Of the games we were most excited to see at the recent German game show, gamescom, Skylanders SuperChargers was probably up there at the top. Taking the much-loved figure-collecting, co-operative adventure we've come to know and love, and adding in some funky new vehicles to the fray, it's easily one of our most anticipated titles of this year - and our finance's most dreaded. We've kind of guessed by now that the upcoming 3DS and Wii versions of the game will probably be Mario Kart-style racers instead of the proper story-driven adventure, but we weren't mentally prepared for what we ended up playing on a very wet and windy afternoon in Cologne (it took two days for our cardigan to dry out - TWO DAYS!).
It turns out that not only will Skylanders SuperChargers pack a traditional, full co-op adventure this year - it'll also come with a Mario Kart style racing mode too! Included in the Starter Pack are six different race tracks, split into three groups for each of the types of vehicles you can drive - two land, two sea and two sky. Now, we know what you're thinking - six doesn't sound like a lot, and indeed it isn't, but each track is surprisingly lengthy - and, perhaps most importantly, well-designed, with plenty of short cuts, alternative routes and secret paths to discover. The tracks also change with each lap, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, opening up new paths or introducing new perils to avoid, making them feel a lot more varied - and all can be played either locally with two players sitting on the sofa, or on your lonesome facing off against other players online, over the internet. What's more, more levels are promised in the coming months via the new 'Action Pack' expansions too.
Each vehicle is equipped with two different attacks that you can use fairly constantly, so there's no need to rely on power-ups for your basic moves here. Most characters have a primary attack (like a quick fire leaf cannon) and a secondary attack that takes a while to recharge (usually some sort of homing rocket). Some characters, such as Terrafin and Stealth Elf have one of their attacks taken up with a dodge-like move, letting them dive under the ground or turn themselves invisible respectively, which is a great way to dodge attacks when you're running low on health. But that doesn't mean power-up pickups have been done away with entirely, either, as boxes still litter the tracks. Inside are the sorts of buffs, boosts and opponent-hindering objects we've come to know and love from karting games, whether it's a speed-boosting set of wings, an item that makes you invincible for a short time or a shield to deflect incoming attacks.
Kickstarting our Skylanders experience, we began with a couple of boat races (hey, it was rainy enough outside). As with other racing games, there are two different types of track in Skylanders SuperChargers - courses (where you race from A to B) and circuits (where you have to complete three laps). Our first track was an example of an A to B course, a downwards slalom across a partially frozen river that runs through a valley. Mixing ice floes and Antarctica-like scenery with the occasional icy cave, it was a simple race downhill to the end to get our feet wet - and turned out to be quite a good introduction to Superchargers' innovative 'two-courses-in-one' boat races. While you default to racing along on top of the water, with a press of a button you could dive down beneath the surface and uncover a whole new world, effectively giving you a pretty much an entirely different, but complimentary race course, with it's own perils, boost rings and more. Swapping from on top to underneath came in especially handy when dealing with the ice-covered sections, too, letting you slip quietly underneath them while your opponents wrestled with the slippy, slidey surfaces above.
Our second course was set in a water-filled ruins, filled with intertwining paths, jumps and tidal waves. Known as the 'Mystical Vault', this stage put a bit of a different spin on boost rings. You see, an unseen villain/boss/some guy has a bit of a cold, and each time he sneezes different sets of boost rings light up - either red or blue - and only the illuminated ones will give you a speed boost, meaning you need to time your route accordingly to get the maximum momentum. The occasional tidal waves that swept through the ruins' twisting, turning paths emphasised how different boats are to drive than your average car too, as they have a slightly more bouncy, buoyant, unpredictable feel, and don't seem to turn quite so well when being thrown around by the current.
And then came the air. Now, personally, we've always struggled when it comes to airborne races - and we've done a few of them over the years, particularly in the Mario Kart-esque Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed. Yet, no matter whether we invert the up/down axis or just go it normal-style, we still manage to fly about as well as a particularly drunken and blindfolded turkey attempting to fly through a vat full of custard. Basically, if I need to steer up or down to go around something, I will still swerve the wrong way, regardless of how much time I've had to mentally prepare myself for such obstacles.
Anyway, getting back on track (track, racing, get it? We're so funny), our spate with Skylanders flying races involved speeding our way around the 'Cloud Factory, a sky-high kingdom of blue skies, Romanesque column ruins and cherry blossom trees - before everything turned a bit sinister as we flew straight into the eye of a storm, through a whirling clouded tunnel to an area filled with lightning, dark clouds and menacing purple vortexes. Large golden rings appear throughout the stage, and flying through them will give you a short boost - although with our flying skills we did a better job of flying around them than anything.
Our second flying race took place in a desert-y area, flying round a dusty, high-rise town, caves and mine trains. Full of nice little touches (one section sees some washing lines stretched across the canyon, and if you go too close, they'll snag on you, getting dragged with you through the level), and a look inspired by the American West, this mixed the skill of canyon flying with a runaway mine train feel, and was a bit of a challenge for the flying-impaired player. Thankfully, the wider open area was a bit easier to contend with, even if it did have a rather menacing airship to contend with, firing what appeared to be tomatoes and green peppers at you. Why exactly? Well the answer lay just around the corner, with a giant wooden waving board with Trap Team villain, Chef Pepper Jack drawn on - whose moving hand we collided with on each lap, without fail.
For the seasoned Mario Karter among us, the track races were a refreshing return to familiarity after the somewhat daunting flying races, and are definitely hedging into well-trodden territory. It was around here that we realised each of the stages seems to be themed after a different Skylanders villain, with us riding around a rather Chompy-licious swap in our Terrafin-mobile, the Shark Tank. The villain in question? Only the greatest recurring bad guy in Skylanders history. No, not Kaos - the other one. Chompy Mage. Drifitng our way around the dirt track, surrounded by GIANT Chompy enemies on all sides, whilst avoiding the awkwardly placed puddles of water that slow you down, we felt right at home, even if we did fail abysmally at the one 'short cut' and ended up neck deep in swamp. Seemingly timing/aiming your car right to jump across a few oversized leaves is beyond us.
The second race, on the 'Dragon Spine' track was a bit less Chompy and a whole lot more toasty. Beginning in a quaint little village of wooden houses, we ran slap bang into a dragon around the first corner - a dragon who, while relatively passive on the first lap or two, quickly turned into a fireball-throwing, fire-breathing so-and-so by the third, forcing us to weave in and out of his flaming walls. Once past him, it turned more into a downhill race, on a twisty, scale-covered course we assume was meant to look like the 'dragon spine' of the title, littered with boost pads, and later slippy icy spots, with a tail-flicking jump at the end. From there we found ourselves back in the town streets, up staircases and over wooden bridges, looping round to face the fire-breathing dragon once more.
All in all, we really enjoyed our time with Skylanders Superchargers new racing mode - so much so that we played it all over again the following day too, at our second Skylanders appointment of the show. Even if we still have yet to win a single race (our Editor Ian, on the other hand, remains pretty much undefeated) - although coming second in a car-based race is pretty much a win, right? Instead of simply tacking on a half-baked racing mode, the folks at Vicarious Visions have created something seriously solid, even if we are a little disappointed they're isn't the option for a proper four-player everyone-on-the-same-sofa race.
Skylanders Superchargers speeds onto the Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U on the 25th September - with (we assume) much more racing-orientated versions planned for the 3DS and Wii.