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Skylanders Giants in Review

Given my penchant for toys, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I wanted to take Skylanders Giants for a spin. I successfully ignored the game/toy combination the first time around, knowing full well that heading down that path would lead to a Trigger Happy sized hole in my wallet. Alas, the pull of plastic figures that were now giant sized and also lit up was too much to resist and the game was mine.

Amazingly enough, not only is this a well done action game, but it’s also surprisingly easy to ignore the fundamental purpose of the game, namely to fill your home with oodles and oodles of toys.

The central premise behind Skylanders is the ability to take a real life toy, or in this case, an incredibly detailed and colorful plastic statue, and make it come to life in a video game. As kids, we’ve all dreamed of our toys coming to life and having grand adventures, and this is exactly what the Skylanders series allows you to do. Place a toy on the Portal of Power and like magic, it comes to life in the game, complete with it’s own voice, statistics, attack moves and upgrade path.

As I mentioned before, the game comes with everything you need to play the game from start to finish, consisting of a portal, two regular characters and a giant. If you already have a portal, a separate version of the game is available with only a giant. I expected the game to shove advertisements for additional toys in my face like crazy, but Toys for Bob shows an incredible amount of restraint in this regard, presumably understanding that not every household can buy into the “gotta catch ’em all” mentality, especially when the figures start at ten bucks and go up to fifteen for giants. Sure, there are preview movies available for the characters, so you can see what you’re missing, but the fact that you can go through the entire game with what comes in the package should be commended.

Granted, if you do have a Skylander of each elemental type, there’s more content, and more opportunities to level up your characters, so you’ll probably end up wanting to pick up additional figures at some point. As you travel throughout the Skylands in your quest to defeat Kaos and stop him from resurrecting an army of robotic overlords, you’ll come across areas that require a Skylander of a particular elemental type to access. Once opened, any Skylander of any elemental type can traverse the puzzles and obtain the treasure, or stat boosting hat contained within, but seeing how Skylanders of the corresponding elemental type do extra damage and heal while in these areas, I found myself more than happy to let my lesser known figures stretch their legs in these areas.

Similar areas are sprinkled throughout the game’s branching levels, allowing you to level up individual figures as well as give lower leveled figures a better chance of surviving. Choosing to stick with a particular figure until they reach the level 15 cap is certainly an option, however I found that switching figures as I moved through these zones ended up being a better use of my time. For one, if you use a Skylander that corresponds to the current elemental type, they get more experience, allowing them to level up more quickly, but also, the move sets and statistics of the various figures are all different enough to make you change your play style and come up with different strategies for facing the increasingly powerful enemies.

On a practical note, as the figures act as extra lives, having as many figures leveled up as possible gives you the best chance of surviving the late game levels. Of course, you can always drop the difficulty level if need be, but seeing how there are no mid-level checkpoints, running out of figures means doing the entire level all over again, an incentive to having the best army of plastic if ever there was one.

Unfortunately, the time spent leveling figures and the lack of any real incentive to having more than one figure of each elemental type works against the game’s purpose of selling you toys. Unlike in a Pokemon game, where catching them all requires a combination of timing, patience and in-game currency for Pokeballs, catching them all in Skylanders requires actual, real life money. Sure, each figures comes with a heroic challenge that any Skylander can take part in, but as these are usually timed challenges and not full levels, the main draw is the figure itself and the corresponding character. Seeing how your only option for leveling up your new figure is to play through the story all over again, or take part in battle arenas that you’ve no doubt already conquered, it may not be worth it to buy a new figure just to own it.

The only way the game encourages you to buy more toys than necessary to unlock everything is with the accolade system. Some accolades are earned through completing the story or defeating the battle arenas, but a good chunk are earned for buying more figures and placing them on the portal. At least the accolades earned through real life purchases give an experience boost to all figures, which should make leveling up your new Shroom Boom a little easier.

Then again, this is a game for kids and if kids are capable of anything, it’s repetition. The game supports local, two player co-op, and in a nice touch, everything about the characters, including their current hat, experience level, attack powers and bankroll is saved to the figure itself, so you can bring your figures over to a friend’s house, slap ’em on the portal and get to playing. It reminds me of when I used to bring my Star Wars figures over to my friend’s house to replay the epic battles of the movies, only now Han Solo is a anthropomorphic eagle with an air blaster.

As much as I was interested in the game for the toys, the game itself is genuinely good. Kaos reminds me of the Saturday morning cartoon villains of my youth, all bluster and incompetence and the rest of the game’s characters are all well done, including an elderly British elf with a crippling fear of clouds. The various character models for the different Skylanders are distinctive, as are the attack moves and voices. Double Trouble plays completely differently from Drobot and once you start slapping turbans and bronze top hats atop their heads, the personality factor only goes up. The levels are well designed and encourage multiple runs in order to get all of the collectibles, find all of the areas and complete the level under a certain time limit to get three gold stars per level.

Activision knows it has a gold mine here, hence the newly unveiled iOS games, all of which allow you to use your physical Skylanders collection and the free, web based Skylanders Universe game. It certainly helps knowing that buying a new figure will allow you to bring it into other properties aside from the console game, but seeing how some of these other games also cost money, it’s also clear that the gold mine Activision is plumbing is located deep within your wallet. Still, if the game is well done, the toys are fun and their cheap enough to be purchased with allowance money, or money earned from doing chores, what’s to complain about? I’ve spent plenty of money on DLC over the years with nary to show for it but some achievement points. At least with this game I have a shelf of cool figures. That’s well worth ten bucks.

Console Certification, Capitalism, and You

We frequently discuss topics such as DRM, connectivity requirements, and PR/marketing stunts; topics that don’t necessarily impact our gameplay directly, but ones that most certainly affect our experiences as consumers. Last month, an update (and subsequently retracted update) for FEZ on XBLA brought the issue of certification to the forefront. The gist of the story is that Polytron Corporation had to decide between leaving a bug in the game, or paying tens of thousands of dollars to (hopefully) patch the bug and get re-certified.

Until last month, I have to admit that I had never considered the role of certification in game development and how the results of that process trickle down to us as consumers. Certification on consoles was the topic of recent editorial by Kyle Orland at Ars Technica, but I found the full-length opinions and examples offered by Jonathan Blow especially illuminating.

While certification is meant to provide standards, FEZ shows how the process can be equally counter-productive. In the end, neither the consumer nor the developer come out on top. This is opposed to a PC release that can be patched for free. But, as Blow points out, a major problem concerning certification is the time spent coding and tweaking required features that have little to no impact on the final product.

Dead Trigger, available for iOS and Android devices.

The increasing prevalence of mobile devices and gaming-capable PCs is the usual suspect used to explain the influx of high-quality games for those platforms, but certification is an undeniable factor in the equation. Peruse the forum posts and blogs of small/indie game developers and it’s not difficult to see a common theme; don’t develop for consoles unless you absolutely need to fulfill some sort of personal desire.

The console has traditionally been the core method of reaching gamers, but the playing field is shifting rapidly. In May of 2012, as reported by NPD Group, sales of console games were 28-percent lower than in 2011, while sales of PC games rose to 230-percent. Obviously, Diablo III played a pivotal role in those statistics, but that doesn’t change the fact that gamers and developers are increasingly moving away from consoles.

Perhaps more than ever, developers are faced with an important decision; spend precious money and time to jump through the hoops required for a single console release, or spend those resources optimizing a game for release across multiple platforms, including PC, Mac, web, and mobile operating systems. With the rise of engines and tools such as Unity and Adobe AIR, multi-platform porting is becoming easier all the time. Factor in the abilities to set your own pricing schemes, to get involved with promotions (eg Humble Indie Bundle), and issue regular updates, and the console market loses much of its appeal.

Dyad, available only on PS3.

Of course, there are two sides to the coin, and consoles do have benefits; less piracy, standardized system specifications, and guaranteed exposure. For anyone familiar with the navigational disaster that is Google Play (aka Android marketplace), that last point is especially poignant. And, as expressed by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson and Valve’s Gabe Newell, PC gaming could be in for a rough ride with the release of Windows 8 and the associated Windows Store.

App Store, Google Play, Windows Store, Steam, Ouya, XBLA, PSN, Wii Ware – present and future marketplaces for games are not in short supply. With so much money on the line, customer satisfaction and exclusive content are going to be vital in dictating the winners and losers. For this reason, I don’t foresee the certification process disappearing anytime soon, and I expect that we will see similar systems implemented more heavily in the mobile and PC realms. As Xbox LIVE Indie Games has taught us, the cream does not always rise to the top in an open market. Sometimes, it drowns in the slop.

Jumping the Shark Episode #133

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Image: Filomena Scalise /

For Jumping the Shark #133, Brandon and Bill celebrate the coming of Summoner Wars on the iOS. (I’m sure I’ll join the jubilee soon. Took the time to figure it out over the weekend and am starting to feel its draw.) There’s also some Amazing Spider-Man discussion and a Bill tangent about not liking fun murderers. And really, who does? Leading off this week, though, Brandon and I wax poetic about the revised Mass Effect 3 ending and he gets me to say something that, in a righteous universe, ought to never ever happen – “Brandon, you’re right.”

And even now a chill goes down my spine.

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Jumping the Shark Episode #132

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The gang’s all back together for episode 132 of Jumping the Shark, though I’m a bit poorer than I was two weeks ago. This week we talk a bit more about my trip to the Pinball Museum and my dicey encounters with the revised AI in the Civilization 5 expansion Gods and Kings, while Bill tries out a little Trine 2-themed occupational therapy, and Brandon cleans up the streets of Gotham in Lego Batman 2 before taking a trip down the third part of Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness.

It’s like 1,000 degrees outside and storms ravage half the continent. Do yourself a favor – stay inside and listen to podcasts. It’s the right thing to do!

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Calendar Man – Week of 7/2

I was hoping that a new release would drop in time for me to bring it with me on my upcoming vacation but alas, it was not to be. Threatrhythm could have been a contender but I usually play handheld games with the volume down and I don’t know jack squat about Final Fantasy so most of the game’s charm would be lost on me. Oh well. Hopefully Summoner Wars will get approved between now and Friday.

The Secret World is an MMO that combines ancient myths and modern urban legends in the epic struggle between good and evil. I for one can’t wait to ride a griffin to go fight Bloody Mary or that dude who leaves his hook hand on the car doors of necking teenagers.

Me not knowing anything about Final Fantasy isn’t enough of a bar to keep me from playing Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy. On the other hand, the fact that I usually play handheld games while watching TV with my wife, thereby requiring a lowered volume level, is. It’s kind of hard to play a rhythm game when you can’t hear the music.

We’ve talked about Endless Space here before and this week you can finally get your hands on the indie space strategy game. If you’re in the States, you can celebrate your day off on the 4th by ignoring your family and conquering the galaxy. If you don’t get the day off, you can celebrate your newly acquired illness in the same way.

We never got a Dino toy from the Dark of the Moon Transformers line, as Mattel owns an exclusive Ferrari toy license. I still blame Ferrari and will punish them by not playing Test Drive: Ferrari Legends (360, PS3). Tremble at my amazing consumer powers!

Dungeon Twister is a PSN version of the of the same name. I believe Barnes and Bill are playing it. I’m sure that you’ll read their sage opinions on it any day now.

On the XBLA front, Bellator: MMA Onslaught and Spelunky are both released this week, giving you a dose of face punching and spelunking, although probably not at once. That would be weird.


Toys R Us – Get a $20 gift card when purchasing The Amazing Spider-Man.

Target – Get a free screen protector and copy of Uncharted: Golden Abyss with the purchase of a PS Vita. Get Assassins Creed: Revelations for $19.99. Get LEGO Batman 2 (Wii), Brave, or CoD: Black Ops for $29.99.

Best Buy – Get a free Kinect Starter kit with purchase of $399.99 250 GB + Kinect 360 bundle.