Game Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Activision has long been pigeonholed as the company that relies on two big franchises, Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, to sustain its business, while also launching small forays into the establishment of other franchises only to retreat when the public failed to become enamored with them.
The Transformers license could have been a chance for Activision to establish a gaming franchise that could have rivaled the movie series, run by Michael Bay, in terms of sales success.
Unfortunately, the publisher chose to build rushed and cheap movie tie-ins instead of unleashing a talented team of developers on the universe and allowing them to come up with new stories and new gameplay ideas.
Dark of the Moon could have been a great game, and deep down inside a careful player can see the building blocks for a good experience set in the Transformers universe, but, launching roughly at the same time with the movie, it's just a companion piece that only the fans will love.
The essence of Transformers: Dark of the Moon is simple: get a powerful robot combat machine, master its weaponry and abilities, both spread over two forms, walk through linear levels, blast huge amounts of enemies, reach the crescendo involving either a boss battle, a wave based arena, or both and the watch a small cutscene done in a Michael Bay style that tries to tell a story leading up to the events of the new Transformers movie.
It sounds simple, it is and it could be the basis for a very good gaming experience. Imagine fights with robots that work in teams and use various weapons and the environment to challenge the player, leading to a sort of tactical puzzle that can only be solved through the judicious use of weapons, special abilities and shifts from one combat form to another.
It could be exhilarating and fun, but Transformers: Dark of the Moon makes it all rather boring. The enemies are as dumb as they can be, simply standing their ground and firing at the player most of the time, with no coordination with their allies and no use of the space around them. The abilities the various player-controlled mechs have are cool initially, but their use is rarely required to progress and they quickly become just a way of getting through the levels quickly. The levels are thoroughly linear and the boss fights are uninspired at best.
Another disappointment is the lack of love for the car forms of the various robots. The new Shadowforce stance is interesting and has some nice weaponry, but its existence pretty much means that there's no real reason, other than some enforced get-to-this-point-quickly-objectives, to be an actual car and a part of the Transformers universe is just lost.
The game also misses some good opportunities to introduce more diverse gameplay, with the flying feeling like a sort of on-air racing while the stealth makes little sense given the destruction power of most of the robots involved in the Transformer universe.
Considering that High Moon Studios, the people who have created this latest Transformers game were also the ones behind War for Cybertron, it could be that the dip in quality here is linked to the short development cycle (the game needed to arrive at the same time as the Michael Bay summer blockbuster) or to a lack of resources.
Unfortunately, only creating a good game with limited resources is praised in the video game industry and there's no feature that saves Dark of the Moon from being mediocre and even bad at times.
The game is not helped by the fact that there's no way to play cooperatively through the single-player campaign or even the options of going through old levels using a number of other robots, which would have at least offered some sort of variety.
Graphics and audio
There's a lot of detail showered on the big robots in this game, because they are the stars of the show and players need to be able to see the same complex designs and transformations that they would get in the movie.
There's far less love for the enemies, who often look like bulked-up gray Terminators (unless they are named characters) and there's even less detail left over for the environments, with all the locations made up of endlessly reusable elements and lacking any feeling of place.
The car forms of the Transformers also look fairly uninteresting and it's probably all because of, yet again, lack of time or resources to create something more complex.
There's not much one can criticize about the sound design in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but there's also little to praise. The actors sound suitably robotic and the lines are simple while the music remains unimpressive throughout the game.
There are only three modes for multiplayer action in Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Conquest, which is frankly a paltry offering, considering the amount of innovation multiplayer is seeing at the moment in the third-person space (one needs to just take a look at what Naughty Dog is doing with the Uncharted 3 beta).
Because this is an Activision game and their biggest franchise is Call of Duty Transformers borrows some elements, like getting experience points that lead to level-ups and four classes that can be tweaked to suit the tactics of the player.
One nice touch is that the classes are based around actual bots and, for example, choosing the Commander class means that one can play as either Optimus Prime, for the Autobots, or Megatron, for the Decepticons.
There are different abilities, weapons and upgrades for them all and there's more variety than in the single-player side of the game.
The trouble is that the maps feel uninspired and that there are some issues with the multiplayer infrastructure which lead to the player being dropped back to the game lobby for no clear reason.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a good game for those who have seen the three Michael Bay directed movies, based on the toys, and who have become familiar enough with the robots to be able to name them and then recite their backstories and abilities. This means that the most hardcore fans can find some enjoyment in the game, but this will probably come in spite of and not because of the design decisions made by the developers and the publisher.
The game might also be suitable for those who have fond memories of playing around with the actual robot toys when they were originally put on the market and might enjoy the feeling of actually controlling them in the video game environment, one which has some advantages over just playing with bits of plastic strewn over the floor.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon will not be enjoyed by those who appreciate solid gameplay, good use of a license, well-drawn game levels, engaging boss battles and stories that are well plotted and well-acted.
I hope that the developers get a chance to use the same universe and the same basic premise to create another Transformers video game, one which does not have to be linked to a movie and uses some innovative gameplay ideas.