Hands-On Preview: Skylanders SuperChargers

We went straight to Vicarious Visions’ HQ for the scoop on the newest Skylanders game!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 09/04/2015 09:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

If there was one thing I learned about Skylanders SuperChargers over the past few days, it’s that the 200+ member team at Vicarious Visions handling the game’s development is immensely passionate about their jobs. Walking into the company’s headquarters in Menands, New York, the first thing that caught my eye as I stepped into the lobby was the array of glass shelves filled with old games. From Guitar Hero to Spider-Man, Vicarious Visions proudly displays all of its past efforts for guests and employees alike to see. While not every title was a winner, either in terms of sales or critical acclaim, it was very representative of what seems to be the developers’ goals as game makers. Forget nothing, learn from the past, and put everything into making the next game their best. After snagging a doughnut from a nearby suite, I made my way into the conference room with my fellow writers and journalists, ready to learn about all things SuperChargers.

Though Skylanders was conceptualized and created by developer Toys For Bob, it wouldn’t be surprising to think that Vicarious Visions was the mastermind behind the franchise. The company has certainly seen its fair share of action with the series from the beginning, handling ports and so forth for Nintendo and mobile platforms, but it was with Swap Force that the developer really was able to cut loose and place its indelible fingerprints on Skylanders. Now, Vicarious Visions is nearly done with its latest Skylanders installment, a two year journey that the company is finally able to truly peel the curtain back on. Sitting around an enormous conference table, company co-founder Karthic Bala was very enthusiastic as he launched into the details of the game.

Meet Splat!

We were first treated to the reveal of two new additions to the roster. One is an all-new character named Splat, who wields an enormous paintbrush that can spread color across the environment as she fights, and pilots the Splatter Splasher. The other new character revealed is actually a revamped favorite: Big Bubble Pop Fizz. The duo represent the team’s dedication to expanding the Skylanders universe while also pleasing longtime fans who have grown attached to many of the different characters over the years. As the presentation continued, prototypes of the figures and vehicles were passed around the room, and I was very impressed with what I saw.

Produced in-house via a 3D printer stuffed into the back of the office, the toys were beautiful and detailed as fans have come to expect. For SuperChargers, Vicarious Visions played around a lot with the materials and textures of each toy, as well as color, striving to make this lineup one of the most gorgeous yet seen from the franchise. I was especially impressed with the vehicles, which are roughly the same size as the average Skylander figure. A sticking point for the design team was that the vehicles all offer articulation, so the cars have wheels that roll, choppers have spinning blades, and so forth. Interestingly, a lot of the little details like vehicle articulation and even their size are the result of the fans. In particular, the smallest fans: the kids.

Vicarious Visions is active within its community, pulling in local children and their families to try out the latest toys and builds of a given title during development and using their feedback to tweak and refine gameplay. Vehicle articulation is the direct result of the kids wanting to be able to play with the cars and planes exactly as they would with any other toy. The control scheme for the vehicles was another thing impacted by the kids’ playtime. Initially, the vehicles were being controlled with the left analogue stick exclusively. The scheme worked well, but to the children it didn’t feel like they were moving a vehicle. So the design team mapped the gas and other functions to the face buttons… and it still didn’t work. Despite their youth, the kids were accustomed to using the shoulder buttons for gas and break, and ultimately that’s what Vicarious Visions ended up utilizing in order to make driving natural. And don’t fret-players can also invert the axis on the control yolk for those who like to tilt down in order to go up!

This obsessive attention to detail didn’t end with the controls and toys, as this time out Vicarious Visions wanted to invest more effort than ever into SuperChargers‘ narrative. Story and characterization are huge in this game: I can’t even count the number of times that the team members mentioned its importance during their various presentations. Everything in the game is tied together to fit within the narrative and support it. The visuals are detailed and crisp, so much so that they’re being used for all of the game’s cinematics. Any movies that play in SuperChargers are rendered with the in-game assets (and a dash of post polish, but nothing extreme). According to the designers, the reason for this was to keep presentation consistent across the entirety of the game, something they felt wasn’t achieved as well in previous Skylanders. The central hub world this time is again The Academy, but it has been chained to an enormous engine that allows it to become mobile and keep Kaos off of their trail. The hub is something of a rebel base, and all of the different activities and characters that players can take part in and meet serve to (you guessed it) further the narrative.

It’s quite the sight to behold, really. I almost felt like I was taking in a Dream Works film as I watched the different trailers we were treated to, and the sense of immersion that Vicarious Visions is shooting for is well on its way to being realized. The hope is that SuperChargers will engage players through an endless amount of gameplay. “Endless” being relative, of course, but the team isn’t far off the mark with everything that’s being implemented. There are areas of the hub world that provide randomized challenges, for instance, like a train robbery that always has a different layout. Legendary Treasures have been retooled, and can now be placed around the hub to act as decorations, much like furniture and items in Animal Crossing. That would be interesting on its own, but the treasures are also interactive– including with each other! Take the beach ball, for instance. On its own, the ball can be batted around and kicked, but when used in tandem with a couple of goal nets, players can engage in local co-op and start up an impromptu soccer match! With multiple treasures to unlock, that are a lot of items to experiment with, and a lot of time to spend fooling around in what’s tantamount to an enormous sandbox filled with toys.

The biggest change being introduced in SuperChargers is of course the vehicles, which play a huge role in this game. Players are able to tackle land, air, and sea with tanks, hovercraft, planes, and more. There are twenty Skylanders in this game, and each comes with its own vehicle in tow, as well as an individual story to discover. The vehicles all have different styles of handling, with stats that can be altered using one of the twenty new characters on the roster. What’s more, every vehicle can be piloted by any Skylander from a previous game! Players can only enjoy advanced vehicle features and techniques using the Skylanders specifically made for this game, but anyone rocking an enormous collection of the toys at home can rest assured that they’ll all be usable as pilots in this new game. Though there is racing to enjoy (both in the campaign and competitively online with other players), vehicles can also be used to traverse the game world. It’s reminiscent of Diddy Kong Racing, but on a much grander scale.

So that’s all a lot of big talk and promises, but how does the game actually play? Very, very well. My hands-on time was not disappointing. The traditional gameplay of the series, platforming and bopping baddies, is much the same as ever, meaning it’s responsive, smooth, and fun. Those who want to mash through the game hammering the same attack button can, but players who take advantage of the SuperChargers‘ numerous different attacks as well as upgrade their Skylanders will get a greater amount of enjoyment out of the combat system. The vehicles were the biggest question mark, and I’m pleased to report that they’re equally compelling to pilot. Racing is engaging, falling somewhere between Mario Kart and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, but if I had one complaint it was that driving speed felt a tad bit on the slow side. The driving and racing components are a huge part of SuperChargers, but being a Skylanders game it’s clear that the development team wanted to keep vehicle speed neutral so as to maximize accessibility. It disappointed me slightly, but I still had a lot of fun taking on the people around me, as well as smashing through Kaos’ hordes of brutes.

Finally, the biggest question our readers undoubtedly have is, “What about Bowser and Donkey Kong?!” They’re awesome, folks. The PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game might be a notch stronger visually, but the Wii U SuperChargers is no slouch, and the inclusion of DK and Bowser tips it over the edge as far as I’m concerned. Though there was some debate over who to include on the roster, these two characters are a superb fit in the Skylanders universe, and the way that the team at Vicarious Visions incorporated them is shaping up to be pitch-perfect. Sadly, I didn’t get to tackle the 3DS version of the game, which I was told will be identical to the Wii iteration. The games are said to focus solely on vehicle racing, but it appears likely we’ll have to wait until launch to really find out what’s under their hoods.

There’s plenty more to look forward to when the game launches, including a revamped SkyStones card game to enjoy (over online play, too!), SuperCharging vehicles based on each Skylander’s element type, and the new use of traps from TrapForce (no individual bad guys to play as, sadly, but they will add some zip to a player’s vehicle!). SuperChargers has the potential to be the biggest and most ambitious title yet in the series, and Vicarious Visions just might succeed in making it the best one, too. I was impressed with the team’s passion and the build of the game I got to play. If the final version can bring everything together, I’m confident that players won’t want to pass up SuperChargers come this fall!

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