(Pocket-lint) - When Skylanders launched in 2011 the novelty of unlocking in-game characters with physical toys piqued gamers' interest. And having sparked the toys-to-life genre Skylanders now has to work harder to stand out from its peers, such as Lego Dimensions and Disney Infinity.
Fortunately Skylanders SuperChargers does just that. With beautiful visuals, new racing gameplay, online multiplayer throughout, and excellent backward compatibility, it's an excellent addition to the series. Is it the must-have toys-to-life game for 2015?
Skylanders SuperChargers review: Land, air and sea
Front and centre to SuperChargers is the main campaign experience, which is just like other Skylanders games.
By placing one of the SuperChargers Starter Pack characters on the provided USB portal peripheral, which plugs into your games console, it immediately appears in virtual form on screen in the game. Removing the character automatically saves any progress and customisations you have applied.
Along with the option of playing online with a friend, this year there are new vehicular sections in the campaign, hence the SuperChargers toy vehicles. These break down into three different types of challenges: land, air and sea.
The SuperChargers Starter Pack provides Hot Streak, a land vehicle which grants access to all the land based races and arenas. This happily divides up the on-foot battling and offers more variety as you progress through the story.
Skylanders SuperChargers review: Costly collectibles
Accessing the air or sea areas within the game, as players are endlessly invited to do, requires more purchases. Of course you can complete the game and get to the end with just the Starter Pack purchase.
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It costs £14.99 for each additional vehicle type, sold in separate packs, which seems fair enough given the substantial amount of additional content provided. It does get rather expensive when attempting to collect every vehicle across the three categories, of course. The SuperChargers toys really standout, though, offering a proper play-thing rather than the usual static plastic figurines that sit on collectors' shelves.
There are new characters as well this year. These are a combination of new and returning Skylanders, each of which has a related vehicle to pilot. Bring both vehicle and character into the game and you are granted a special power up in return.
While any Skylander — old or new from the previous games, as there's great backward compatibility — can control the vehicles, only the SuperChargers can apply in-game modifications. These adjust the different abilities and stats of the vehicles so players can ready each ride for specific challenges.
A bigger stretch is that some of the vehicular areas are tied to a particular elemental type so that you require a total of ten, one for each element, to access them all. This will get costly and is likely to restrict completion of every area to only avid fans.
Skylanders SuperChargers review: Race away
Then there is this year's other big addition: SuperChargers' online racing mode.
This offers a Mario Kart-style challenge for local and online racing. Unlike Nintendo's racer, though, in Skylanders you will have already developed your different vehicles through the main adventure. Taking them to the race track gives a sense of ownership and pride over each of those hard-won customisations.
Racing is fast and frantic — although not with a huge emphasis on skill. While performance does improve over time, some results are lost due to competitors sneaking past with a crucial power up on the last lap.
For the target demographic it's a good fit and certainly expands the fun and longevity of the Skylanders experience. While it's included alongside the campaign on the main consoles, Wii and 3DS this year focus just on the racing side of the game — an understandable compromise given the age of the Wii in particular.
Skylanders SuperChargers review: A visual treat
Visually, Skylanders SuperChargers looks fantastic. Vicarious Visions, the game's developer, is pushing the engine to deliver some of the best graphics found in a toys-to-life game.
This extends beyond aesthetics to add a layer of mystery to each area too. Secret locations, bonuses and challenges are often hidden behind clouds and fire until you approach, for example. Playing through the game multiple times will be crucial to find all of these.
The lock puzzles, which need to be completed to open up certain trials, also have an upgrade this year. A pinball-style action-oriented minigame pops up at certain doors in the game and players must work together to complete it before proceeding. These have become a call sign of the Skylanders series and this year certainly don't disappoint.
Similarly Skystones also returns in Overdrive form and will keep fans of the tile based logic challenge happy.
Skylanders SuperChargers offers a more playful approach with the game's mechanics than previous games. Whether it's the revised lock and Skystones puzzles, being able to shrink and grow characters at one point, or even being able to control gravity, at every turn it feels like there is something new to do.
Skylanders SuperChargers is an excellent addition to the series, one that will continue to drive the desire in players to expand their collections of related toys. The sheer amount of content on offer, even with just the Starter Pack purchase for newcomers, makes for very good value - although collecting all characters and vehicles will quickly add up.
Some may also accuse SuperChargers of feeling like more of the same, like Skylanders on repeat, but we think it's the most evolved game in the series yet. With the addition of new online modes, racing and toy vehicles, SuperChargers really does feel like a great new game. Its only worry ought to be Lego Dimensions vying for the toys-to-life crown.