For a while now the Mrs. and I have debated whether to get our son a Skylanders game. As we gazed upon them at Toys R Us, the appeal was undeniable - a litany of cute characters with special powers and individual stats. It's a boyhood dream! And girls can get into it too. Just as apparent as the appeal was the dark side of the game - the profound merchandizing. We're not talking about ancillary costs, like a backpack or a lunchbox, we're talking about costs in playing the game itself. Go to any user review of Skylanders, and these expenses are always discussed. But how bad is it really?
Good luck trying to figure that out on your own. In the United States, there are three levels of complexity as it comes to figuring out what something will cost you. Level one is represented by the grocery store. You see an item, it has a price, you pay for the item. It's as simple as it gets. Level two is represented by cell phone pricing. Lots of options, lots of possibilities, but if you know what you want and can do a little math, it can be figured out. Level three is represented by healthcare pricing. Want to know what a procedure will cost you in the end? Good luck, the system is not set up to provide that until the bill arrives. So where does Skylanders fit into all this? It's somewhere between level two and three.
After painstaking research, I have pieced together enough information to be dangerous, but I'm sure I'm still missing something. This is after watching the game in action, reading forums, wikis, professional reviews, etc. I put a lot of work into this. The results are captured in the grid below. If you were considering getting a Skylanders game, take a drink before you study the table. Got it? Ok, here goes . . .
Okay, now breathe! It isn't quite as bad as it looks, but it's still pretty bad. For long time readers of this site, you'll recall that I think one hour of good entertainment is worth $5 of value. So to get your value back from the first game, the least expensive of the bunch, it needs to be played for a solid 22 hours. That's not horrible for a video game, it can happen, but later games are much more trying when considering the same equation. Is it worth it then? Let me start off by explaining the table above in a bit more detail, and then I will draw a final conclusion for you to ponder.
The Console pack is the game and the portal, and you have to buy this to get the game. The good news is that a few figures come with each pack. The even better news is that technically this is all you need to finish the story mode! That's right, you can actually limit your liability to the first column of the table above. That won't happen though, because . . . .
The game does a fantastic job of making the user want more. How? First off, each level has gates or portals that can only be open with certain characters. Sometimes these are opened by characters with 1 of 8 elements, sometimes these require a giant, sometimes these require a particular Swap Force figure with a special power, and sometimes these require a particular Trap Master figure with a special ability. To put it another way, you can't find all the treasure or hidden items without the access these figures provide, and the end of each level reminds you of the stuff you missed. That final summary provides a 3-star rating system, and you can't do better than 1 star unless you have the right figures. That's the cost included in the second column.
The third column is specific to the latest game, Trap Force. In this game, you can play as the villains you encounter, as long as you have the right elemental trap to capture them. And guess what? Yep, those traps cost money as well. And the game encourages you to buy multiple versions of the same trap element, although technically only one of each element is required. It's the latter consideration which I have priced above.
The final column are more costs to the game, but these essentially expand the game like downloadable content (DLC) does in many popular games today. I excluded these from the total as the "core" game can be completed without them.
On a last note about expenses, Skylanders games are like Saturday morning cartoons in that they are partly set up to sell the toys to kids. For example, the games include soul gems which are nothing more than ads for characters. And in many ways, these soul gems represent the worst of Skylanders. The game is insidious in pushing its products, and just like those early morning cartoons, you can bet your kids will be asking for more figures once they see what the other ones can do.
And yet . . .
User reviews constantly talk about the costs of the game, and almost as frequently describe it as worth the expense. The games are well written, with strong voice acting -- particularly from Patrick Warburton of Seinfeld fame. Each character has a notable personality and whips out various one-liners as enemies are defeated. Levelling up is fun, and the game does a good job of mixing up activities even though it's fundamentally a 3D platformer at heart. A Saturday morning cartoon, yes, but one that even parents can get a chuckle out of.
An honestly, adults can enjoy the game too, although having kids makes it a stronger experience. Adults can't do much with the toy characters outside of the game, but kids can play with them like any other action figure (although the figures do not move), so there is added value to be had.
Now the costs start to make more sense, although it remains debatable if the value is there. Still, splashing out $250 on a toy series over time is not unheard of, and each figure adds to the replay ability of each game (note that not all figures work on each game, but most cover multiple games). After all, you don't need to buy everything at once, it can be doled out over the course of the year just fine.
Just know what you're getting into before taking that plunge.
Surface Pro 3: Part Laptop, Part Tablet, All Slamma Jamma
For a few years now, Microsoft has been touting its Surface Line of hybrid tablet/laptop devices. They've done this through a series of simply terrible commercials where users dance around in choreographed fashion, often balancing the device in the process. It's eye catching, certainly, but in the wrong kind of way. Those adverts, coupled with commentary of the devices, caused me to steer clear of ever wanting one. But through a sequence of events that I won't describe here, I have ended up owning a Surface Pro 3 device. And guess what, I love it.
I'm going to break this review into two pieces, because the discussion of the device changes dramatically depending on how it is used. Let's start looking at it as a laptop computer.
The Surface Pro series are actually full blown computers. They have computer grade processors and a full version of Windows. Anything you can do on a normal computer, you can do on this device. It's not a gaming rig, but then again, few computers are. For web browsing, office work, and doing finances, this is a fully functional machine.
The screen is 12 inches to the diagonal, which places it in the range of many of today's top notebook computers. The Surface does not come with a keyboard, but it would be silly not to buy one, even though a type keyboard costs a full $130. It's worth it though. This is a full keyboard that also serves as a cover for the screen when not in use. They keys are comfortable to type on, and the touchpad never gets in the way. The keyboard has a little give, but is generally quite sturdy, and can be deployed in an angled fashion unlike laptops that are laid out flat. All of this lends to a comfortable typing experience without weighting the device down. In fact, the tablet and keyboard combined weigh over two pounds, -- another advantage over traditional notebook computers.
There is a USB port for connecting devices like a mouse. However, with touchscreen capability, and the type cover track pad, using a mouse isn't required.
Every surface device has a kickstand, and the Pro 3's is the best ever. You can set the screen to pretty much any angle you want. You would think the kickstand might dig into your legs when setting it on your lap, but it doesn't. Everything about the computer's hardware screams first class. It had better given the price, but we'll get to that later.
This is a computer that is designed for mobile work. In sleep mode, it takes 25 seconds of booting until you are ready to go, including time to enter a password. Shutting the device down is even faster; either close the type cover or press the power button, and then retract the kickstand. That's it. In 3 seconds this computer is ready to be stowed away. Easy on, easy off, easy to carry, there just isn't much to dislike about this device as a laptop.
With an additional dock, you can also use the Surface as a desktop replacement. I'm not sure if I would go that far. Desktop setups are fairly cheap and can provide more power, but it's good to know the option is there if needed. The only real limitation of the Surface Pro 3 as a computer, from a performance point of view, is around high-end gaming. The graphics prowess is simply limited on this device. But outside of that, I was able to run Microsoft Office, do computer aided design via the Lego Design Drawer tool, conduct web browsing, play mobile game apps, and watch Netflix with no performance issues at all.
The Surface Pro 3 as a tablet is a much more mixed proposition. On one hand, the screen size is great. Twelve inches is fantastic for watching videos, and the screen is sharp and pleasant to look at. A great screen is critical for a good tablet, but so is weight. Without the type cover, the Surface Pro 3 is 1.75 pounds. For what it is, that's an incredible achievement, but while holding it with one hand you easily notice the weight. Two handed operation is fine, but I like to read using one hand, and sometimes the weight of the device gets in the way of doing that comfortably.
Then there is the app store. In order of size, iOS has the biggest store, Android is next, and Windows comes in third. The difference between the selection between iOS and Android is quite small, with casual gaming more prominent in the former. The gap between Android and Windows is fairly pronounced, so you can't always find apps for Windows that you can find on the other two systems. Zite is an example of this. But for the most part, the big names you expect to see in any app store are present.
It's worth noting that the type cover is connected by magnets and can be removed easily with minimal fuss, while the chances of it dropping off accidentally are virtually zero. Windows 8 features apps fairly well, and on the sharp large screen games like Angry Birds really come alive. Finally, the Surface 3 comes with a nicely sized pen to take notes on the tablet. This is leap forward from styluses that you need to use with most Apple and Android tablets, and is a huge win for the device. It even features palm rejection where you can place your hand on the screen to rest without registering an input. Nice.
Ultimately though, the weight and app store make the Surface Pro 3's foray into tablet space a somewhat limiting one. The gaps in the apps store are forgivable if the device were easy to hold in one hand, but the combination of issues are tough to ignore.
Things that Impact Both Forms
The battery life of the device is really mixed. I've had sessions where I was pacing for over 9 hours of use, and another session where I was pacing for just under 5 hours of use. The differences in battery drain seem to stem from the type of programs or applications I used. Microsoft Office, web browsing, and reading apps took little battery power, while the Lego Design Drawer and a few games sucked a lot more juice. In sleep mode, the device seems to last around a week before a recharge is needed.
Windows 8.1 makes sense on a tablet and notebook computer. I have few complaints about the operating system. The transition from Metro interface to desktop interface can be slightly jarring though. It's not always clear which mode you need to be in to close a program, for example, but these are minor drawbacks. Windows 8.1 is a nice change of pace from iOS and Android. I wouldn't say Windows is better than either of its competitors, but I wouldn't call it worse either.
Finally, a conversation about the Surface Pro 3 would not be complete unless we talked about the price. Yes, this is an expensive piece of equipment. The device I am reviewing costs over $1100 when you throw in the essential type cover keyboard. Generally, the price is consistent, albeit a bit more expensive, than high end comparable notebook computers like the Macbook Air. Given the versatility of the device, the price seems justified, but you would need to take advantage of that versatility in order for the pricing to make more sense. The Surface Pro 3 can function as a notebook, a tablet, or even a desktop computer. If you were considering buying this, and were going to use it for two of those forms, then I don't think the pricing is unreasonable at all. But if you would only use the device for one function, say as a laptop only, then the purchase becomes a much tougher decision.
It's a killer as a laptop, and pretty good as a tablet. I can highly recommend this device as the former, but am guarded by recommending it for the latter. But overall, I think this is a good buy if you have the money and it won't be your primary tablet. If the weight issue were resolved, then I could recommend this as a replacement for both devices, but we just aren't there yet.
Having said that, the device is super cool and useful. The mobility is unparalleled for a notebook computer, and the fact that it also moonlights as a tablet is pretty slick. It looks fantastic too. This is a purchase I am happy I made.