Skylanders Superchargers is the latest in a chain of games featuring the Skylanders, a collection of plastic figures that are transformed by the "Portal of Power" into characters you can control on the screen. So far, it's been so good. Each year, a new refinement to the formula is introduced. We've had Giants, Swap Force and Trap Team so far and this year's tweak is all about vehicles that your Skylander can pilot. There are land vehicles (included in the starter bundle), water-based transport, and flying machines. With these vehicles, you can take part in races, and they are also used at various points in the single player story. The question is, has this transformation been successful?
We were reviewing the Dark Edition starter pack, which includes a land vehicle, a water vehicle and two "dark" Skylanders. It also includes a Kaos "trophy" that allows the use of Kaos and his Doom Jet in any sky vehicle mission or race. However, it doesn't include a sky vehicle in the pack...but we'll cover this point later on.
First impressions are good, with the game instructing you to place a land vehicle on the portal, then a figure. Each vehicle has a corresponding character, so when the two are on the portal at the same time, they become "Supercharged" which offers new abilities compared to a standard combination. Immediately we were into a portal/wormhole/tunnel that we had to drive along, avoiding dangers and collecting money. At this point, the controls were tight and responsive, the sensation of speed good and everything moved along at a good pace, with impressive graphics as the passage was strobed with purple light and lightning effects. If you've ever played a Skylander game before, you will feel instantly at home once the tunnel run is complete, since the on-foot controls for the Skylanders are exactly as they have been for the last 3 games, so a sense of familiarity settled over us like a cosy duvet. This then seemed to set the pattern for each of the levels we played in the campaign mode.
Each of the campaign levels play out in a similar way. You generally start on foot as your chosen Skylander, then come to a part that requires a vehicle of some sort. These sections are optional, and can be skipped if you don't have the relevant vehicle. There are sections where you have no choice but to use a land vehicle, however, and as the starter kits ship with these they are compulsory. Largely, they are track-based A-to-B affairs, with added combat and money-collecting opportunities thrown in. As races or as linkers for the sections of the level, they work well, breaking up the action and providing a welcome change of pace. In these sections, drifting provides a boost to speed when you stop drifting, and this is a skill that you will have to acquire if you hope to have success in the races. The vehicle's weapons all seem to have a very handy lock-on function, allowing you to keep firing while powersliding around corners, which does look cool. There are also boss fights that have to be undertaken in this manner, and again there is a real sense of satisfaction to be gained from a perfectly judged drift, giving you a boost of speed that brings the enemy into range of your weapons, allowing you to finally take them down.
So far, so groovy, right? Well, sadly, there is another type of driving mission you have to undertake, and these are arena-based missions. As we have mentioned previously, the driving controls in the racing events are tight and responsive, so the team that coded them up deserves a pat on the back. We can only assume that team had the day off and let the work experience lad have a go at the controls when it comes to the arena part. As an example, if you are driving left to right across the arena and want to turn left, you have to press down on the stick, not left or right. This is completely counter-intuitive if you have ever played a driving game before, and lead to more moments of frustration then was probably good for our hearts. A lot of these arenas really require precise driving to weave around projectiles, through portals and such, and the controls really do make this much more difficult than it needs to be. After around six hours, we had almost learned to drive around these arenas competently despite the controls, but the number of innocent Skylanders sent for an early bath (Skylanders never die, they just become tired) due to getting hung up on a bit of scenery was beyond a joke. We can honestly say that when we could see one of these encounters looming that our hearts sank. In one of the later missions, we were trying to insert giant chickens into cannons (don't ask) and avoid bad guys and their bullets, and we can say without a shadow of a doubt that there was nearly a neat controller-shaped hole in the window of pX Towers. In fact, the most efficient way we found to beat these bosses was to park in front of them in the vehicle and blaze away. When the Skylander became tired, we'd swap him/her out for a new one. We went through 25 Skylanders in this manner, but did eventually beat the boss with the 26th. Obviously, this removes any form of skill or fun from these boss fights, but the vehicle controls don't work well enough to defeat them any other way.
While we are touching points that are not so good, we have to mention the other vehicle types. As we mentioned earlier, each story chapter has a part for a water vehicle, and a part for a sky vehicle. If you want to score the maximum three stars on a level, you have to complete these sections, meaning you have to go out and buy the vehicles you don't have. Also, the vehicles themselves have a specific elemental type, so again if you want to open up the whole of the level, you are going to need multiple vehicles. Add this to needing certain elemental Skylander types as well (and of course, only this version's Skylanders can upgrade vehicles and rebuild gates in the levels) and the spending can get way out of hand. It's unfair to penalise this game too much for this as its been a mechanic in Skylanders for as long as we can remember, but it can certainly result in a severely bruised wallet. Much more so than in previous editions.
This would probably be a good time to bring in some of the positives about the game, and the first of those is backwards compatibility. Any previous Skylander will work in the new game and on the new portal, so the chances of completing the game increase with each extra Skylander you have, as each one is, in effect, an extra life. Another good example of reusing old kit is the way in which the traps from Trap Team are used. When you insert them into the receptacle in the new Portal of Power, they give the equipped vehicle ammunition of the elemental type of the trap that was inserted. Also, if there is a bad guy in the trap when it's inserted, it unlocks a Skystones Smash stone of that character. This leads neatly on to the second good thing, the return of Skystones Smash. It's now called Skystones Smash Overdrive, and features stones of the vehicles that can be played. We don't have time or space here to go into a breakdown of the rules and tactics for the game, but take our word for it, it's just as enjoyable as it always was and is a great diversion from the main game.
A special mention must go to the design of the vehicles, as they do look fantastic, and the new Skylanders that are available are the usual blend of the inspired and the insane. Graphically, the game has taken a big step forward, going from the overly cartoony look of the previous game to something that, while it couldn't be called gritty realism, is a complete overhaul and suits the game a lot better. The game also plays with new mechanics, such as the ability to make things shrink or increase in size in order to solve problems regarding chickens (again, don't ask) and also has another that involves making your vehicle "attractive" so that it can pull parts of statues around, again to solve puzzles. These all add to the variety of the gameplay.
The racing is also available in a separate mode from the main menu. This is hosted by Pendergast, who is as brilliantly voiced as every huckster you've ever heard and has divisions based on the three vehicle types. There are the usual single race, time trial, and mirror modes to unlock, and even an online component. Easy, normal or hard races are on the cards and the racing is solid, with powerups available and vehicular combat encouraged. Easy mode will be way too easy for even the youngest player, and in contrast, hard mode offers a incredibly tricky challenge. The racing isn't going to give Mario any sleepless nights, but again, it works well for a short blast or as a change of pace from the story mode.
Now, the tricky matter of a conclusion. This, when you boil it right down, is another Skylanders game with the good and bad points that entails. When the game gets it right, it's a genuinely enjoyable romp, with good characterisation in the NPCs and a decent story to keep things ticking along. Then, along comes a vehicle arena combat based level, and suddenly it isn't so much fun. It's no exaggeration to say that the list of things we'd rather do than play the vehicular arena areas include laundry, gardening and root canal work. This one style of play spoils a lot of the good work that's done here, sitting in the mix of levels like an wasp's nest at a picnic. Skylanders Superchargers could have been a contender, but the enforced arena vehicle sections mean that it only sputters along in the middle of the pack.