Posted Thu Sep 3, 2015 at 01:00 PM PDT by Brian Hoss
New 'Skylanders' game looking better than the sum of its parts.
Editor's Note: Earlier this week I spent a day with Vicarious Visions playing 'Skylanders SuperChargers' on the PS4, Wii U, and iOS. This in-depth time came courtesy of the publisher. Activision.
Ever since the car-like Hot Streak and its driver, Spitfire, were introduced, it's been clear that the addition of vehicles is the first thing that anyone should know about 'Skylanders SuperChargers.' But after spending a day with developer Vicarious Visions poking around different parts of the game, my most important takeaway is that all of the game's parts, the ingredients and components, have been put together in a way that will make even some of the most jaded gamers smile.
Breaking down one such bevy of smiles, just consider the Hammer Slam Bowser. Seeing such a loved (and also classically evil) Nintendo character in Skylander/ammibo figure form is worth a smile. Placing it on the portal and having it appear in game is worth a smile. (Regarding Bowser's Skylander style hammer and armor is easily worth a smile).
Earning, equipping and using fire-breathing breathe with Bowser is worth a smile. But failing all of that, breathing fire at a little NPC chicken, and seeing it turn into a cooked chicken food power-up is like to elicit a smile from just about anyone who plays games.
And of course, all of that is before, say, putting Bowser in his Clown Cruiser jet and taking on a giant, egg-shooting rooster.
Ever since 'Skylanders' crossed the world of video games over with the world of action figures, the toys-to-life concept has been a family-friendly colossus. As the series has continued, the core strengths have grown, and the 'Skylanders' magic has been sharpened with the direct feedback from kids of all ages. This magic goes directly to how the Skylanders toys look, how they play in the games, and how each story is an adventure while each game offers a wealth of content for different age groups.
But improving on the series' individual strengths isn't the path to making the best game. New ideas, new techniques, and some key introspection need to be part of the equation.
When Vicarious Visions' most recent 'Skylanders' title, 'Skylanders Swap Force,' was ready to ship, the developer got hold of some new tech, eye-tracking cameras. Those families that live in and around the developer's studio in Albany, New York, regularly get the chance to come in and give feedback on in-production 'Skylanders' gameplay, characters, and so on. By adding eye-tracking cameras to two-way mirrors, streams, and normal camera feeds, the developers can get very analytical on what their visiting players (kids and parents) are picking up on or loving and what might be distracting or not working.
Indeed, the transition from 'Swap Force' to 'SuperChargers' has seen an incredible amount of tech employed in-house.
Not only are the developers able to go from drawn concept to 3D printed prototype in a flash, but both the in-game toolset and engine is full of features that many of AAA developers would love to have. Designers can make changes to levels in near realtime while art, sound, and FX assets, can be loaded into the build with nary a second lost.
That ability to prototype and refine efficiently has helped to produce levels like that dragon spine that can be genuinely captivating. Likewise, the new fully in-game cinematics not only allow players to see their customized characters and modified vehicles in the game's story, but also help to show how dynamic the levels are.
Even the game's hub, the Rebel Base-styled Academy (the last outpost, and home base for SuperChargers as they try to survive Kaos' Sky-Eater mobile doomsday device) can be seen changing in-engine during the cinematics.
Speaking of the new Academy. For the first time, players will be able to customize the hub world. This is not even close to a main feature; rather, it's more of a bonus for longtime fans. By using the magic items obtained from 'Spyro's Adventure' packs, players will have free reign to litter the Academy with interactive items. Some of these items, like the Nightmare Express, can take up a significant amount of room, however, the feature is implemented in a way that items can be placed and played with without causing any frustration. It's more about what kind of fun thing does each item do.
What makes all of this tech worthwhile, is the deft touch that VV uses. Back on the cinematics, Vicarious Visions showed off one of the game's most moving scenes, one which happened to focus on the Academy. Certainly, the technical benefits of the in-game rendering were on display, but the idea was that the game's narrative, right down to the cinematcs, have been in production since the beginning of the project and have been carefully refined. (Rather than being made somewhere else across the world, or being held up by other parts of production.)
The team had a goal to make the vehicle fantasy come to life, but they also had a goal to make the levels remarkable (thus the Monstrous Isles level, where players get Titan sized) and to make the narrative endearing and funny. Fortunately, along with these mandated goals came a lot of in-studio game jams, and it would seem that each developer (and even the in-house QA) has had a chance to contribute to the game in unique ways.
Here's another smile, courtesy of Crypt Crusher and Fiesta:
While I think 'Skylanders SuperChargers' nocks it out of the park in the smile department, the moment-to-moment experienced has also shifted in a way that really speaks to me. Typically, in past 'Skylanders' games, each level was broken up into areas divided by elements. By the end of last year, there were ten elements to juggle. Unless you had stacks of figures on hand, the game seemed to completely dictate which figure the player would use in a given elemental area. (If this area requires a Life elements character, and you only have one on hand, then that's one you are going to use.)
Worse, if you picked up some characters and wanted to go try them out on areas you had previously been to, it might mean hunting around 45 minutes of level looking for that one gate.
With 'SuperChargers,' the whole dynamic has been completely reworked. While levels still offer elemental strength, the gates are used for vehicle areas. On the Wii U, I played through a level set in Cluck's chicken producing facility, and the level progression was more fun and more natural than any console 'Skylanders' I have ever played. (No doubt, this fun was aided by gaining the ability in-game to shrink and enlarge certain items and NPCs.)
The game requires the user have a land vehicle, and with Shark Fin's Shark Tank and Donkey Kong's Barrel Blaster (land vehicles), I had had fun facing off with Cluck in sections where I needed to direct rolling chickens in carnival style goals . (I was assured that has been in the game for a long time, but nevertheless it felt very 'Rocket League.') But since I also had Dive-Clops Dive Bomber (sea vehicle), I was able to access a gravy river (think Willy Wonka) that was full of platforming goodness. Because I also had the Bowser's Clown Cruiser and the Super Shot Stealth Elf's Stealth Stinger copter there to play with, I was able to engage Cluck's giant rooster in a fully 3D air battle, complete with loads of dogfighting.
That meant by having just three vehicles, I felt able to do everything in the level. Even better, I was comfortable switching both Skylanders and vehicles out, and I could decide who was best suited or I just liked playing with. Because the vehicles handle and attack differently, there are real pros and cons in play. I'd rate the Shark Tank as poor for directing chickens due to the low rate of fire on the shark launcher, but then again, with the right mod, that could easily change. You better believe that using a helicopter for a fight is a big difference from using a jet. (I needed both as I was playing on expert and my jet's armor was used up.)
I was surprised as well to find the level's presentation and narrative to be a lot more enthralling than what I would normally expect from 'Skylanders.' Flynn's jokes about eating Whiskers had me going, and that was before I stepped into the very fried chicken fast food chain-centric level.
Rubbing is Racing
The non-campaign content is staggering, but also seems to benefit from some thoughtful presentation. In the hub, Pandergast and his Skyland Speedway open up a huge amount of racing content. There are time trials with high scores, but it's the cart style 4 player competitive racing that will likely have players in a rush. There are 8 racers on the track (4 humans total and the rest AI), and each race is designated as being Land, Sea, or Air (no transforming it seems). Racers have two weapon buttons to use all the time, while items picked up from the many item boxes on the track are deployed automatically.
This mode supports online matchmaking (normal co-op is friends only) and with the game's wacky track designs and abilities, each race is full of surprises.
Meanwhile, Wizzu is the hub character to see whenever it's time to explore the Element Zones. While the element gating has been thankfully dialed back in the levels, the fun of having different elements has been brought into a challenge mode. (After all with near 300 Skylanders in existence, fans will want to flex those collections). In one such challenge, I went under the sea (in a 2D level) with the Reef Ripper and Dive Bomber in search of missing sheep. While I looked for the sheep, ascending and descending as necessary, a giant sea creature stalked me from the background using a sonar pulse and a giant mouth. Only stealth and speed could protect me from the giant mouth, and yet, being able turn and stop on dime behind protective barriers was just as important. The challenge levels have random elements to them (like the sheep placement), which should really help with replay value.
In fact, 'SuperChargers' has challenge levels that reset daily, which might be addictive.
Testing New Attacks & Mods
More enticing for me is that in the Academy, players can test out new attacks by walking up to the giant gumball machine, which will shoot out dummy enemies on command. This makes earning new abilities more enticing (area attacks in particular) as they are easy to test, practice, and match to various playstyles. With the vehicle mods, this concept is extended as there are test tracks that push the game's physics. Not only can players cruise around half pipes and crazy jumps (there is a spatula catapult that can send a land vehicle into the stratosphere), but the test tracks have the vehicle mod currency, gears, laying around (and within summonable enemies) so that players can test mods while earning new ones.
Then there is the returning Skystones card game, the whole point of which seems to be that the Vicarious Visions wanted to make sure that 'SuperChargers' contained something of the current card game craze. Being able to switch out SuperCharger abilities during a match is like be the difference maker for many a Skystones.
Bringing the Magic Together
Don't get me wrong. Characters like Fiesta and his Crypt Crusher have their own built-in appeal. That the vehicles have moving wheels and other moving parts and special materials really helps them stand out and goes well with the designs. (Love that coffin/big rear wheel combo). When Fiesta gets in the game, he can summon tiny musical skeletons as an attack. That's the kind of design that makes a character worth getting.
I'm also quite keen on Big-Bubble Pop Fizz.
Just look at him. He's tuba and soda based.
But bringing those toys to life in-game is better with a game that seems to be full of smart touches great and small, with the result being a much more even experience. None of that playing through this part just to get to that part.
I played 'Skylanders Trap Team' on the Xbox One last year, but I had never seen the iOS version. What a revelation. I played some versus races from 'Skylanders SuperChargers' on the iPad Air and was stunned by how well the game ran and how much it's like the console version.
(Playing verus on two iPads with two very impressive Skylanders controllers and two portals.) I even noticed details in Chompy Gardens that I had missed on the console.
(The iOS version is due out in late October.)
I'm a car guy and love the idea of adding of vehicles, but 'Skylanders SuperChargers' is more than just 'Skylanders' with vehicles. A lot of heart has gone into the game and with it, some very smart decisions. Expect 'Skylanders SuperChargers' to surprise even the most ardent fans when it releases.
You can find the latest info on 'Skylanders SuperChargers' linked from our Video Game Release Schedule.
The latest news on all things 4K Ultra HD, blu-ray and Gear.