Skylanders: Superchargers finds novelty in old tropes

Skylanders: Superchargers takes one of the oldest mechanics in video games--vehicle segments--and infuses it with its own brand of inventive toy-based twists.


With the exception of the boring also-ran that was Giants, Skylanders has developed a knack for finding inventive ways to utilize simple concepts. Swap Force let you mix-and-match, by cleaving movement and attack into two distinct aspects of character design. Trap Team was a simple way to bring in many more characters than could ever be put into toy form, and had the added benefit of a tag-team mechanic to get out of tight spots. I've been consistently impressed with how much mileage Activision has wrung out of a simple concept, and that trend looks to be continuing in this year's iteration: Skylanders Superchargers from Vicarious Visions. 

Superchargers introduces vehicles, which isn't exactly novel in itself. Skylanders character designs have been flexible enough that many of them have had vehicle-like move sets or special abilities. Superchargers leans harder into the concept, by featuring vehicle segments to offer some much-needed variety in stage designs. In a hands-off demo, I was shown around an early stage.

Cherry Ride

Vehicles come in three varieties: land, sea, and air. Only land is included in the starter pack, so those segments are the only ones required of the player. The water and flying portions are optional, and have distinct effects on stages like disabling the rest of the area's traps. Though I only saw three vehicles, there will be 20 in all: hovercrafts, speedboats, race cars, motorcycles, monster trucks, tanks, construction vehicles, jet planes, and helicopters were all mentioned. Some of the vehicles also have moving parts for the first time, like functional wheels.

The eponymous "Superchargers" are the new Skylanders characters themselves. Any Skylander, past or present, can pilot any vehicle, but the 20 new Supercharger characters are paired with their own signature rides. Eight of the 20 are returning characters with revised move sets, like the new Supershot Stealth Elf who relies more on ranged weaponry.

Having the correct Skylander take to his or her vehicle gives it a boost to damage, extra health, and a set of custom mods. Aside from those specialized ones, there are hundreds of mods littered throughout the stages that boost various stats and give extra visual flourishes. As an example I was shown Hot Streak, a hot rod that pairs with the Skylander Spitfire. The two share some visual elements in both the game and toys, so it's obvious they're meant to be together. When the player found a mod for Hot Streak, its standard wheels became replaced with ones that left flaming tracks a la Back to the Future.

Dusting Off Portals

Most of the vehicle segments are linear paths like a race track or a water channel, but they allow some exploration as players can find hidden paths. Hot Streak might make a quick turn to unlock a mod while the submarine Dive Bomber could slip below the water to find an entrance not visible from the surface. The air vehicle had the widest range of motion, but still channeled down a narrow path similar to a Star Fox game. The vehicle segments ended with an arena section that gave the vehicle full range of motion from an isometric perspective as it took down a boss.

All this talk of vehicles made me wonder if it will feature races, which Vicarious Visions representatives opted not to comment on. It will feature co-op vehicle play, though, as players split driving and gunning duties for a single ride. 

Since the vehicles are read just like the figures themselves, this year's edition won't require a new portal. For that reason, Activision will be offering it as a digital download, cheaper than the full version and with just enough characters to finish the game. It's an overdue move for a series that has often necessitated an all-new $75 purchase every year, but fans will likely appreciate it nonetheless.

Skylanders has turned into a juggernaut for Activision. It has consistently enjoyed high sales in both video game and toy categories, and Activision says it has now reached a quarter of a billion toys sold in total. That's partly due to a high attach rate of roughly 7-10 toys over a 12-month period. The company has every motivation to keep its cashflow flowing, but Superchargers shows once again that it understands the key to success is to keep focusing on the new. Even when introducing staid concepts like vehicle segments, Vicarious Visions appears to be finding ways to make it unique.

It will hit stores for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Wii, and iPad on September 20. The physical starter pack will include the portal, Spitfire, Hot Streak, and Super Shot Stealth Elf, while the digital version will include instant versions of Spitfire and Hot Streak.

This Skylanders: Superchargers preview was based on a pre-release, hands-off demo of the game at an event where transportation was partially provided by Activision.

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