Skylanders: Trap Team bridges the gap between console and tablet

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Skylanders: Trap Team bridges the gap between console and tablet
Skylanders: Trap Team will be revolutionary, for both the series and potentially for Activision's entire publishing operation, when it releases on October 5th. It doesn't dramatically change the central play of Toys For Bob's popular action figure adventure games. Catching villains in teensy crystal toys like sinister Pokemon isn't, in practice, so different than just using a regular Skylanders action figure even if it is a charming shift in the fiction. What is a dramatic change, however, is that Trap Team will be available on iPad and Android tablets the very same day it hits PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Not a spinoff, either. Activision's bringing the full console game to mobile devices.

Playing the game on an iPad Mini, Trap Team is a handy demonstration of just how far mobile game development has come in the past five years. While it may not have the graphical flash of the PlayStation 4 version of the game Activision showed Joystiq shortly before San Diego Comic Con, the exact same level plays just as smooth and looks every bit as nice as a polished Xbox 360 game. New character Snap Shot pops into the stage when you put his figure on the Skylanders portal and fights off a soda-swilling monster with the same aplomb. Developer Vicarious Visions, a studio with a long history of adapting Activision's big console games to portable devices, has brought Trap Team to tablets with no sacrifices to the action.

But it's the touchable technology surrounding tablet Trap Team that's most impressive.
There's a custom Traptanium Portal, that little circular near-field communication equipped platform that brings Skylanders action figures into the game, that comes with the tablet version. It wirelessly connects to a tablet via Bluetooth and the connection proved impressively stable during the demo, even in a room full of laptops and smartphones with Bluetooth activated. The portal is compact but smartly built, with a small notch in the side for holding tablets in place that accommodates small machines like the iPad Mini and beasts like the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro alike.

Fitting snugly inside the base itself is a full game controller, like a miniature Xbox 360 pad. Designed by Vicarious Visions co-founder Karthik Bala, it's remarkably comfortable, nestling L1/L2 and R1/R2 button combos close to each other but never feeling cramped. The controller is nice enough to stand alone as an accessory, but it will not be available separate from the Skylanders Trap Team Starter Pack, even to support players looking to enjoy two-player co-operative on the tablet version. (For that, the game supports other mobile-ready controllers.)

While Toys For Bob, Activision, and Vicarious Visions agreed that a controller had to be included with Trap Team, it's not necessary for playing the game. At any point, the controller can be turned off and full touch screen controllers take over. Skylanders is uniquely suited for virtual stick controls since it doesn't allow camera control with a controller's right analog stick already, but the touch controls here deserve special mention for feeling smooth and natural. The four face buttons are affixed to the bottom right of the screen, but a virtual analog stick appears wherever your left thumb touches the screen. I always felt in full control and comfortable using the touch controls, something I've never been able to say with other virtual sticks set ups.

Multiple control options, hardware for comfortably viewing the game in any situation, co-op; Vicarious Visions has addressed practically every possible hindrance to fully bringing the console game to tablets. There are even Instant Play Skylanders, two tablet-exclusive versions of regular Skylanders including Snap Shot that you can use when the portal is inaccessible while traveling or if the batteries die. The whole thing costs $75, the exact same price as the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, and Wii U versions of the Starter Pack.

Promising as it is, Vicarious Visions' version of Trap Team raises many questions about the future. The game costs the same as the console versions now, but what happens in 2015 when players want to buy the next version of the game but already have the portal? Will Activision release a $60 game on the App Store? And with a high-quality controller in the market, what's to stop Activision from bringing its other tentpole console releases like Call of Duty to tablets intact? This package has the potential to fundamentally change how one of gaming's biggest publishers approaches console game development. Activision is primed to finally cross the bridge between console and mobile games; there's simply no distinction between the two for Skylanders: Trap Team.

Note: Activision has only provided a tentative list for what tablets will support Trap Team in October 2014. Vicarious Vision's Bala did confirm for Joystiq that the game was optimized for all these devices.

Supported tablets:
Apple iPad 3, 4, Mini Retina, and Air
Kindle Fire HDX
Google Nexus 7
Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro, Tab S, Note 10.1, and Note 12.2

[Images: Activision]
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