It’s been four years since Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure shook up the industry with it’s trailblazing toy-based gameplay, enticing a new generation of young gamers and inspiring everyone from Disney, Lego, and even Nintendo into getting in on the action. Unlike it’s upstart competitors, however, Skylanders has largely been unfettered by a reliance on licensed characters and outside franchises, and each successive game has allowed Activision to evolve and explore the tech and play styles into areas that leave the rest behind. This year’s installment continues that trend, as Superchargers introduces vehicle-based play into the mix, combining the rich platforming experience with high-speed Kart racing thrills.
Of all the additions they could have made to the game, why vehicles? “It’s been on our minds for some time” says Brent Gibson, Creative Director at Vicarious Visions, “but the vehicle fantasies we wanted to choose were different for everybody. We noticed that within our own team, some people were really passionate about race cars, then some people were all into the ‘Top Gun’ kind of fantasy, flying through the sky in jet fighters and helicopters. Some people imagined it being very much in line with jet skis and speed boats. So we decided to start off with the notion of ‘Sky, Land, and Sea’. This was enough meat for us to take the team and start thinking up what types of over-the-top vehicle fantasies might fit into the game.” What they ended up with far exceeds the scope and breadth of a simple kart racer, though it does manage to give us it’s best Mario Kart impression (and pulls it off surprisingly well). Land vehicles range from race cars, tanks and motorcycles, sky vehicles include jets, helicopters and rocket ships, and submarines, boats and hovercrafts make up the roster of sea vehicles. In total, Superchargers brings with it a roster of twenty vehicles, each one corresponding to the twenty new characters, and the toys maintain the same high level of sculpt and polish we’ve come to expect from Skylanders, right down to rolling wheels and spinning helicopter blades.
Vehicles are integral to the gameplay of the main story, and effectively replace the element-based gating off of ten playable areas with ‘docks’ where you hop in to an air, sea or land vehicle. Lead level designer Mark Webster told us that the emphasis was on letting players have the ability to access more of the playable areas: “We wanted to make it feel more open, more ‘explorey.’” Docks can lead to races, helicopter rescue missions, underwater exploration expeditions- whatever is relevant to the level theme and narrative. Vehicular fun doesn’t stop there, however, as there is a full racing mode with six tracks (one for each vehicle type) that even the older kids in the family can get into. Sure, the resemblance to Mario Kart is a bit shameless (for instance, the Tiki power up equals blue shell with the same frustrating results), but once you throw in the air and sea tracks, not to mention the unique features of each vehicle, it’s easy to focus on the additive components to the tried and true formula.While concepts such as swapping parts of characters to make new composite characters, or items that serve as traps for enemies and characters in the game that provide new abilities and allies during play, there’s very little possibility of confusion once the conceit for including vehicles in introduced at the beginning of the game- everybody, big and small, inherently gets the concept of driving and piloting cars, boats, and jets.
Once again, every character, toy or accessory that has ever been a part of a Skylanders game is compatible with Superchargers- an impressive feat given that there are literally hundreds of characters and over 300 toys total in the franchise by this point. All characters and swap force combinations have been given all new animations- including animations of each character driving or piloting the vehicles. The new portal accessory is a little wider as to accomodate a single vehicle in addition to two characters (in co-op play, both players would drive the same vehicle), and also includes a trap slot. Yes, true to the series’ adherence to making every toy from every installment forward compatible, the traps from Trap Team can now be used as a way to modify and boost vehicle stats. As mentioned before, each vehicle corresponds to a character, and pairing that character with their vehicle effectively ‘supercharges’ it, which basically unlocks additional mods that actually change the appearance of the vehicle in game in addition to affecting its performance.
With each new Skylanders game comes a whole crew of new and interesting characters, and Superchargers is no exception. While several of them are debuting this year for the first time, a handful will be familiar to longtime fans, such as Night Elf and Terra Fin. Unlike previous versions of the game, however, the new figures and power sets for these characters have been reimagined from the ground up, and Vicarious Visions said they have treated them as if they were new additions to the game. In order to use those new power sets, you’ll need the new figures, but if you’d rather stick with your tried and true versions of the characters, the older figures will appear in the game as they were. Buck Chantell, Art Director and Rob Gallerani, Lead Combat Designer, gave us a little insight into how the team went from character concept to play, going into detail how they are able to design and iterate each character not only in the game, but also the final physical toy- all in-house. Initial concepts spring forth from a variety of sources, from initial concepts provided by the design team, to gameplay mechanics mocked up in ‘game jam’ sessions (A ‘game jam’ is when the team breaks up into groups and each one spends a few days working up rough prototypes around gameplay ideas, which then become the springboard for actual gameplay. This is a practice found most often within indie game collectives and generally leads to incredibly interesting and occasionally wacky gaming experiences), and in the case of at least one new character, audio designers; Fiesta, the sugar-skulled mariachi band leader came about because one of the audio designers had an idea of a character power revolving around summoning minions that would play music along with the character.
Once initial character ideas are chosen, cross-disciplined teams of designers, animators, engineers, etc. are formed around each one and each team goes off and iterates on each character. After character designers and animators build out 3D models of each one, a physical prototype is created via 3D printer and subsequently iterated on to find the right pose and dynamic that conveys it’s personality best. Toys and gameplay are play-tested constantly with children, where they observe every aspect of interaction. Usability, eye-tracking, and how kids play with both the toys and the game are crucial pieces of data that play into the iteration process, influencing everything from character abilities and their upgrade paths to how the characters actually look and how they fit into the overall narrative. One of the new characters that is sure to become a favorite is Splat, a faun-like artist wielding a paint brush as a staff whose power set revolves around using the brush to paint the environment. In her original iteration the art component wasn’t there, and her character was darkness based and her staff a tool to spread oil around. During play testing, children were noting that her staff looked like a brush and they asked why her brush could only paint in one color. This lead to a reimagining of Splat that brought her into a more bright and colorful character that resonated with kids even more. Another great anecdote revolved round the female lark-like character Stormblade, who was originally conceived of as a peacock-like creature, until one little girl informed them that “girl peacocks aren’t colorful, they are actually brown.”
Gameplay mechanics benefitted strongly from the game jam sessions as well, providing the level designers at Vicarious Visions a wealth of quirky ideas. Each level of the main storyline uses a central theme; A level that takes place as a race on the back of a giant dragon was inspired by a game jam project that tried to answer the question “what if the race track was moving underneath the player?” By far, the best example we were shown was dubbed by the team ‘Skyzilla’, a level that starts with titanic creatures off in the distance, towering over the players and destroying the environment, with players finding ways to gradually increase in size until by the end of the level they are going toe-to-toe with them. The mechanic itself cam from a core idea of how kids play as giant monsters, and focusing on the moment when the character grows to titan size. The level looked like a blast, and was very reminiscent of the ‘Gogglor’ stage from Double Fine’s classic Psychonauts.
Of course all of these themed levels fit into the overall story narrative: Kaos is back once again, but this time the stakes seems to be even higher as he’s captured Master Eon and has unleashed the Doomstation of Ultimate Doomstruction on Skylands, his agenda being one of destruction rather than dominion. The introduction and underlying narrative to these games have always been pretty sparse, with story taking a backseat to the toy-based gameplay and platforming mechanics, but Vicarious Visions took that to heart for this installment, and the plot for Superchargers feels like it has a lot more weight and influence on the game than Trap Team or Swap Force. Right from the intro it’s obvious that the team was very self-aware of how formulaic the Skylanders formula had become, cleverly subverting the tropes established in previous games and dropping players quickly into the action. Even the hub world brings ideas back from earlier games but with a new twist, as previous story characters and their settings are a big part of what’s happening. With the Doomstation wreaking destruction on the Skylands, Superchargers’ hub is more of a roaming rebel base of ragtag skylands (think Battlestar Galactica), incorporating elements and characters from previous games such as the Buzz and his Skylanders Academy, and the the Core of Light from the original game. In addition to being the central area where players travel to other levels and train their Skylanders, the hub is chock full with a ridiculous amount of content in it’s own right. The racing levels have already been mentioned, but there are also test tracks that allow players to immediately jump into their vehicles and try out combat, do tricks on courses with features like half-pipes and obstacles, puzzle tracks, and of course giant spatulas that will launch your character into space. All of these test tracks are incorporated into the hub world itself, and if you choose a sky track you’ll be wearing in and out of the different structures that make it up.
Another goal that Vicarious Visions set for the game was to incorporate more of the character backstory and personal narrative into the game, resulting in what they call ‘Supercharger quests’ for each of the new characters. These short story quests are also available from the hub and completing them rewards the player with powers and stat boosts unique to that character that can come in very handy during the main storyline. Added to that are several additional ‘Supercharged challenges’ that are uniquely crafted for each of the twenty Supercharger characters. If that’s not enough content for you, there’s also a collectible card-based battle game called Skystones, which evokes a simplified Hearthstone vibe. Players collect stones over the course of the game and as rewards for some of the other mini games, but if you still have some traps from the previous game with villains in them, be sure to drop them into the portal and you’ll get to claim their stones for the game.
If you’re wondering which platform to get the game on, Superchargers has several options that are all very compelling. As was previously announced at E3, the Wii U version incorporates two exclusive Supercharged Nintendo vehicles and figures- Bowser and Donkey Kong- that also double as amiibo with a twist of the figure’s base (Note: these figures only work with the Wii U version of the game). Of special note is the iOS version of the game this time around, with a nearly identical experience to the full console versions of the game on later model harder. While the iOS portal accessory is basically the same as last year’s version, the game itself takes full advantage of Apple’s Metal graphics APIs effectively making the game look just as good as it does on the Xbox 360 or PS3 with equally smooth framerate and response time. It also has full online support and games can be saved to iCloud, letting your kids play the game on your phone if you’re out and about. While I definitely preferred playing it using the portal and included bluetooth controller, Superchargers can be played without the portal or controller as well.
The Skylanders series has been a hit machine for Activision for the last few years, and despite new competition in the toy-to-game genre, Superchargers looks to maintain that winning streak. With playable content literally bursting at the seams, this game has something for every gamer in your household, regardless of age. Sure, it’s going to be another hit to the wallet as some of the new character figures and vehicles look too good to pass up, but at least EVERY Skylanders toy will still be playable in the game, and there’s usually little in the way of forced shortages in stores like some of those OTHER toys.
Skylanders SuperChargers comes out on September 20th for PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, Xbox 360 and PS3. Skylanders SuperChargers for iOS comes out on October 25th.