As much as I liked the name "Trap Team," last year's Skylanders really got away from the stuff I thought was cool about the original concept. Sure, you could enslave and convert the game's bad guys into good guys that you could call upon in a limited fashion. And, yeah, they put a speaker on the portal so the bad guys could make various noises, which was sort of a neat trick. But at the end of the day, the crystal-like "traps" of Trap Team were lame physical objects. They were tiny plastic crystals that couldn't compare to the majesty and pageantry of Drobot. Drobot! He's a damned robot dragon that shoots lasers out of his eyes and gears from his wings! Or hey, how about Magna Charge? He's a robot that rolls around on one wheel and has a magnet for a head and he don't take no mess!
Actually, let's talk about Swap Force for a second. The ability to rip your Skylanders in half and slap them together in any configuration to mash up different powers is, perhaps, the franchise's high water mark, creatively. Between accounting for all of the variants in-game and making the mashed-up toys actually look cool, that always seemed rad. Well, way more rad than "let's make them bigger" was in Skylanders Giants and, as mentioned, a zillion times radder than the dumb Trap Team crystals.
This year's hook for Skylanders is... vehicles. Apparently that leaked out on Amazon late last week, so you might have already known that. There will be 20 new figures and 20 matching vehicle toys. In-game, this translates into areas that can only be traversed with specific type of vehicle, sort of like how the game would gate you out of areas unless you had a figure of a specific affinity. So you'll occasionally need a land vehicle, like a car, to race from one part of a level to another. Or you might need a submarine... or hey, how about a jet or a helicopter? I only saw one of each type of vehicle and some corresponding characters. The new figures look pretty standard, and some of them will be new SuperCharger versions of existing characters. Stealth Elf, for example, gets a new "Super Shot Stealth Elf" figure, and she trades in her blades for a big, thorn-shooting minigun (which, obviously, is very stealthy). It appears that you'll always need to have one vehicle and one character on your portal at all times, though there seems to be plenty of on-foot action in the game.
On-foot, it looks like a sharper-looking Skylanders game with new odds and ends, like mid-level spots to upgrade your characters and vehicles and some other effects. The cloud level I saw, for example, had a fog of war sort of effect that had you clearing away the clouds as you moved through. Obviously, the vehicles are the big new thing. It looked like there would be a couple of different types of vehicle sequences in the game. Each one had a sort of "get from point A to point B" setup. The car handling looked appropriately drifty, the submarine bounced around in the waves rather nicely, and the jet stuff gives you a good amount of control while still being totally on-rails. But I also saw a boss fight with the sub that was way more open and arena-based. The car stuff also has an arena-like component. Activision says the air vehicles will be able to dogfight and get into a classic arcade-like top-down configuration in some areas, which sounds OK.
So the vehicles seem like the big, new thing in Skylanders this time out. It's weird, then, that two of the vehicle types are completely optional. The starter pack will come with a car, so you'll always have a land vehicle. The air and sea areas will either be self-contained areas that send you back to the where you started after you complete them or, in some cases, they'll create alternate paths through the areas. While I get that requiring one of each vehicle type would make the toy requirements and cost a little steep for players, this sounds a little like a half-commitment to the whole vehicle thing.
It also feels like they might be missing out on some cool multiplayer opportunities. The portal can handle one vehicle and two characters, so if you're playing together, one player drives while the other shoots, Lucky & Wild style. Well, I mean, I guess both players in Lucky & Wild could shoot, so maybe that's a bad analogy. Anyway, I thought the underwater stuff looked really cool and it seems weird that there wouldn't be a local multiplayer race mode in it. I asked about online and... they weren't talking about anything other than the few levels that they were showing. Ditto when I asked if the Wii U version of the game would do anything with Nintendo's Amiibo figures.
While they'll happily sell you a new portal this year, you won't actually have to get it if you already have a Trap Team portal. There will be a digital version of the game that works with old portals and comes with digital access to the car and one character. Oh, speaking of traps, if you slam a trap into your trap hole in SuperChargers you'll get a temporary vehicle bonus, like incendiary ammo. You'll also unlock a new piece for the new version of the in-game collectible card game, Skystones, for each trapped boss you put into the portal.
Skylanders was a novel idea that caught on and turned into a whole subsegment of the video game business. As much as I thought the original game was a cool idea, I never thought it would blow up like this. Trap Team's lack of actual toys in favor of tiny little totems made me think that perhaps the well was starting to run dry. But SuperChargers has a bit more of a spark to it. I'll probably never devote myself to acquiring Skylanders the way I did during that first year. There's only one Drobot, after all. Actually, I think they made a Drobot that lights up at one point. Honestly, it's all a blur at this point. But the new game looks neat. It's out on September 20.