Developer: Traveller's Tales
Release Date: June 26, 2007
I missed the Transformers phenomenon the first time round. I had just aged out of the target market, reaching the point at which I discovered the neighborhood girl who, wielding her father's jumbo-sized softball league mitt, would consent to play hotbox with us when we were short a third was indeed intriguing far beyond her fairly advanced snatch-and-tag technique. When girls on the block go from being "boyish" to "pixyish," robots — even cool, giant robots transforming via lightning-quick, sophisticated machinations into cars, fighter planes, helicopter, trucks and more — will be gladly shelved for newfound pursuits. Star Wars was about the last gasp in that vein for me, and even so, more the movies than the resulting plethora of plastic figurines and model spacecraft.
Ergo, if you weren't the right age at the right time, and probably male, the magic of the Transformers craze is likely lost on you. Robots that transform into vehicles. Wow. I already have a Swiss Army knife. It has a toothpick and tweezers. But like most things that capture the hearts and minds of children, there is much more to those Transformers than trite science-fiction machinery; if you were at a susceptible age when these particular robots were unleashed on the television and toy world, they've almost certainly stuck with you.
More than a year ago, when someone a bit younger than me asked, "Did you know they're making a Transformers movie?", my response was, "I thought they already did." (They did: an animated feature-length film, which hardly counts with today's Transformers aficionados up against Paramount's juggernaut.) His next proclamation was, "They'd better get it right." As if to imply, should they not get a live-action Transformers movie right, the offense carried a capital sentence. Fortunately, action-flick producer/director Michael Bay and the Orci/Kurtzman/Rogers writing team understood this, creating what is inarguably the best movie project by far of their busy, but largely uninspired, careers in television and film. Too bad Activision didn't get the same message — or death threats — as the movie team.
To be reasonable at the outset, I'm not sure a barely passable game version of the movie was required by Transformers fans of any age. I don't know these people ever intended to play the game adaptations at all. I know of grown men — again, Transformerism mostly afflicts males — who bought all versions of this movie tie-in title, collectors' editions if available, and they don't own but one compatible platform. There are eight separate versions, if you count splitting the Autobots and Decepticons campaigns into distinct Nintendo DS titles. I can't imagine these super-fans will crack the shrink-wrap on any of the retail boxes; they'll also buy two copies each of the DVD special and standard editions — one standard to watch, one to archive, one special edition with which to play (the case is itself, charmingly, a Transformer) and yet another to archive. They'll buy the HD DVD versions of the home video release although they own neither an HDTV nor a compatible deck. They'll probably snag a couple of copies of the Wal-Mart-exclusive two-disc edition, too. I bet they'd have bought one of the strictly low-brow, full-screen, or "pan-and-scan," DVDs too, except Paramount apparently had the good sense to skip it.
Is the stage set? From the perspective of film criticism, the movie was a serviceable but hardly revolutionary science-fiction entertainment, appealing enough for a broad audience. Yet for Transformers fans, they got it right. Everything else, including the games, is just collectible paraphernalia.
Even the introductory sequence and menu presentation for PlayStation 3's very own Tranformers: The Game version is as rough and hackneyed as a budget title. This of itself can be forgiven, depending on what's under the hood. In last year's Xbox 360 smash, Gears of War, save a chilling introductory background story scene, the presentation is like hammering old iron, and not in a good way — but the game makes up for it in spades. On PS3, F.E.A.R.'s menu system is the definition of "clunky interface," but the title is an excellent console FPS experience. Transformers' interstitial cut scenes quite obviously look upscaled from 480i to 720/1080i/1080p — 1080p? What for 1080p? — but, further, the whole game seems "upscaled," in all aspects, from a mid-life-cycle PlayStation 2 title. In graphics and audio, there are only two elements approaching highlights: the animations for transforming the robots to vehicles and back again are slick, quick and detailed; and the voices of the Autobots and Decepticons are ... well, they sound like the voices of giant, bad-ass robots.
The aforementioned cut scenes do, literally, appear upscaled, and then anti-aliased with some sort of down-and-dirty blur effect. For the most part, they are painful to watch, especially if you still remember how much you paid for your PlayStation 3. The mission environments aren't absolutely hideous but they don't exactly scream "HD gaming," either. Very little is textured, and buildings and vehicles lack detail — although for some reason, there's some pretty good sand in a desert environment in the Decepticon campaign; the development team's sand guy was perhaps on top of things, if briefly.
Audio effects are stock-and-trade boom and bang. Transformers allegedly supports surround sound, but you wouldn't know from listening to it. Here I'd comment on the use of in-game music to heighten mission tension, but I can't for the life of me remember if there even was any music in the game. That should say it all.
Unexpectedly, gameplay mechanics and controls are acceptable. At first blush, some will recognize Transformers: The Game's design as an homage — read: rip-off — of Rockstar's many Grand Theft Auto titles. But, decidedly, it's not. The game implements some of the basic layout, map and waypoint-following design from the GTA series, but these were hardly unique to GTA in the first place. Transformers is not the least bit nonlinear or "sandbox." You complete each chapter of each mission one after the other; it's about as linear as linear gets. The only concession to nonlinearity is the ability to swap back and forth between Autobots and Decepticon missions within the same saved campaign, which is, I admit, a decent feature for following the unfolding story from both sides. Too bad that story isn't worth following.
The control precision is poor for a game with significant driving segments, but as a vehicular Transformer, you don't take any damage for ramming over, around and through everything in sight, so the issue is incidental. Per usual, they've tossed in limited SixAxis motion-sensing control; per usual, you shouldn't use it. SixAxis motion sensing is near stellar in limited scenarios — see Heavenly Sword — but the notion must be dispelled, sooner rather than later, that developers should stick it in a game just because it's for the PlayStation 3. Some of the chapters are indeed fun to play, if only the first time through. Lamentably, due to liberal use of foreshortened timers, control hiccups and a potential bug or two, you'll have to repeat some chapters at least once — and even a single extra run is one too many. In a somewhat lengthy chapter of an Autobot mission, I repeatedly failed right at the end, with plenty of time left on the clock and a full health meter. Just because, I suppose. After several attempts under the same conditions, having pursued the very same route, it finally worked, and I was able to break from the game long enough to collect and discard the pieces of a coffee mug shattered when I, ah, slipped and threw it against the wall.
Both the Autobots and Decepticons are equipped with one heavy and one light projectile weapon, the reasonable difference between which I dare you to discover. The targeting lock-on system is often frustrating and for the most part unnecessary, as you'll do just as well holding your targets on your own. The robots can pick up and throw objects at the opposing Transformers — overused in this game — stunning them, making melee attacks possible. Melee attacks are likewise overused, indeed are the only effective assaults on robots more formidable than the weakest cannon-fodder variety. Due to overuse of these basic mechanics, all the chapters of the brief collection of missions are largely repetitive in nature. If you perform well in the chapters, you can unlock bonus content, but it's strictly of the video-we-already-had-sitting-around-on-a-shelf type and is therefore scant motivation to play, period, let alone skillfully play.
While new and veteran fans of the Transformers were thrilled with Bay's movie, the Activision game is a complete bust. Obviously, the publisher was well aware this title would sell merely on the strength of the blockbuster-budget film and the mythic status of the Transformers; thus aware, they applied the minimal resources and creativity necessary in putting a sellable disc in a pretty plastic box. The title's only saving grace, absolutely the only reason the final score is so high, is that the game is accessible to, and the content appropriate for, young children. (Childhood nostalgia can only carry something so far. Any adult truly enjoying this game should probably tell his personal physician at the next office visit.) My three-and-half-year-old son, while still a bit too young to manage control of a game like this, is already enthralled with the Transformers, and children can forgive a great deal in a video game based solely on favorable branding. A lot of younger children will have a good deal of fun with this title only because they get to be a Transformer. Unnecessarily repeating chapters won't bother them because it's just another opportunity to be a Transformer. Considering only this audience, I can give Activision some leeway in the final determination; considering only the reasonable standards for a quality video game adapted from a popular, interesting license, they should be ashamed.
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