Another year, another Skylanders game, another reason to buy way too many plastic toys for a new video game, which is sure to make Santa Claus' shareholders very happy.
If you've been under a rock (or without video game-playing children) for the past few years, here's the gist: Skylanders is a video game in which all the characters you use exist as physical, real-life toys. You put each toy on the "Portal of Power" in order to use it within the game. That character's level, hats and other data is stored on the toy itself rather than in the game. So if you take your Trigger Happy toy over to a friend's house, it's your Trigger Happy, customized however you like him.
Of course, the more toys you own the more secrets you can unlock and the better your chances are for success, and most of the toys are sold separately, so... parents of hardcore Skylanders fans might find themselves spending a lot of money.
Every game in the series introduces a new type of figure that's never been seen before: giant toys, toys with swappable tops and bottoms and toys that could trap the game's villains. This year's twist is probably the most interesting so far: vehicles. At various points in Skylanders: Superchargers you can hop into a car, boat or plan to take on missions and races.
So let's start with the good stuff:
Vehicle sections are great at breaking up the Skylanders monotony
The on-foot action in Skylanders is fun. It's always given me a sort of Diablo-for-kids vibe, as there's a heavy emphasis on leveling up characters and equipping new abilities for them. But that action has also gone largely unchanged (aside from the introduction of jumping and platforming sections) since the beginning, so playing through a new adventure every year can get a little stale.
Occasionally taking to the skies to blow up some enemy blimps or burning rubber in a sudden race helps mix things up and keep things fresh.
You can buy a lot of new toys, but you don't have to
You can of course beat the entire game without buying any additional toys (as has been true throughout the series), but if you want to see most of what the new Skylanders has to offer? The game comes with a land vehicle, so you just need something for the sky and something for sea. You'll get a bonus if you pair your new vehicles with the matching Supercharger (the new type of Skylander in this game) -- for example, if you use Super Shot Stealth Elf with her Stealth Stinger helicopter -- but you can get by without doing so.
Superchargers seems to give you the most bang for your buck, in terms of actual game content. You don't have to buy a dozen new figures of varying elemental types just to get through a door that has five minutes of gameplay inside it. Buying a new vehicle feels more worthwhile.
And of course, all your old Skylanders also work in Superchargers, so you don't need to start from scratch.
But it's not all good news...
When playing with a friend, the vehicles suffer
Playing with a friend is a big part of the Skylanders experience, and Activision has even expanded the multiplayer options this year by letting friends play online with each other. This is great! However, when you get to a vehicle section the second person has a tendency to drag you down.
See, in the adventure (not the separate race mode, which I'll get to in a second) there can only be one vehicle in play at a time. So the way Skylanders Superchargers compensates for a second player is just by giving them control of the vehicle's weapons. So Player One drives, Player Two shoots.
On paper this isn't so bad, as the second player has free movement over where they want to attack (a freedom you don't really have playing alone). In practice, however, it can be frustrating. This was especially true when I was playing the game with my wife, as aiming at enemies with a reticle is not an action she enjoys (and, frankly, driving isn't really her cup of tea either). So as the driver of my car/submarine/helicopter I just wanted to drive and shoot everything myself. But I couldn't, because the game wanted us to work together.
The racing is fun, but it's a poor man's Mario Kart
The race modes in Skylanders Superchargers are totally serviceable. Better than I expected them to be, in fact.
But if you put them up against games where racing is the focus -- namely, a game like Mario Kart 10 or Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed -- then the experience is lacking for a variety of reasons. Drifting around corners just doesn't feel quite right. Power-ups picked up on the track are used automatically, so there's not much strategy to them. You can use weapons, but the method of shooting opposing racers down doesn't feel ideal for either the attacker or the defender.
There's also the little wrinkle that if you want to race as a different vehicle, you have to go out and buy it.
So it can be fun, certainly, but it also comes so close to being great instead of good that you might be left wishing for what could have been.
If you're not tired of the formula yet, the latest Skylanders earns its keep. It's one of the least egregious examples yet of trying to milk more money out of its fans and this year's gimmick is the furthest departure from the "standard" Skylanders gameplay we've seen so far -- in a good way. Whether you're a die hard fan or something who's just now ready to see what all the fuss is about, there's a lot of stuff in this package that makes it worth your time.
But at its core, it's more Skylanders, and if you just want a game in which you race, there are other options out there.
You have to applaud Activision for trying, though.