“Can we open this beautiful car, daddy?” This was the first thing my soon-to-be three-year-old said when he spied the Skylanders SuperChargers starter pack sitting on the coffee table. My kid, like millions of others, is fixated with cars. He’s already got a firm grasp of Skylanders (he doesn’t play it yet, but will sit and put toys onto portals while I play through campaigns with him) and which characters are his favourite. Now there are cars (and boats! Submarines! Jets! Tanks! Helicopters!) in the game; as if Skylanders wasn’t kid-cool enough.
I’m trying to decide whether Activision and developer Vicarious Visions were being diabolical adding vehicles to Skylanders, or whether the addition is another example of how they just know what makes kids tick. It’s probably a combination of the two, leaning more towards the former option when considering the amount of money this game is capable of swallowing.
The Skylanders franchise is an annualised one; a release tactic that is far more forgiving in the kids gaming scene than it is the contemporary AAA scene. Despite its annualised nature, the Skylanders franchise manages to stay fresh and relevant with each subsequent release, and SuperChargers is no different.
SuperChargers, like all previous entries in the series, brings a new Skylander variant to the table. There are 20 of them, and each has its own signature vehicle as well. Any Skylander (even the old ones from previous games) can utilise any vehicle, but if you pair SuperCharger Skylanders with their signature vehicles, you get a “SuperCharged” buff in the game. SuperCharger Skylanders are also the only characters capable of modifying and upgrading vehicles with a new collectible currency known as “gearbits”. You’ll need to collect vehicle-specific mods during the game’s campaign, and you can then swap things around to alter vehicle stats like acceleration and handling. You can also upgrade each vehicle’s weapon strength and shield.
The game and its (silly but fun) story revolve around these vehicles and the engines powering them. The endearingly inept Kaos has once again bitten off more than he can chew in his continual quest for Skylands domination, and it’s up to you, the Portal Master, and the new Skylanders to stop him. The story is really just an excuse for new toys and more imaginative Skylands locations to be explored. SuperChargers has had a few graphical tweaks and the results are lovely. The locations and characters all benefit from some great new lighting effects, and the addition of some more realistic textures means that the game world and your Skylanders have never looked this good. It was really neat placing older Skylanders toys and seeing updated, slightly more realistic versions of them pop up on the screen. There are also some stunning set pieces to be found throughout the story, and there’s far more atmosphere in SuperChargers than in the previous, more cartoony Skylanders games.
“It’s all just very clever and, above all, it’s a sincere offering from the developers, who clearly had a blast making this game.”
Game characters (both NPC and playable) remain one of this series’ crowning achievements. Facial animations have been given a bump, and that coupled with the ever-top-notch voice acting makes for a striking result. A lot of AAA titles could learn a thing or two about character creation from the Skylanders franchise. Each character actually has character, and I find myself remembering more Skylanders characters than I do any character from, for example, any Call of Duty in the history of ever.
Vehicles bring a whole new gameplay style to the franchise, but there are only certain segments in each level where you’ll need to use a vehicle. There are racing segments and then the more open exploration sections with vehicles. The latter is a little tricky insofar as controls go, as the game sticks with its fixed camera viewpoints, which means controlling the cars from an isometric position takes some getting used to.
Obviously there are a lot of car racing and driving sections as this is the one vehicle type that ships with all the starter packs. The other two vehicle types (air and water) are kept to optional objectives in each level. This is required due to the game’s toy collecting approach, but I also found it quite a pity that many great gameplay sections remain gated behind further purchases of very expensive toys. It’s not even subtle, but then again it’s never been subtle with Skylanders. However, in the interest of this review, I went out and bought one of the air vehicles to see how much gameplay is unlocked when you add the necessary vehicle, and I can report that it’s pretty substantial.
There are obviously two sides to this: on the one hand it’s sad that so much gameplay could be missed by those who don’t want to fork out extra cash; on the other hand it makes the cash that was spent on additional vehicles all the more worth it insofar as gameplay goes. With the previous game, Skylanders: Trap Team, I remember buying additional Trap Master Skylanders so we could access element-specific areas that required Trap Master characters, only to find that each area was minute and always led to a generic treasure chest. SuperChargers’ vehicles, however, do represent good value in terms of the gameplay content they unlock. That being said, once you’ve got one of each of the three vehicle types, you’ll have access to all of the game’s content because on the odd occasion when there’s an element-specific vehicle area (yes, the vehicles have elements just like the Skylanders), you can change that element to one that matches the vehicles you own.
Between levels you’ll once again be able to explore the Skylanders Academy hub world. The Academy looks completely different and has a number of new sections to keep you (I mean, your kids, obviously) busy. There’s the obligatory raceway area for all three vehicle types. Races play out on some beautifully imaginative racetracks that cater to the three vehicle types. The tracks are fairly dynamic in nature, which means that as each lap progresses, new obstacles pop up, like ice dragons freezing certain corners, and fire dragons setting fire to others. The racing is fun in a Mario Kart kind of way with power-ups and boost pads scattered about each track. Developer Vicarious Visions didn’t just tack-on a racing mode; there’s a lot of thought and care that’s gone into this side section.
And that’s the lasting sentiment that pervades this entire game: care. It’d be easy for Skylanders to devolve into a cash-grab franchise built on towers of plastic toys, but the games themselves remain whimsical experiences that are perfect for kids and still really entertaining to play through as an adult. There’s mountains of creativity to be found throughout SuperChargers – enough so to make sure that this new release in the series cannot possibly be seen as “just another Skylanders” in the way annual Assassin’s Creeds have become “just another Assassin’s Creed”.
For me, one of the best moments in the game is the level set inside a library. You need to locate information in certain books, and in order to do so your Skylander needs to dive into the pages of the books and experience the stories they contain. Each story takes place in a hand-painted, 2D plane that’s a stark contrast to the rest of the game. Each story also follows a different game genre, so in one you’re playing a traditional 2D side-scrolling platformer, and in the next you’ll be flying one of your vehicles in a top-down shoot-’em-up. It’s all just very clever and, above all, it’s a sincere offering from the developers who clearly had a blast making this game. It’s likely you’ll have a blast playing it as well.