It's no secret that the Transformers video games have had a very rough outing in the current home console cycle. The first game, based on the first movie and developed by Traveller's Tales, wasn't received well (even by fans of the franchise), and the second, again based on the second movie but developed by Luxoflux, was only marginally better. It wasn't until Transformers: War for Cybertron, developed by High Moon Studios and based on an original story using the G1 versions of the robots, did the games start gaining respect by fans and non-fans alike. The third movie opened a few days ago, so it's only fitting that Activision let the developers of its most respected Transformers game to date handle this game as well. Try as it might, though, not even High Moon could craft a good game for Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
The game's plot acts as a bridge between the second and third movie, so playing this won't spoil anything if you play this before seeing the film. It's been three years since the events at the end of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Decepticon activity has dropped greatly. The humans believe that the Decepticons have finally left Earth, but Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, feels differently. Scouring the globe, he and his fellow Autobots try to find pockets of Decepticon resistance. He not only finds them but also stumbles upon a plan to resurrect Shockwave, one of the most feared members of the Decepticons. It's up to the Autobots to stop that from happening.
For the most part, those who have played War for Cybertron will be instantly familiar with the basic game mechanics. It's still a third-person shooter similar to Gears of War with a shifted perspective when aiming, but it still doesn't have a cover system. You can only carry two weapons, but you have two special powers per robot that get recharged over time. You also have the ability to transform into a vehicle, whether it's a car or a jet, which is mostly used to escape to another area or travel faster. There are a few instances when you have to use stealth to progress through a level or must stay in one form to progress, but otherwise, the gameplay should seem quite familiar.
There are several things you will notice that make the game different from its direct predecessor and older, movie-based titles. There are no ammo or health pick-ups, as ammo is infinite and health can be regenerated over time. You still have to reload your gun and hide somewhere to regenerate health, but you won't find it on the battlefield. Also gone is the ability to pick a side and robot for each mission. Each mission chooses the side and predetermined robot that you control. The final big change concerns Stealth Force, which is a cross between a Transformer's regular mode and its vehicle mode. When it's activated, your speed is faster than that of your robot mode but slower than your vehicle mode. Since you can't attack while in vehicle mode and you can take more damage in this mode, it becomes a preferred mode for those who want the extra mobility and protection.
The game is exciting mainly because of the emphasis on action. There are a few times when you'll have to race to a certain checkpoint or go stealth but the emphasis is usually on action. There's rarely a time when you aren't shooting at someone, and it helps that the guns feel rather solid. Grenade launchers, shotguns, sniper rifles and even simple assault rifles all feel good and satisfying when you hit your target accurately. Since there are some solid shooting mechanics and decent boss fights, you won't mind too much that you're blasting away at the same Autobot or Decepticon clones over and over again while you can't protect yourself with a proper cover system.
The title isn't without some missteps, though. With only seven missions, the game lasts around five hours on the normal difficulty, and that's considered short even in this new era of shortened games. The game gets an artificial extension because of the hidden Autobot and Decepticon symbols that need to be destroyed, but once the campaign is finished, there are no side missions or bonus levels. The inability to choose sides and robots for each missions also doesn't give one much of a reason to revisit campaigns unless they're hunting for specific Achievements or Trophies. It doesn't help that the missions are overly similar. With a few exceptions, you don't get the mission variety that was available in the older movie-based titles. With most missions consisting of destroy enemies, activate or deactivate artifact and clear area, it can get monotonous despite the good shooting action. The pacing is also quite predictable. You'll always have some sort of hallway to cross before entering a room full of enemies that must be cleared out before you can advance. Even if the environments are mostly outdoors, the concept is the same, and it won't be long before the pattern becomes rote. Finally, the idea of giving the Stealth Force version of your robot better defenses means that most players will play the game in that mode instead of changing up things — especially since those weapons are sometimes stronger than the ones for your robot form.
The multiplayer, something for which the previous Transformers game was praised, feels very watered down in Dark of the Moon. Lots of major elements from the last game are here, though. Both regular and team deathmatch make an ,appearance as does a territory capture variant called Conquest, where you have to hold certain points on the map and reach a score of 400 to win. There's also the leveling aspect of your character class and some customization options, though the customization feels lighter and leveling feels much quicker. For some reason, both co-op campaign and fan-favorite Escalation are missing, so those who were hoping to play those with the movie versions of the Transformers cast will be highly disappointed in their absence.
Also disappointing is the online performance of the title. In just about every match entered during the course of the review, most of which were on Conquest since that was the most played mode by the community, the game lagged badly enough to greatly impact gameplay; connection icons even appeared through most of the matches. Players could still move but only hit each other with melee attacks, as firing guns did nothing. Even then, players simply glided in robot form or warped to different areas of the map almost instantaneously. Considering how well the previous games performed online, it's a shame to see this one perform so poorly most of the time.
The controls are both familiar and frustrating. The robot and Stealth Force forms control just like any other third-person shooter, so it's rather easy to come to grips with the controls. It's responsive enough and rather easy to go from Stealth Force mode to robot form and back whenever you wish. The frustration comes from vehicle mode, where the game begins to buck convention. To enter this mode, you have to keep the left trigger pulled while the right trigger initiates handbrake turns and the right thumbstick does the steering. The same goes for flight mode, except that the right trigger fires weapons instead of performing an air brake. In both cases, the controls are counterintuitive to what gamers have done for several years in racing and flying games. Thankfully, the game doesn't feature too many of these segments, but it is bad enough that you'll crash into the environment more than a few times as you try to remember of the odd vehicle controls.
Graphically, the game feels less polished than War for Cybertron despite it being done by the same developers with the same engine. The environments look fine, even though it hits all of the familiar notes we've seen in other games for a long time. Ancient temples, frozen caverns, jungles, ruined cities and volcanoes don't look spectacular in this game, but they hold up rather well when compared to other games. The same can be said for the particle effects, which are abundant but don't seem to adversely affect the gameplay. The character models look good, as there is plenty of intricate detail in the Michael Bay-approved models, especially when you change weaponry and change forms. What mars the whole package, though, is the amount of texture pop-up throughout the game. Whether you're moving quickly through ruins or just walking in buildings, you'll constantly see low-resolution textures be swapped for higher-resolution ones, and that was something that didn't plague War for Cybertron. It happens often enough that you'll wonder if any optimization was done before release; it makes the title look uglier than it should.
One thing that can't be taken away from the game series is the sound, which has always been quality material. Thankfully, Dark of the Moon carries on that tradition. While it may not play all of the time, the music does a better job of evoking the feeling of the movie, and you get something that sounds close to the cutting room floor bits of the movie's score. The effects hit hard, as everything from the transformations to the explosions are loud and pitch perfect. The voices are also well done, with the cast consisting of a mix of actors involved with the movie and those who have voiced the characters in past game iterations. It may throw off those who are only used to hearing the voices from the animated series, but the cast does a good job of staying true to the characters while not overdoing it. As a total package, the audio is good enough that you'll want to turn up your speakers.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon may be the better of the three games based on the movie series, but that isn't saying too much. It's a tighter, more action-packed experience compared to the previous games, but it sacrifices length and choice to get there. It has a better look but enough of a texture problem for that not to matter, and the online experience is surpassed in both features and performance by its predecessor. It's a decent weekend rental for those who want more backstory and action before seeing the new film, but die-hard franchise fans and action game fans would be better served playing War for Cybertron again while waiting for the upcoming sequel.
Editor's Note: Be sure to check out our "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" movie review.
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