What was the best-selling new game of 2011? LA Noire? Or Dead Island, perhaps? Nope. It was actually Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, an oddity of a game that became an overnight phenomenon. The first game was able to surprise people who didn't know what to expect from a game starring forgotten gaming mascot Spyro the Dragon. The concept of placing real world toys directly into the game had to be seen to be believed. Now, with the the sequel Skylanders Giants set for release this week, expectations are much higher. Will Activision be able to meet them? It certainly looks that way.
If you've never played Skylanders, the premise is as simple as it is magical. Rather than swapping characters using a menu or button press, you physically change them over in the real world by placing the special Skylanders toys on the Portal of Power, which connects to your console (don't worry - the Portal comes in every Starter Pack). That character then appears in the game. Most impressively, each toy uses contact-free technology to store gameplay stats and other information, so you can take your own powered-up toys to a friend's house and drop them into their game.
It's an idea that immediately wowed kids all over the world, and as the name suggests Skylanders Giants is aiming to be both bigger and better. There are sixteen new character toys to collect this time around, and eight of them are twice the size of their Skylander pals. These giants are not only double-sized in toy form, they appear as giants in the game as well, capable of unleashing even more powerful attacks, and using their immense strength to alter the scenery by throwing vast boulders or pulling floating sky islands together.
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Among them are the aptly named Crusher, an armoured rock creature wielding an enormous hammer, and Swarm, a giant bee-themed fighter. Tree Rex is, as you'd expect, the sort of wooded warrior who would give Ewoks nightmares and comes in the Giants' Starter and Booster packs. Of the normal Skylanders, the trend for weird and wonderful designs hasn't changed. ShroomBoom, for example, is a catapult-wielding mushroom cyclops. There's even a little something for those who remember Spyro from his older adventures - Cynder, the female dragoness first introduced in the 2006 game, Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning, is joining the Skylanders line-up.
Those aren't the only new additions to the roster though. Joining the normal Skylanders and the Giants are the new Lightcore characters. These toys light up and glow as they get closer to the portal, and their illuminated forms offer secret in-game abilities too.
As with the original Skylanders toys, they look fantastic. These aren't cheap throwaway things, but solidly made and charmingly sculpted collector's items. The designs are incredibly fun, and even without the game it's easy to see why kids are hoarding them.
New toys are one thing, but creating a game to contain them is another matter entirely. Emboldened by the success of the first game, developer Toys For Bob has been able to expand the gameplay in lots of directions. Most notably, character toys from the first game are still compatible with the sequel, so fans can continue to use their favourite figures with all the powers and customisations they're used to.
The two-player battle mode has been improved, with more intricate and interactive arenas, and the Elemental Zones unique to each character class - earth, fire, water and so on - are also more ambitious in scope this time around. There are also new character challenges, giving players more gameplay options for each toy, and even greater crossover with the free Skylanders Universe browser game. Certainly, parents looking for a cost-effective Christmas present are going to be happy with something that is both toy and video game in one, with bonus online content as well.
And, of course, there's the console game itself, in which this bizarre cast of characters explore cleverly designed levels, battling enemies with their unique powers, and finding secrets. Accessible for kids, but also charming fun for grown-ups as well, don't be surprised to find Skylanders Giants giving the likes of Call of Duty: Black Ops II a run for its money in the Christmas charts.