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The “toys to life” market for video games is teeming with competition. But Activision, which created the hybrid category in 2011, is battling back at that competition this year with a new game that focuses on innovation: Skylanders SuperChargers.

Parents are going to hate it, because it means spending more money on games and toys (one survey found parents spent $131 on toys-to-life over six months). Activision and its Vicarious Visions game studios are focusing on innovation as their strategy to hang on to the lion’s share of the toys-to-life market, which has generated an estimated $4 billion to date.

Kids, on the other hand, will be happy to get their hands on the franchise’s first real vehicles (air, land, and sea), which work with special SuperCharger characters.The key to that innovation is enabling aerial dogfights and races through roaring rapids.

Activision’s Toys for Bob division created the first Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure game in 2011. It created a portal that plugs into a game console or other platform. When you set a toy on top of it, a digital version of the toy character appears in the video game. The idea was brilliant, and it kicked off a whole new category of digital entertainment for kids. An estimated 250 million toys have sold to date. Each year, Activision has brought a new game to the market, and it added Vicarious Visions to the development cycle, trading off launches every other year with Toys for Bob.

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Skylanders producers Mike Graham and Chris Wilson of Activision.

Above: Skylanders producers Mike Graham and Chris Wilson of Activision.

Image Credit: Activision

Vicarious Visions’s last game in the franchise was Skylanders: Swap Force in 2013. Now it’s up to bat again with SuperChargers, which debuts on Sept. 20 in North America, in Europe on Sept. 24, and in Asia-Pacific on Sept. 25. Activision is calling the innovation in this game — no lie — “vehicles to life.” Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Lego will introduce vehicles like the Batmobile in their new toys-to-life game, Lego Dimensions, but Activision has made vehicles and the gameplay options they make possible as the main attraction in Skylanders.

“Skylanders started with bringing toys to life in video games,” said Chris Wilson, the senior producer at Activision, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s all about innovation. It has spawned a whole new play pattern and a whole new category. Each year, we try to surprise and delight our fans. This year, we are bringing vehicles to life.”

Vehicles!

The wheels really roll on the Skylanders SuperChargers HotStreak vehicle.

Above: The wheels really roll on the Skylanders SuperChargers HotStreak vehicle.

Image Credit: Activision

For the first time, vehicles such as hovercraft, helicopters, and landspeeders will unlock new kinds of combat and environments in the fantasy world of the Skylands. All of the toys have moving parts and can be enjoyed as stand-alone toys. But if you put them on the newly redesigned Portal of Power, your characters can make use of them in the game world. These vehicles work with all of the past 300 toy characters, but you’ll unlock special abilities if you use them with the unique SuperCharger character paired with the vehicle.

All told, Activision will release 20 new SuperCharger characters and 20 vehicles. Those vehicles include race cars, motorcycles, boats, tanks, helicopters, jets, and submarines.

“The SuperCharger can modify the vehicle and use a ‘super-charge’ combo,” said Wilson.

The vehicles help push the gameplay of Skylanders into new territory. It has vehicle specific minigames and puzzles. While driving, you can pull stunts, skid, and drift. At sea, you can dive underwater or surf the waves. In the sky, you can engage in aerial dogfights and fly with 360 degrees of control.

In addition to launching new toys, Vicarious Visions has upgraded the graphics for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It uses a modified version of the existing Alchemy game engine. I saw a demo on the PlayStation 4, and it will also come out on the PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, 3DS, and the iPad. The Skylanders SuperChargers Starter Pack with a portal and three characters will cost $75. The Nintendo 3DS starter pack is $65. The individual vehicles will cost $15 and the SuperChargers characters will cost $13. By comparison, Disney Infinity 3.0 will cost $65, but you get one less character. The portal has a slot for “traps” that you can use from last year’s Skylanders: Trap Team.

As you play, you can gather experience points for tricking out your vehicles and upgrading their weapons. If you take secret short cuts, you may find hidden mods such as a volcanic booster engine that spews lava rocks.

The villain Kaos is back with his most sinister weapon ever, a Death Star-like “Doomstation of Ultimate Doomstruction” capable of eating the sky itself. The job of stopping him falls to Master Eon, who saw the warning signs and assembled a special team of Skylanders to pilot a new fleet of vehicles.

For the consoles, the Digital Portal Owners pack can be downloaded from the first party marketplace of your choice. This allows players that have old portals to bypass the purchase of a new portal. They can digitally download the full game, plug in the old portal and be ready to play. This pack comes with two digital versions of the Start Pack toys: Instant Hot Streak and Instant Spitfire. If they buy new SuperCharger toys, those will work on the old portals. All 300 toys from the older games will work with the new game and with the new portal, as well as the old portals.Pricing for digital packs is still to be determined, and more details on the iPad experience will come soon.

Hands-on preview with cars

Skylanders HotStreak car in action.

Above: Skylanders HotStreak car in action.

Image Credit: Activision

Mike Graham, the senior design producer at Activision, showed me a demo of a level about half way through the new game. In it, you have to deal with Lord Stratosfear, a villain in an Egyptian-style kingdom who has decided to ally himself with Kaos. The dialogue has the same campy humor that appeals to both kids and adults. The level has volumetric clouds, with pretty graphics that obscure the level — and which could include hidden enemies.

Graham got to a point where it prompted him to start driving. He put a Hot Streak car on the portal, and an animation showed up, illustrating its Blaze Booster, Fire Grill, and cool, flashing tires.

“We wanted to deliver a car show sensation every time you use a new vehicle,” Wilson said.

Graham put a new SuperCharger character, Stormblade, on the portal, adding a character to drive the car. You start solving puzzles and driving at high speeds. You can maneuver the vehicle up ramps to do long jumps and take forks in the road to secret paths. Each vehicle has characteristics such as armor, top speed, acceleration, handling, and weight. Graham added a new SuperCharger, Spitfire, to unlock special items in the vehicle, such as the ability to drive up walls.

Each character has a back story, and Spitfire is a spirited speed demon who was the fastest driver in the Super Skylands Racing Circuit. He suffered a crash when a goblin racer bumped him off course. He was ready to make a comeback, but then the Skylands fell under the rule of Kaos and his Sky Eating machine. Master Eon approached him to get behind the wheel as the new leader of the Skylanders SuperChargers.

Stormblade, meanwhile, is a daredevil with an unquenchable thirst for adventure. She has built her own custom ship, the Sky Slicer, to race to the furthest reaches of the Skylands. She approached Master Eon for counsel, and he sent her on a very special mission through the uncharted rifts between worlds.

Under the water

Skylanders Dive Bomber vehicle.

Above: Skylanders’ Dive Bomber looks like a minisub.

Image Credit: Activision

Graham also showed off a an underwater exploration submarine with a character named Dive Bomber. You can zoom over the surface waves on a fast race course and dive underneath the waves when a big surface barrier appears. The action seamlessly switches between underwater and surface movement as you dodge the obstacles. It was a lot like playing Wipeout or Mario Kart, with a lot of changes in the landscape. Graham drove off the beaten path to get the new Mr. Squeeks engine mod, which helps you go faster. The engine itself has different versions, like a powerful propeller or a dynamo.

Then Graham took on one of the “boss” enemies, a machine known as a Storm Sequencer. He fired torpedoes from his submarine and dodged attacks. He sent out sonar pings that “painted” targets and then shot some “fire-and-forget” torpedoes that took out the targets. The Storm Sequencer sent out smaller enemies and fired with a huge laser. But Graham dodged the laser by hiding underneath the smaller floating enemies, which were taken out by the laser.

“You can use the Storm Sequencer to accidentally destroy its own devices,” Wilson said.

Up in the sky

Skylanders Sky Slicer with Super Shot Stealth Elf

Above: Skylanders Sky Slicer with Super Shot Stealth Elf

Image Credit: Activision

Graham also showed off a new SuperCharger character, the reimagined Super Shot Stealth Elf, who appeared with a different outfit and different weapons in an earlier game. Her job is to chase after and shoot down some flying transport ships carrying trolls. She has a cool Splinter cannon now instead of bone daggers. She has a new fighting style, doing flip kicks and shooting. She can turn invisible, and she’s paired with an aerial vehicle dubbed a Sky Slicer.

In her mission, she flew on a pre-scripted course, attacking transport ships. But other levels will offer complete 360-degrees of freedom to maneuver.

Time for something new

Skylanders clouds

Above: Skylanders clouds

Image Credit: Activision

Wilson said the new game will be a game-changing innovation that is compatible with everything Activision has sold before. Clearly, the publisher sees an opportunity to sell more toys than usual, as each character may have three different kinds of vehicles to use. But Activision has shown so far that these vehicles can significantly change the kind of gameplay that is possible. And after four years of platforming, Skylanders fans are probably up for something new.

I keep thinking that Skylanders is going to run out of steam, sort of how Call of Duty is going to run out of new ways to fight modern wars. But this toys-to-life series has been around for a lot less time than Activision’s flagship military franchise, and it’s already generating somewhere around a billion dollars a year in revenue. If that continues, I’m sure Activision will keep on delivering new reasons for kids to get excited and for parents to break out their credit cards. The graphics look prettier this time around, but we’ll see if that — and the idea of vehicles coming to life — are going to set Skylanders apart from the rivals this fall.

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