Developer: Vicarious Visions
Release Date: June 21, 2007
Transformers: Autobots, despite its lack of everyone's favorite former Disney Channel star Shia LaBeouf, manages to be a surprisingly robust portable title. It's a shame, then, that it's not all that much fun.
Transformers sets the stage for its epic conflict with the arrival of the Autobots and the Decepticons on Earth. In theory, Transformers and humans could get along just fine if not for two major problems: Transformers are giant freaking robots and the Decepticons like to break stuff — including people. Thus, it follows that your quest as random Autobot number 11.325 is to fend off the Decepticons while also avoiding unnecessary damage to the mysterious, new world you now inhabit. As mentioned, well, one sentence ago, the game's primary playable characters are not Optimus Prime and company; instead, you play as a nameless robot voiced by Steven Jay Blum of "Cowboy Bebop" fame. You'll interact with, and even sometimes play as, other Autobots, but Steve (as we'll call him) is the focal point of the story.
Now, before you jump off this train wreck just waiting to happen, understand this: The gameplay options offered in Transformers are comparable to many non-portable console titles. Each level is presented as a wide-open, freely traversable 3D world, although these worlds are more akin to ghost towns from old westerns — only with more skyscrapers. That is, of course, due to the Nintendo DS' technical limitations; it's no Xbox 360, after all. Despite the levels' semi-disturbing lack of other beings (who aren't trying to kill you, anyway), there are still plenty of things to do. You'll mostly be undertaking story-related missions which tend to be of the "go from point A to point B; kill enemy C and then repeat the process" variety. Sometimes, you'll encounter a mission that switches things up — a chase scene, for instance — but it quickly becomes repetitive. It's a good thing, then, that the game is only several hours long.
Taking a cue from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Transformers employs a character-building system that turns the game into a sort of RPG Lite. Before you get your hopes up, the RPG system is pretty shallow; Steve simply gains more power as he defeats enemies.
The real reason the "previously unheard-of main character" idea works so well, however, is the scanning system. If you see a car you like careening down the road (in fear, because you're a giant robot and all), you can just scan it and transform into it any time you like, with one stipulation: only one transformation per mission. Other than that, though, you can hop into the menu at any time and take your pick from your collection of speed machines. The scanned cars don't merely offer superficial alterations, either; they change Steve's stats. Depending on the situation, you may need his car form to be faster, or his gun to be more BFG-like in its ability; changing your form allows you to rise to those occasions at will. The actual driving controls are competent, but the game isn't exactly Gran Turismo; you'll most likely use your car form to get from place to place, and then use your robot form for everything else.
Transformers, being equipped with all kinds of armaments, must be fierce fighters, right? Well, let's just say that this is where the game falls apart. At its best, combat is clunky, and at its worst, it is an exercise in obscenity-creating frustration. One debilitating deficiency is the process of targeting enemies, which is far too sloppy. In your attempts to maneuver around your foes, you'll most assuredly break away from the target multiple times per battle. That's unacceptable on a console where, due to a lack of analog sticks, aiming is nigh impossible without copious amounts of assistance. Your gun, which is the weapon for which you'll usually be using that targeting system, is incredibly weak. Surely our robot pal is proficient in fisticuffs, for he can't be bad at everything. Sorry, but no, he's really not. Another debilitating flaw is that you only have access to basic punching combos, and while they are your most useful means of attack, getting up close to a tough enemy is just asking to lose a few robo-teeth because you can't block, while most of your enemies can and will. All the while, the game itself laughs at your plight.
Amongst this sea of flaws, Transformers does discover one redeeming value: The multiplayer modes are pretty cool. As expected, there are deathmatch modes and other things of that sort, but those are only playable over local multiplayer. Nintendo WiFi isn't left scratching at the door while its less expansive counterpart sleeps in a warm bed at night; it's actually where the multiplayer really becomes intriguing. Basically, a new challenge is presented for download each week, and people who own either version of Transformers, Autobots or Decepticons, can take the challenge and then upload their results onto Nintendo WiFi. The side with the best results wins the "war" for that week. As you can tell, this isn't exactly multiplayer in the classical sense because you're not actually competing with anyone in real time, but it's an enjoyable approach to a sometimes stale game mode. It would've been nice, though, to actually engage in combat with your Transformers-loving buddies from all around our nice little blue planet.
If nothing else, Transformers is presented in a manner few Nintendo DS games have equaled. For one thing, the entire game is voice acted, and some of the stars from this past summer's hit reprise their roles in the game. The addition of Blum as the main character only sweetens the deal. The menu screens are also pretty attractive and quite functional at the same time.
The game's score is unremarkable in every sense of the word. It's fast and vibrant, as you'd expect out of a DS action game, but you'll quickly forget it's even there, thanks to the DS' low sound quality and the music's lack of memorable moments.
Transformers is graphically proficient for a 3D Nintendo DS title. The Transformers themselves are fairly detailed, and the different levels aren't too hard on the eyes, though they're sparse enough and slightly pixilated so the game can run smoothly. Lastly — and this is kind of nitpicky — the car models are really basic and look inferior to those in the GBA version of Need for Speed: Underground.
Transformers: Autobots tries its best to create a cohesive experience, but that ends up being its downfall. Unlike many games, Transformers is actually less than the sum of its parts. It may look and sound kind of nice, and give you all sorts of things to do, but who cares when it's just not any fun and you want it to transform into another game after 30 minutes of play time?
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