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With 'Swap Force,' Activision shakes up its 'Skylanders' toy game

Here's a billion-dollar idea: Toys that kids can play with inside a video game, as well as out in the real world. Activision proved that in 2011 with "Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure." The small plastic figurines that lit up on screen may not have been as interactive as your favorite G.I. Joe figures, but that didn't stop Activision from turning Skylanders into a runaway success second only to Call of Duty in the company's eyes.

Now Activision is trying to stay ahead of its own curve with "Skylanders: Swap Force," a new video game that works with a lineup of much better toys, ones that are more interactive both on and off screen.

The first Skylander title operated around a central mechanic: placing the different action figures (the titular Skylanders) onto a small plastic disc known as "The Portal of Power," causing the character to appear onscreen and ready for battle. 2012's "Skylanders: Giants" game tweaked this only by introducing slightly bigger Skylanders figures — hence the subtitle.

"Giants" was a lot of fun, no doubt. But it was just a small evolution, not a revolution. "Skylanders: Swap Force" is a revelation by comparison. The game adds 16 characters to the mix, but these new figures have a twist: Instead of one static statue-like action figure, the "Swap Force" figurines are made up of two distinct parts — the top and the bottom — connected by a set of magnets.

This is where the fun truly begins. (I'm serious!) Each top and bottom has unique characteristics that determine how the character moves and attacks on screen respectively. The "Wash Buckler," a water-themed character who resembles Davy Jones from "Pirates of the Caribbean," moves somewhat slowly with a set of tentacles and shoots bubbles with a blunderbuss-like gun, for instance, while the fiery robot "Blast Zone" stomps around with humanoid legs, chucking cannonballs at his foes.

Mix and match the new Skylanders into Frankenstein-ish toy monsters, and you get "Blast Buckler," who has tentacle legs but chucks cannonballs, or "Wash Zone," with legs and a bubble gun. Each combination of the various elemental abilities gives a Skylander unique advantages (and disadvantages) at each level.

Breaking the toys into two pieces might sound like a small adjustment, but it goes a long way towards making the toys in "Skylanders: Swap Force" feel like real toys, rather than just video game accessories. Previous "Skylanders" titles, and competing games like "Disney Infinity" or "Angry Birds Star Wars II," have given players impressive-looking figurines that feel more like collectible statues than actual playthings. Dividing a toy into two parts rather than just one doesn't exactly turn the Skylanders into a LEGO set, but the lines between toys and video games start to blur. You can't just look at them — you have to do something.

Still, the improvements to the toys do come with a price. Activision told NBC News that the new tech in "Swap Force" means that players will have to buy a new Portal of Power for the game, meaning parents will have to invest in another $75 starter kit — even if their kids have already been stocking up on Skylanders for the past two years.

"Skylanders: Swap Force" comes out for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo 3DS, Wii and Wii U on Oct. 13, and will appear on the next-generation Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles the following month. Watch the new trailer below.

Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: