"Weh-ooh-weh-eeh" is about as close as I can come to describing the sound a Transformer makes when changing shape. "Urrrgh" is the sound a game critic makes when playing a Transformers game that has the potential to be great, yet totally misses the mark.
Based on the most recent incarnation (Armada) of the incredibly successful and long-lived 80's toy line, Transformers from Melbourne House manages to be quite disappointing, yet still the best game ever to bear the license. As a long-time fan, I'm glad to see the attempt made, and respect what they tried to do. As a critic, I still recognize the project as being deeply flawed.
Transformers put me in control of three heroic Autobots. Choices include Optimus Prime (the leader), Red Alert (defensive tactician) and Hot Shot (young speedster.) Together, the trio must seek and collect small robots called "Mini-Cons." Scattered throughout planet Earth, these Mini-Cons can impart their possessors with enhanced abilities and special powers. Naturally, the Autobots' opponents, the Decepticons, have the same idea in mind. It's not much of a premise, but it's appropriate enough considering that the toys' television shows have rarely been about high drama.
The game controls use the standard first-person scheme; the left stick moves and the right stick aims. Each of the four shoulder buttons can be assigned one Mini-Con each, meaning that an Autobot can have up to four separate abilities at once.
These Mini-Cons are the crux of gameplay, and putting so much emphasis on them also makes them its biggest problem. From energy shields, to sniper rifles, to flak cannons, successful navigation of the game's expansive environments hinges on having the right assortment of Mini-Cons equipped at the right time. Literally making the difference between success and failure, my issue here is that Melbourne House structured things so that searching and finding Mini-Cons is a very slow, time-consuming, and unavoidable part of gameplay.
There are two Mini-Cons in particular that act as the keys for collecting others. One is a set of glider wings, the other is a high-jump ability. Rather than making Mini-Con collection a natural, flowing part of the game's progression, it is necessary to backtrack through old levels switching between these two on the hunt for better weapons and sturdier shields. Without this dull, uninteresting process, Transformers could probably be finished in a matter of two or three hours. As it stands, I spent more time looking for powerups than I did covering new ground or fighting bosses. Trying to take shortcuts and skip the scrounging is unavoidable since the game's combat is brutally hard, even on the easiest difficulty setting, not to mention that you need at least thirty to even finish the game.
The other letdown for me was that there was that the robots' claim to fame-transforming into vehicles-was mostly ignored in favor of run-and-gun action. Simply put, there's little point in becoming a car when you're deep in a jungle. There are no urban environments, no races, or anything that requires a set of tires. Besides a few ramps to jump and crashing into enemies for a laugh, the Autobots' ability to morph goes woefully untapped. If you took away the license, this could be just about any generic 3D actioner.
On the plus side, the graphics are top-notch. The robots look sharp, and the mostly-outdoor environments are very well done. Forests stretch on for miles without a hint of fog or pop-up, and everything looks convincing. Transformers also sports excellent cutscenes and a wealth of fan service to be unlocked. My favorite were the old 80's public service shorts teaching safety lessons and health, but there are also music tracks, instructions on transforming the actual toys, and assorted pieces of artwork. Older trans-fans with the skill and patience to get through the game will appreciate the virtual memorabilia. However, the game is so difficult overall that it's going to crush kids buying it for its association with the new toys or the program currently running on the Cartoon Network.
Transformers might be a good purchase for crazy, obsessive fans of the license (like me), but for anyone who demands rich play experiences and balanced design, this is one of the few times that Optimus Prime has failed to complete his mission.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway