A bit like Manchester United post-Alex Ferguson, Skylanders, despite seemingly thinking it's the top dog, is playing second, or even third, fiddle to its competitors, albeit in the Toys to Life market and not in the Premier League (side note: both are enjoyed primarily by children of all ages). The franchise has for years been the only real option for those who like to collect plastic toys as well as play video games, and Skylanders Superchargers reflects this. While making some neat changes, the TtL playing field is now very different to the one in which Spyro and co originally launched. Superchargers is a great game for kids (and a decent one for adults willing to give it a chance), but Activision's annual mega series suddenly finds itself being a relatively basic proposition compared to Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions.
The core of the Skylanders experience remains the same, with your chosen (bought) character working through a series of chapters, each featuring gunplay or melee combat along with 3D platforming and a pervasive XP and levelling system, which gives proceedings a Diablo-lite feeling. Upgrade paths for each character allow you a degree of choice in how your Skylander will evolve, and hats (found throughout your adventure) can be worn to give stat boosts. The whole thing feels quite refined, and the story is nicely 'children's cartoon' in tone, with the slightly stupid villain and cast of lovable heroes.
On top of this is Superchargers' big new feature: vehicles. These come in land, sea, and air varieties, although the Starter Pack only includes a land vehicle. Rather than being a boxshot gimmick, vehicles (cars being all I've tested) play a major part in the experience, with a mixture of point-to-point action and more open battle areas. The former is like a kind of simplistic Mario Kart, while the latter feels a touch like Halo's Warthog gameplay crossed with Micro Machines, which sounds rather good and indeed is - for my tastes, car combat is more entertaining than the action offered while on foot.
Vehicles can be upgraded too, either with collected items or with purchased improvements, and just like how characters perform better in areas aligned with their type (earth, fire, life, air, etc), you get bonuses if a vehicle is paired with its Skylanders Supercharger - in the case of the Starter Pack, the fire type Spitfire with fire car Hot Streak. It's not vital you make the preferred pairings as difficulty is never an issue, but you will miss out on the cool entrances when two complementary items are placed on the portal together.
Something you won't be placing on the portal, unless you buy them on top of the main game, is an air or sea vehicle. I don't mind the 'buy a toy to play more content' setup in Toys to Life games, as I know what I'm getting when going in, but there's something about the way it's done in Superchargers that rubs me the wrong way. The only hidden content in the game is behind sea and air vehicle gates, which is an improvement on how locked content has previously been handled, but now you're forced to sit through mission overviews every time you come across one of these gates.
It became so annoying that I began trying to sneak around the far edge of the play area, exhibiting better stealth play than my time with MGS5, but there's no escape. You can't avoid the triggers as they are on the only path through levels. Then, as soon as you're done listening to an anthropomorphised mole or chicken or weird plant spirit tell you about what great task lies before you, you're gleefully told that to access this mission you need a vehicle type you don't own. I understand that they want to sell toys, but neither LEGO Dimensions nor Disney Infinity 3.0 troll you this badly.
This rather blatant paywalling is present in the completely optional racing side mode, in which you compete against other Skylanders over numerous laps, across a variety of courses. This is very much Mario Kart/Sonic All-Stars Racing territory, but even simpler. That said, it's surprisingly decent fun and can be played online (online co-op is also available through the core game, but limited to people on your friends list). Sadly only the most basic modes are unlocked, with the rest needing a Racing Action Pack, and you're limited to cars only... unless you've made the required additional purchase. (In a way, of course, this makes the toys more worthwhile, unlocking content in the main game as well as additional race tracks and modes.)
For me Skylanders Superchargers is kind of in the middle of Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions, but doesn't take the best of either. Disney 3.0's campaigns aren't as good as what's found in Superchargers, but Activision's game doesn't include anything like the rather excellent Toy Box mode. LEGO on the other hand has a significantly better campaign than both rivals, and some neat additions with the additional Story Packs. Then there are the toys themselves. All three games are strong here, but I can't help but prefer the offerings of Disney and LEGO as I know the franchises.
Skylanders Superchargers is another solid entry in a franchise that has done gangbusters for Activision, and fans will enjoy the new vehicle gameplay and adventure-strewn story. There was a time, though, when Skylanders was an easy recommendation for young players. These days it's not such a straightforward choice, and the series may well need a rethink if it's to return to the top.
Version Tested: PS4 Starter Pack