There isn’t much to be said in an introduction to a Transformers video game that someone interested in the game probably doesn’t already know. It’s a very popular license that many people, this reviewer included, grew up heavily invested in but has not yet spawned an effective or fun piece of interactive media. That’s been the story to date. Has Atari’s recent release, based on the latest incarnation of the toys on the market, managed to change the story at all? The first thing you’re likely to notice after firing up Transformers is how good it looks. Not just for a Playstation 2 game, but for a video game in general. The developers have fully succeeded in creating impressive and intimidating robots. More so, they have managed to capture a look that at once seems perfectly mechanically consistent (check out the transformation animations) while at the same time including an almost human quality of movement that gives life to the hulking machines.
Also impressive, the staff at Melbourne House have also achieved the daunting task of giving these creations huge worlds to explore and do battle in. Get up to a high point in a level and you can see for what feels like miles around you. More impressive is that nearly any point you see, you can visit. There are very few instances of invisible, impassable walls. Flying out too far from a beach, for example, will automatically redirect your glide to the playing area. This is only noticeable because the freedoms you generally have are so overwhelming compared to most virtual worlds that the exploration fever will likely drive you until you can’t help but run into these few restrictions.
As for battle, there are no shortage of particle effects, exaggerated laser visuals, and missile animations. Most of these ultimately result in your opponents blowing up in to a million smoking pieces, which is not only a remarkable piece of coding, but is also incredibly satisfying. There is also barely any slowdown in the most fearsome firefights, and no loading once a level is begun.
Cutscenes are splendid, action-packed full motion video. They remain consistent enough with the visual style of the rest of the game to never feel like an intrusion and are usually brief enough to preserve the pace of the game.
There are a few gripes. For one, the levels, though very pretty, can be quite repetitive. Common enemies are not only repetitive but visually quite bland. Also, the scale is off slightly, such that if you transform into a car next to some of the human structures in the game, you’ll realize that the Shaquille O’Neal is probably the only person alive who could find any use for your vehicular mode. The team clearly put more effort into the visuals than they did the aural environment. Put simply, there’s not much going on in any of the levels. Light, forgettable music hangs in the background. Combat sounds are convincing and never break the mood, but you hear so much of them that in time they also fade into the background. Apparently, the cast of the currently available Transformers cartoon voices their respective counterparts, but this only happens in cutscenes. For some, it may be hard to accept that Optimus and Megatron don’t sound like the robots we grew up with, but it would still be nice if they didn’t go mute for long stretches during the game. Is personality from a robot too much to ask? Don’t answer that.
Note to nerds: the cutscenes seem to pride themselves on how many out of context quotes they can jam in from Transformers: the Movie. At first it’s enjoyable, but when you realize that it’s been 18 years since someone penned a memorable line for a Transformer it becomes kind of sad. The robot you control is huge. He is clearly very heavy. All things considered, however, he controls very well. Make no mistake, you do not have access to the blinding speed of Dante from Devil May Cry nor the acrobatics of Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa, but the controls are solid enough to work with you in most situations and never against you. The shoulder buttons handle firing, jumping, and Minicon equipment (more on that soon), and the movement controls are mapped similar to a first person shooter – left analog for movement, right for aiming. The square button puts you into this universe’s version of bullet time (careful, it consumes energy), the X and O buttons are for performing contextual actions, and the triangle button transforms your robot into a car.
The preceding paragraph mentioned that the controls work with you in most situations. Sadly, the situations this does not apply in usually involve being in car mode. This is confusing, considering that the developers apparently reused the driving engine from a previously released racing game. As a car, you can accelerate quite well, and do a very neat trick wherein you transform and go flying through the air with an extra burst of speed (useful for clearing some jumps or just showboating in combat). However, turning is nearly impossible and given the number of trees and narrow corridors found in the game, transforming is only useful in a few areas. By the end of the game, you might forget you have the ability altogether. The new show, the game, and the gameplay, revolve around a simple premise. A race of small transformers, the Minicons, has been lost on Earth. They promise great power to the robot that collects them, so the Autobots and Decepticons find themselves in a race to scour the planet for these little guys. As you find them, you are offered the option to equip them and gain fantastic new powers, like homing missiles, EMP bursts, a sniper rifle, or even a weapon that makes your enemies start fighting each other.
As one of three Autobots, your search takes you to some interesting global locations: the Amazon basin, Antarctica, and the South Pacific are a few. Most of these regions will have to be visited multiple times after finding new Minicons like a hang glider or high jump that allow access to previously unreachable areas. You can also return to headquarters to refill your energy and change your Minicons or Autobot at any time. The jump between HQ and the level is the only significant loading time in the game.
Regardless of how many times you’ve visited these locales you will face hordes of “Decepticlones,” the innumerable cannon fodder that makes a staunch effort to stop your progress. Fight through enough of them and you come up against a major Decepticon boss for a long, challenging fight.
Actually, the whole game is one challenging fight. I had to start over on the lowest difficulty setting after being unable to make it through the fourth level, and even then found the going insanely tough. Regular enemies can take nearly as much punishment as you can, so strategy is a must. There are numerous codes that tweak the gameplay in all sorts of ways, and though I didn’t give in to doing so on my first playthrough, they certainly do make the game more accessible without compromising the developers’ vision. If you’re a fan of the license who wants to play this but doesn’t feel confident in your gaming ability, you will still be able to enjoy it. If you’re a masochist with a thing for robots, you’ll also be all set.
One thing that can’t be addressed for anyone hoping to play this game is the lack of a level map. There is no way to know where you’ve been, and only vague suggestions via in-engine cutscenes to suggest where you should be going. It’s very easy to get turned around in the fast paced firefights. When this happens and you’re surrounded by trees, it’s very disappointing that no one at any stage of development realized that if there’s ever been a time when you could get away with having GPS on a heads up display and not break immersion, it’s when you are controlling a sentient robot. In addition to the Minicons you can find, there is apparently another race of Transformers known as Datacons that receive no introduction in the story and exist simply to give a player more to collect in the levels. These Datacons, rather than unlock more abilities, unlock various bits of Transformers lore. There are Atari promotional materials about the game, a comic book about the Minicons, photos of the new toys in the market (in case the game itself was too subtle in its marketing aim), a theater of the game’s FMV scenes, and the real treat: old public service announcements featuring the Transformers. I don’t recall these ever running with the show, but when you consider how parents might respond to their child telling them he decided not to run away because the car told him not to it becomes clear why they didn’t. In any case, they are certainly worth the effort to track down.
Also, there are three different Autobots to take through the adventure. They each control just differently enough, and have different capacities for Minicon placement. Therefore, although the story doesn’t change, playing through again with a different set of abilities and/or a different Autobot is not out of the question at all. The game may be considered short, as it will likely take an experienced gamer between 10 or 15 hours to complete, however there’s much more time to spend hunting down Minicons and experimenting with their arrangement.