Developer: Melbourne House
Release Date: May 11, 2004
Pre-order 'TRANSFORMERS': PlayStation 2
Like a lot of other guys who were kids in the Eighties, I grew up watching the old “Transformers” cartoon, now generally referred to as “Generation One.” I can remember quite a few conversations back in the day about how “Transformers” would’ve lent itself really well to a video game, but nothing ever came of it. There were a few notoriously bad titles that stayed in Japan – where the Transformers were frequently unrecognizable, and almost always renamed; my childhood hero Optimus Prime was suddenly “Fire Convoy” – but other than that, nothing. It’s the most underutilized license in video game history.
Now, we’ve got “Transformers: Armada,” and quite frankly, the cartoon sucks. There are just too many annoying kids, too much focus on collecting the PokeMiniCons or whatever they are, and not enough giant robots punching each other. It’s all kid-friendly or something, with smiles and laughter and a lesson at the end.
Weirdly, though, “Armada” has now spawned a video game from Atari, Prelude to Energon. Doubly weirdly, it’s actually a pretty good game; it is that rarest of properties, which overcomes the gravitic suck of its license to provide the player with a satisfyingly destructive experience. It reminds me a bit of last year’s Metal Arms; Armada is a third-person shooter, with lots of weaponry to choose from, plenty of extras, and three selectable, customizable characters.
The plot is simple: Megatron has detected the presence of power-boosting Minicons on Earth, grabbed his buddies Cyclonus and Starscream, and set off to capture them. Because Megatron figured this out while he was in the middle of a fight with Optimus Prime – why is Megatron considered a tactician, anyway? – Prime immediately takes off after him.
As Prime, Hot Shot, or Red Alert, you’ll be battling across Earth, and eventually back to Cybertron, to collect the Minicons before Megatron can. This is complicated to some extent by the army of Decepticlones that Megatron has pulled out of nowhere; these smaller, unnamed robots present the majority of your opposition in any given level. They run the gamut from blaster fodder to serious threat, as you might expect, and are usually supervised by a powerful Decepticon.
The Autobots, by comparison, have three guys, and, unlike the cartoon, are not inexplicably hindered by the presence of small children. Prime’s the offensive fortress, capable of crushing Decepticlones under the tires of his truck form, while Red Alert is heavily armored and Hot Shot, with his greater speed, makes a decent scout.
Each starts the game equipped with a basic blaster; you have a high rate of fire, but if you run the blaster out of power, you’ll have to wait a second before it can recharge. You can also transform into your vehicle mode by simply pressing Triangle, which trades in your weaponry for higher speed, smaller size, and the ability to crash through entire platoons of Decepticlones like a steamroller.
Each level has several Minicons hidden within it, which you need to track down before the Decepticons capture them. Each Minicon has a name and an additional capability, which can transform your Autobots from large but somewhat weak soldiers into one-robot engines of destruction. A given Minicon will fit into one of four categories: primary weapon, secondary weapon, defensive option, or a secondary, automatic enhancement option.
Not all Minicons can be used on all three Autobots, and you only have a set number of “points” to spend on installing Minicons, each of which have a specific value. That being said, with the right Minicons, you’ll find the Autobots become very customizable. You can play it sneaky with a stealth field, go on the offensive with heavy blasters or rocket launchers, deflect enemy fire with a reflective shield, or close to melee with a Minicon that boosts your close-range hand-to-hand combat damage. (Watching Hot Shot backflip-kick a Decepticlone into pieces is just comedy platinum.) There are at least forty Minicons to rescue and play with over the course of the game, and none of them really repeat each other. Sure, there’s the big gun, bigger gun, biggest gun progression you might expect, but various force fields, scanners, modifications, and missiles also add to the destructive hilarity.
There’re hours of fun to be had figuring out how best to configure each Autobot to maximum effect, while simultaneously wrecking dozens of pleasingly-explosive Decepticlones. When one of the ‘clones goes down, it doesn’t just fall over; it detonates in a satisfying shower of robot parts, accompanied by a nice big explosion.
You’ll be seeing that a lot, because Armada is not a terribly easy game. On Rookie difficulty, it’ll take a while to get going, but eventually, things will get tricky. The larger Decepticlones can take an astounding amount of punishment, and there are usually quite a lot of them. From the first level on, you can comfortably expect to be outnumbered a dozen to one in an average skirmish, and fighting enemies who’re smart enough to set up crossfires and dive for cover. In later drop zones, when the Decepticlones develop heavy armor and rapid-fire blasters, you’ll need every bit of efficiency you can wring out of your Minicon configuration to stay intact.
The Starship level, for example, is kind of like what would happen if a plasma rifle and a gravel crusher had a kid; entering the stage exposes you to a withering rain of gunfire from a two-hundred-seventy degree angle, while several heavy-armor Decepticlones mount a frontal assault. Win past that, and you’ll have to fight Starscream, who is something of a cheater.
Armada is a strange contradiction like that. The television show it’s based upon is definitely a child’s program, but the game is clearly meant for older players. It’s violent, full-contact Pokemon, if Pokemon were, in fact, a selection of highly lethal weaponry meant to shred robots. It’s not a “Generation One” game, but Transformers: Armada will make an adequate substitute for anyone else, like me, who’s been waiting for the Transformers to show up in a decent video game.
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