Clouds filter out of projectors and onto the walls. Together with the luminous cube chairs and the ice-white floor, there's a comfortable lounge-like atmosphere clearly tied to the game we're about to see. The latest instalment of Skylanders, according to an on-site spokesperson, involves "a series of floating islands in the sky". Fitting then. Though the zen-like contemplation is thrown off by the howl of pain of a boy who, for the third time, has cracked his knee off one of the cubes.
There's a few children dashing about the place, a markedly different audience than what's usual for a hands-on preview event, but then, Skylanders' key demographic is the younger audience. A colleague, who's got a couple of kids herself and can bear testimony to the series' popularity, explains Skylanders as "World of Warcraft for children".
A catch up for those who don't know: the basic idea is that you buy toy figures in physical form, which are then placed on a 'magical' portal, transforming them into playable characters in the game. It mightn't be hardcore, but it is a money press. Activision emphasise the milestones before the main presentation: over 250 million toys sold and in 2014 Skylanders were the most popular kids' franchise. The developers assume credit for having created the so-called Toys to Life genre, which today earns more than 4 billion dollars, of which Skylanders takes the 3 billion. Milestones indeed.
After showing off their numerical muscles, Guha Bala, president of Vicarious Visions takes the floor to present Skylanders Superchargers. This latest edition introduces vehicles that, just like the characters, you buy as toys to introduce into the game. Bala fires off a list that includes cars, motorcycles, tanks, submarines, jets and helicopters. Land, sea and sky. There's even a UFO listed amongst the 20 different rides that'll be available. News that has seemingly hypnotised the younger members of the audience - we no longer hear complaints about an injured knee.
The setting is all colourful worlds with soft corners as we enter the Cloud Kingdom, in which Queen Cumulus (think about it) tasks you to retrieve The Thunderous Bolt from Lord Stratosfair, who's made an alliance with Kaos. There's a Roman theme in the air, which defines the environment and the Lord's legionnaire look, while the cloud motif has some gameplay implications, hiding treacherous trolls within the family-friendly Fog of War.
Bala places the first of the new Skylanders, Stormblade, onto the portal and the spokesperson starts the game. As with earlier instalments of the series, Superchargers is an action-adventure platform game and every Skylander has unique abilities and ways to defeat enemies, and gameplay is a mix of combat and puzzle-solving. Stormblade turns some rotating platforms that bounce a light beam through mirrors, and come another puzzle called Livewire you need guide a hovering goblin through a labyrinth inside a lock. Everything is familiar and has been seen before in previous and competing games, but it all seems well crafted.
At last, we come to the highlight of the game as Guha places a monstrous race car on the portal, cuing the it's name (Hotstreak!) to be emblazoned on the screen along with a list of its abilities. Gameplay changes completely as Stormblade drives through the level as if we were suddenly playing a kart racing game, with boost-panels, jumps and loops. Each vehicle also has its own play style and can unlock secret areas and shortcuts, while there's an end of level puzzle that needs solving while behind the wheel.
On the way, he picks up a chest with gear bits, used to upgrade the vehicles. Older Skylanders will be able to use the vehicles as well, but only new Skylanders will be able to upgrade them.
There'll be 20 Supercharger Skylanders and 20 vehicles released, with a starter set containing two characters and a car. You can complete the game's storyline through land-based sequences with the old Skylanders, which means that you do not have to make any new purchases, although you will need a new portal, which comes in the starter -pack. However, the old portal can be upgraded through a digital purchase.
The vehicles do look great. Guha places a submarine on the portal, and we're taken to an underwater racetrack. The submarine dives and slides through secret tunnels, avoiding obstacles that are on route. Using the submarine's many torpedoes they destroy one of Lord Stratosfair's storm-generators and we return safely back on land. However, the evil Kaos is dropping trolls using zeppelins and the Skylander has to scramble into the air and stop them. The gameplay changes yet again. This time into something that reminds heavily of Nintendo's Star Fox. In this flying sequence, you make barrel rolls, fly through rings and shoot enemies. It's a brief glimpse of the three different vehicle types as the presentation draws to a close.
It is easy to regard the Toys to Life concept as a money machine designed to get children to pester their parents. The new Skylanders Superchargers will certainly not make life easier for these poor mothers and fathers, but it is hard not to see the fascination. The new cars, boats and planes are cool and will definitely get the young players to beg even more. The game itself seems really fun, kid-friendly - but not patronising - and well designed. The game seems tailor-made for multiplayer kart racing against your friends, but currently the team's saying or confirming nothing. Co-op will be available though, with one player the pilot, the other a gunner.
It's difficult to predict how much of the game will be open from the outset. You can use your old Skylanders and the entire story will be available to play through. But the vehicle sections, the biggest draw and change to the series, are locked until you've got one that allows you to enter those areas, and so the starter pack won't allow you to see the full game. If you love the series - as many kids do - this will probably not be an issue and all the vehicles can be used as regular toys. Just don't bring the submarine to the tub - it's not gone through that kind of testing.
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