Taking to the Skies

New games will entertain young and old.

“Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure” (Activision) is insidious. I almost hesitate to recommend it because of the potential cost, should a child become seriously hooked on the game, but it’s hard to deny just how fun the whole experience really is. Activision took a huge risk with Skylanders, and it paid off, with a unique game that the whole family can enjoy.

“Skylanders” comes in various versions that can work on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC/Mac and Nintendo DS. Some bundles have different figures, but all of them are essentially the same game. At the heart of the experience is the game itself: a colorful adventure that involves exploration, fighting, some light puzzle solving, and plenty of funny characters. If that’s all “Skylanders” was, then it would be a perfectly good example of a juvenile action/adventure game, and nothing more.

But it adds toys to the mix to create something fresh. Each base set comes with the game itself, a “Portal of Power” base, and three little figures representing characters from the game. The portal attaches to the game machine either via a wireless USB receiver or a wired connection, then lights up. For a character to “enter” the game, its matching toy must be placed on the portal, whereupon it pops into the game landscape.

Thus, every base package comes with three playable characters, each representing a different kind of elemental power. Only certain powers can unlock certain areas of the game, and here’s where the insidious part comes in: Although it is perfectly possible to play the entire main plot of the game with just the three basic characters, certain other areas of the game world are locked off and can only be accessed by purchasing toys with a particular power. Right now, there are 37 different characters representing eight different elements, and more to come. At $8 a throw, simply unlocking the entire game will cost an additional $40, and let’s not even talk about kids who want a complete compliment of figures.

And good luck even finding the figures. “Skylanders” was a huge Christmas hit, and it is impossible to buy some figures without paying scalper’s prices that can go as high as $50.

But does this serve any purpose other than driving parents insane and separating people from their cash? Actually, yes, it does. Each character can be upgraded as he goes about his adventures, and that data is saved to the figure itself using an RFID chip. A child can then bring a favorite figure to a friend’s house, and it will retain all its levels and progress.

Even better, swapping out figures is not merely integral to the gameplay, it’s fun. Kids love developing their little characters and then watching them warp from the real world into the game world, where each has some skills that are necessary for different parts of the adventure.

A lot of the action involves traversing various landscapes, collecting things, opening gates and fighting foes. Production is remarkably slick, with a script by Toy Story co-writers Alek Sokolow and Joel Cohen and a musical score by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer.

“Skylanders” integrates the collecting/upgrading mania of “Pokemon” into the game realm using toys, which is a marketing trifecta. If it weren’t so darn fun, it would be unforgiveable.

“Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure” is rated 10+ and includes some cartoon violence.

There’s really only been one word on the lips of adult gamers for the past couple of months, and that word is “Skyrim.” The fifth entry in the “Elder Scrolls” series of role-playing games has captivated gamers with an expansive universe and remarkable depth of play.

“Skyrim” (Bethesda Softworks) is epic fantasy gaming at its very best, telling a series of deep, interlocking stories while it offers almost endless quests to attempt, characters to meet and foes to defeat. The story is set in a mountainous region that is slowly descending into chaos and civil war. Each player chooses a gender and a race, and then he enters a dynamic fantasy world.

As the game begins, the world of Skyrim is shocked by the return of dragons, long thought extinct. As “Dragonborn,” the player can speak the “language” of dragons and is destined to play a major role in the fate of Skyrim. As you explore the countryside, you meet people and begin to help them with their problems, gradually finding your way through various plotlines, intrigues and military ventures.

There is much to love in “Skyrim,” but the biggest star is Skyrim itself. This world just cries out for exploration, from its sunlit valleys to its frozen mountain peaks, from the depths of monster-haunted dungeons to the frozen plains, where peaceful giants (deadly if provoked) act as shepherds for wooly mammoths. Cities, towns, forts and ruins dot the landscape.

Morally, the game is a mixed affair. The religious milieu is decidedly pagan, with a bit of a Nordic flavor to it. Illegal actions have negative consequences, but it is possible to join a thieves’ guild or even a “Dark Brotherhood” of quasi-demon worshippers. It is possible to get married in the game, but because of the “go anywhere, do anything” design, a player can marry someone of the same gender.

Yet there is still some moral context to mitigate the more challenging material. Theft and murder are punished, and it’s perfectly common to wind up being attacked or put in jail for committing a crime. Quests are largely heroic, and if the objective is immoral or criminal, you don’t have to complete it. Although there are children in the game, you cannot harm them.

Combat with edged or magical weaponry is a central element in the game, and the violence and imagery can be quite graphic. It is possible to “loot” bodies and even take their clothes. This leaves both male and female characters in their undergarments. There is some sexual innuendo, but no foul language or other explicit content. “Skyrim” is rated M (Mature) for blood and gore, intense violence, sexual and homosexual themes, alcohol, occult elements and paganism.

Gamers troubled by magical or occult narrative elements should probably give this one a pass. Others, however, will discover that “Skyrim” is an endlessly fascinating piece of fantasy role playing.

Thomas L. McDonald blogs at StateofPlayBlog.com.

Bishops to Obama: Rescind Your Unjust Mandate

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