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Skylanders Swap Force coming fall 2013 with new developer, new two-part toys

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Skylanders Swap Force is the next Skylanders game, and its new line of figures could be as fun to play with outside the game as within. The toys, which consist of two halves, are user-swappable characters that offer players more choice and strategy in creating their own Skylanders experience.

The titular Swap Force figures, of which there will be 16 when the game launches this fall, are the star of the show. They look like run-of-the-mill Skylanders, but each one is split at the waist, where a magnetic connection holds together the upper and lower bodies. (This is explained canonically in Swap Force — the Swap Force characters were blasted apart in a volcanic eruption, which seems like a catastrophic event that's unlikely to do anything neatly, let alone cleave a living thing in half.)

But the volcanic fallout has a beneficial outcome for those special 16: Their parts become interchangeable, and when halves of disparate Swap Force Skylanders are slapped together, a new one is born. In other words, the Swap Force characters have what a geneticist would call recombinant DNA, and it has major implications for the new game and the Skylanders universe.

The ability to swap out halves of all the characters means that the 16 figures give rise to 256 unique combinations, and thus 256 different Swap Force characters — if you've purchased all 16 toys. Thanks to the magnetic link, swapping halves is a simple and quick task; the parts fit together with little effort or alignment required.

This innovation was conceived by Vicarious Visions, the studio that is making Swap Force instead of Toys for Bob, which led development on Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure and Skylanders Giants. Vicarious Visions has had a hand in the Skylanders series since the start: The studio developed the 3DS version of Spyro's Adventure and the Wii U version of Giants, as well as the franchise's three mobile games (Skylanders Cloud Patrol, Skylanders Lost Islands and Skylanders Battlegrounds). It's taking the lead on Swap Force, although according to Activision, that doesn't mean Toys for Bob is on the sidelines this time around.

"Toys for Bob is intimately involved in the franchise," said Josh Taub, vice president of product management at Activision, during a Swap Force demo last month. Taub referred to development on Swap Force as a "collaborative process," and David Nathanielsz, senior executive producer on the game at Vicarious Visions, agreed. "We worked very closely with [Toys for Bob] in the making of this game," he said.

Vicarious Visions is building on the universe Toys for Bob created. All existing Skylanders figures will not only be playable in Swap Force, they'll have a major new feature, too: For the first time in the series, they'll be able to ascend skyward by jumping. "Kids are going to be really excited to see how Stealth Elf jumps," said John Coyne, Activision's vice president of consumer marketing, who characterized the implementation of jumping across all Skylanders as a development task that was more challenging than you might expect.

Another new element is the visual fidelity of the game on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U — Vicarious Visions is developing those versions itself, and is building them in high definition from the start, a first for the Skylanders series. The improved graphics were immediately apparent once Nathanielsz began the demo with an in-engine cutscene featuring Patrick Warburton as the voice of a pilot named Flynn. According to Nathanielsz, it's all part of the studio's effort to get players more deeply invested in Skylanders' lore, story and characters.

"Kids are going to be really excited to see how Stealth Elf jumps"

Nathanielsz began a gameplay demo with an Eruptor figure, a character that first appeared in the original game, to show that any Skylander can be brought into Swap Force with all its upgrades and progression intact.

Then he trotted out a Swap Force character: Magna Charge, a tech Skylander outfitted with a magnetic head that can be used to move metal objects, an energy blaster on his left arm and a single wheel of energy below him. After a quick demonstration of Magna Charge's attacks, Nathanielsz replaced him with another Swap Force figure, Wash Buckler. The pirate shuffles around on squid tentacles, carries a pistol firing bubbles that can envelop enemies, squirts ink as one attack and swings a cutlass as another.

Eventually, Nathanielsz came up against a tougher enemy with attacks that Wash Buckler was too slow to evade. At that point, he took apart both of the aforementioned Swap Force characters, then put Wash Buckler's upper body on Magna Charge's base to form ... Wash Charge. That combination served Nathanielsz well in the fight, giving him Wash Buckler's strong attacks along with the mobility of Magna Charge's speedy unicycle.

The Swap Force design gives players an opportunity to be creative and tactical in getting through the game, encouraging them to experiment with various combinations to find the optimal characters for different situations. Nathanielsz did assure us that aside from Swap Zones — areas that can only be accessed by a particular type of Swap Force character — Swap Force won't force players to choose a certain combination, although depending on the situation, some figures will be better equipped than others.

"Every Skylander is well-balanced to have a strong set of powers that you're going to be able to complete the game with," he explained. "It's more about personal choice and deciding how you want to get through a level successfully."

"kids can create their own characters that they are then bringing to life in a video game"

According to Nathanielsz, the swap feature was designed to make the figures as much fun to play with in real life as in the game. The idea, he said, is to have kids "mix and match even when they're not playing the game [and] have more imaginative play with all the toys."

Coyne believes the swapping mechanic and the breadth of options it affords to users will build a stronger connection between Swap Force players and the new characters, as will playing with the physical toys.

"The original game brought toys to life in a video game. [Swap Force] now really allows kids to sort of create their own characters that they are then bringing to life in a video game," said Coyne, "which, to a kid in our target audience, is incredibly compelling and fun."

Skylanders Swap Force is in development at Vicarious Visions on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii U. Beenox, the studio behind the last three Spider-Man games, is making the Wii version, while n-Space is developing the 3DS version. Swap Force is set for release this fall.