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‘Skylanders: SuperChargers’ Preview: Revving up for more fun

In just under four years, Activision Blizzard’s Skylanders franchise has become one of the most popular game series of all time. The kid-friendly franchise crossed the $3 billion mark earlier this year and as of June 2015 has sold more than 250 million toys that can be brought to life — digitally speaking — for interactive adventures on various platforms.

The fifth console release of the series, Skylanders: SuperChargers arrives later this month and brings with it yet another twist on the toys-to-life mechanic that has helped make the franchise so successful. Digital Trends was given a hands-on demo of SuperChargers at the studio of developer Vicarious Visions and received an early look at the innovations — both in the game itself and the toys — intended to make the next installment another hit for the Skylanders franchise.

Story/Concept

Something old, something new. As in past iterations of the series, SuperChargers has the Skylanders facing off against Kaos, the diminutive villain of the franchise whose repeated attempts to subjugate the world of Skylands have been thwarted by the combined efforts of the “Portal Masters” (the game’s players) and the Skylander characters they control in the game’s world. This time around, Kaos’ scheme has destroyed much of Skylands and forced the remaining Skylanders to take refuge on floating remnants of the world chained together in a moving fleet of airships and floating islands. In order to defeat Kaos, some new characters — as well as upgraded versions of older characters — have joined the fight with a set of powerful vehicles that allow them to drive, fly, or swim into battle.

Have vehicle, will travel. Skylanders: Superchargers has players traveling throughout the remaining Skylands via portals and other means, rescuing their inhabitants from Kaos’ army and terrifying machine of destruction and engaging in missions that will (hopefully) bring an end to the devastation. At times, the Skylanders traverse the various environments on foot — or tail, wing, or other solo means — but certain missions require the use of vehicles to get around. Over the course of the adventure, the player-controlled Skylanders are joined by various, familiar supporting characters from the franchise, and many settings from previous installments of the series are revisited as the players attempt to discover the secret to defeating Kaos and restoring the Skylands.

Related: Disney Infinity 3.0 review

Gameplay

It’s all about the portal. Throughout the franchise, the interaction between players, their toys, and the game is facilitated through a “portal” peripheral that reads the figures (or in this case, vehicles) placed upon it and brings that character (or object) to life as a player-controlled element in the game. SuperChargers ups the ante by giving players the option of adding two objects to the portal: a character figure and a vehicle. The two toys are placed side-by-side on the portal, and are then made available in-game as dictated by the narrative. Vehicles appear when a particular stage requires them, otherwise you play as the character you’ve chosen.

Old is new again. One of the hallmarks of the Skylanders franchise is that each installment of the series has allowed players to use any of the toys released before the latest game as well as those debuting in the current adventure. The release of SuperChargers bumps the supported number of Skylanders figures past 300, and the developer assured us that every character will remain supported in the new game — even if it means animating one of the massive Skylanders: Giants characters stuffing itself into a tiny, in-game airplane.

By air, sea, or land. Like the Skylanders themselves, which are each assigned one of eight elements (earth, air, fire, water, etc), the vehicles are grouped into three categories: sky, land, or water. Sky vehicles fly, land vehicles drive, and water vehicles maneuver both above and below the surface of the water. And again, much like the characters, the controls for the vehicles are relatively simple with an accelerator trigger, two attack buttons, a reverse control, a drift/strafe button, and intuitively designed control sticks. We were able to jump into the game using each type of vehicle and maneuver around without much of a learning curve, so players of all ages should have an easy time with the transition from character to vehicle controls.

The majority of our SuperChargers preview was spent experimenting with various vehicles, and according to the developer, approximately half the game is vehicle-based and the other half involves the standard solo character play — with a few new additions. For example, certain characters are paired with particular vehicles, and when players use the matched set of character and vehicle, that vehicle is “super-charged” with various upgrades that add an extra layer of customization to the in-game experience.

Play forever and ever. The Skylanders series already featured an impressive amount of replay value, with each new character you add to your collection also unlocking a series of new in-game adventures, but SuperChargers appears to have made it even more likely that players will keep coming back to Skylands. Our hands-on experience with the game revealed a more robust quest system than the one present in previous installments, as well as quest progression tailored to individual characters — something that’s entirely new for the franchise. The addition of vehicle-based challenges that also unlock interactive in-game objects only adds to what appears to be a more expanded sandbox environment.

Multiplayer is multi-fun. The addition of vehicles to the Skylanders universe has been accompanied by some multiplayer options that add a new dynamic to the franchise. Online play modes now allow players to compete against each other in races using the various vehicles, and the combination of simple controls and colorful, interactive environments makes for a fun, Mario Kart-esque experience that even the playing field for young and old racers alike. According to the developer, in-game chat during multiplayer events will be restricted to members of your authorized friend list.

Presentation

Form and function. We got a look at several new characters and vehicles debuting in SuperChargers, and while the overall size of the new line of toys will be small relative to previous installments (20 new toys and 20 vehicles), the vehicles themselves offer quite a bit of extra experience both in-game and in real-world play. Each of the land vehicles debuting in SuperChargers is equipped with rubberized, rolling wheels that allow it to be rolled along the floor like any good toy. Helicopter toys feature rotating propellors, and various other elements of articulation present in each vehicle make real-world play with the toys a real possibility.

Innovating the environment. During our preview of SuperChargers, we noticed quite a few new level-design and background elements that amounted to more than just a fresh coat of paint for the latest installment. We were particularly impressed with a timed vehicle challenge featuring a race track on the back of a massive, flying dragon that had us driving along the path as the track twisted and waved beneath the vehicle. We also glimpsed (but weren’t able to play) a stage wherein the player’s character is super-sized and given the opportunity to stomp around the now-miniature level like a giant monster.

Takeaway

It would’ve been easy to simply release some new toys and a new narrative campaign, but Skylanders: SuperChargers seems intent on pushing the boundaries of the toys-to-life genre with some innovative additions to the franchise. Whether all of these elements come together in a cohesive experience remains to be seen, but there certainly seems to be a concerted effort on the development side to take big steps forward with each iteration of the series.

Like Skylanders: Swap Force before it, SuperChargers also seems to offer a good jumping-on point for newcomers to the franchise. While our preview of the game featured much of the humor and clever dialogue that has become another hallmark of the series, the narrative never seemed so insider-y or steeped in its own canon as to become an obstacle to new players.

With SuperChargers, Activision Blizzard and Vicarious Visions seem to have continued their impressive all-ages balancing act with the series that makes the game appealing to a wide spectrum of players while also an equally fun experience for players with one or two toys as it is for players with an entire shelf full of Skylanders. Given the franchise’s success so far, that shouldn’t be a surprise — but we’ll know for sure when SuperChargers arrives on shelves.

Skylanders: SuperChargers will be available for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, and iOS on September 20, 2015.