Skylanders Giants is an unusual videogame, that much you are probably already aware of. It uses plastic figures, toys, to grant players access to certain areas and characters in the game. With a Meta-critic score of 82, you'd be forgiven for passing over this game for the review score chart toppers.
The problem here is that it doesn't fit a traditional assessment of a video-game, in many ways it's not a video-game. In fact, it's when you judge it as a video-game that Skylanders Giants' value proposition starts looking a little shaky.
You need to factor in the value of the toys in their own right. Beyond the clever ability of each figurine to save progress wirelessly and make it available on whichever format you happen to be using (360/Wii/PS3), it's the imaginative, play-time, under-bed adventures children will have with them that makes sense of the cost -- and the sheer amount of effort lavished on these physical Skylanders by developer Toys for Bob.
So rather than spend time digging into the specifics of the Skylanders Giants videogame, we can spend our time more profitably looking at the toy figures in Giants and how they compare to those provided in Skylanders Spyro's Adventures.
Let's outline the different figures available first. In addition to the 32 Series 1 Skylanders that can be used in the new game, there are 8 new double height Giants, 8 new normal Skylanders, 8 Lightcore light-up figures with a smart-bomb power and 24 Series 2 returning characters from the first game that get a extra super attack and the ability to switch upgrade path.
Long story short, you can use your old toys but now there is also a wider range of more distinctive new figures: Giants, Series 2 and Light-core.
Although the Giants and the Light-core characters will attract children first by their size and ability to illuminate when close to the portal, the Series 2 figures actually offer best value for money. Firstly these have been reworked so that their physical make-up matches must more closely to their in-game counterpart. This may sound like a small thing, but in the world of trying to establish a connection between a real and virtual persona this makes a big difference.
At the same time the build quality and number of materials used in these Series 2 figures seems to have been increased. There is more a sense of finesse about the different elements that have gone in to creating these characters. They are also modelled on an upgraded version of the in-game figures which again helps cement the relationship between the two.
Beyond the physical make-up there are a couple of in-game benefits of these Series 2 characters. Firstly they get a super-power (apparently called a Wow-pow) that no other group of Skylanders can access (be they Giants, Lightcore, Series 1 or even the new normal Skylanders). They also get the unique ability to switch upgrade paths at will, rather than being locked into one part way through the game. Finally they are compatible back in the original game as well.
Bottom line, if you are looking to expand your collection of Skylanders, for either the original Spyro's Adventure or the new Giants game, the Series 2 figures are the way to go.
In terms of physical play the Lightcore figures score highly. Although not as innovative in the game, offering just a smart-bomb effect when they first arrive in a level, the excitement of seeing them light-up when placed on the portal is a novelty that will inspire all sorts of imaginative play for children. In fact I discovered that my youngest had wired up a portal to reach to his bed the other night and was secretly reading a book lit only by a Lightcore Prismbreak. Of course I told him off for reading with such a dim light, but it was hard not to smile at the obvious enjoyment he was getting from the set-up.
Finally, the Giants add a truly fresh physical dimension to the toy range, not only to they share the light-up feature with the Light-core figures but their size and the fact that there is only one for each element grouping creates a hierarchy amongst the toys. This finds its way into all sorts of imaginative play scenarios where the Giants are either commanding their own armies of normal sized Skylanders or are being forced into hard labour like Gulliver.
While many reviews will complain at the lack of innovation in Skylanders Giants, or the inflated cost of owning all the figures, this is to miss the point. The only way that Giants makes sense financially is if you are going to get good value from the toys -- as toys -- rather than just pretty electronic keys to access in-game characters and areas.
As I've said elsewhere, Skylanders Giants is a game designed with a particular audience in mind. It's through the eyes of that audience that we should judge its success I think. Here we find the main stumbling block: that you have to choose between different toy versions of your favourite characters rather than being able to upgrade the one you already own. While this will mean that you might end up with three versions of a favourite figure (Prismbreak in Series 1, Series 2 and Light-core for example), this again opens up new possibilities in terms of physical play - an army of Prismbreaks is apparently just what my kids are after.
Time will tell if Skylanders Giants will be the sell-out success of the first game. Judged from the perspective of its core audience I will be surprised if it doesn't succeed in just the same way if not more so.