonstrated the new attention to detail made possible by the outsize Giant models. Not only does this massive brute take up most of the portal (you can just about squeeze two Giants onto it), but his innards and Reverse Photosynthesis Laser glow an eerie green thanks to the new Lightcore tech. The closer he gets, the brighter the effect. Another Giant Skylander, Bouncer, boasted a pleasingly shiny golden frame, and prefers to engage his enemy with goofy finger lasers or guided missiles in-game. Though the giants aren't able to jump, different characters will wield markedly different skills as opposed to all relying on brute melee force.
New standard-sized series 2 models include Jet-Vac, a battle-armoured avian who sucks in enemies (and treasures!) with his powerful vacuum cannon, undead dragon Cynder and insane alchemist Pop Fizz. This bizarre little blighter hops around the battlefield while making his own potions, drinking or throwing them with dangerously mixed effects. Prism Break returns as a Lightcore model, freshly energised with the new tech. Series 2 models will have new poses, can toggle between upgrade paths and access a new Pow-Wow upgrade, acting as a fairly strong buying incentive.
Series 1 figurines haven't been overlooked, or worse, made obsolete. Naturally Skylanders Giants will be backwards-compatible with original characters, but in order to make sure that they're still relevant, the level cap has been upped from 10 to 15, complete with new skills and abilities. Toys For Bob believe that many players will want to own both series 1 and 2 versions of single characters in order to explore different upgrade paths rather than having to restore them to factory settings.
The starter pack will contain a copy of the game and Portal peripheral along with Tree Rex, Jet-Vac and series 2 Cynder, while solus versions will also be available.
While consistently high quality, well-detailed and satisfyingly weighty, I personally can't help but feel that the Skylanders toys still have a way to go in order to fulfil their potential as a true trans-media breakthrough. Critically, they're very much rigid statuettes rather than poseable action figures, which stops them being quite as fun to play with as they ought to be. Should Toys For Bob bring in a new line of fully-articulated figures in Series 3, I can see Skylanders becoming the next big thing - both in terms of toys
If you're not already a fan (or a parent of a fan), Giants is probably unlikely to get you into the series. But if your kids (who am we kidding, you) are clamouring for new toys and new challenges, Skylanders Giants is set to deliver this Autumn on PS3, Xbox 360, Wii and 3DS.