Many of us remember sitting cross-legged, far too close to the television watching cars, planes and helicopters transforming into robot behemoths, with a penchant for ostentatious wrestling.
The original Transformers television series was something millions of people will remember growing up with, so it isn’t surprising that both Takara and Hasbro have milked the franchise since its inception. One of the more recent incarnations is that of Transformers Armada and somebody thought it fit to transform the TV series into a game. Cue Atari and Melbourne House, an inordinate amount of PR nonsense, screenshots that looked faked and legions of nostalgic punters wanting desperately to play as Optimus Prime. Behind all the hype, Transformers is a special game and, in all honesty, the license does take a back seat to a very impressive game engine.
This engine is probably the defining feature of Transformers – it’s utterly astounding. The environments are vast and the draw distance is mightily impressive too. Unfortunately, there are problems as a consequence: in having the PS2 draw these immense vistas, the framerate more often than not takes a noticeable hit. Moreover the judder is by no means consistent either and can make the player feel quite nauseous on occasions. Couple this with an off-putting amount of motion blurring and you have a game that only looks fantastic when the player is standing still. Unfortunately for the game engine, Transformers is a frenetic third person shoot-em-up.
Whilst the action is set in the third person, it contains sections that breach this design mentality. On the one hand, it has parts customisation coupled with the aforementioned third person shooting action, which is nigh on identical to that of Armored Core. On the other hand it has huge environments with swathes of platform jumping, which makes it similar to many platform and environmental FPS. The main thrust of the gameplay works thus: you explore huge environments searching for Minicons, whilst destroying the evil Decepticon forces that have already infiltrated the area. The opposition primarily consists of “Decepticlone” units, which can’t transform but make up for this shortcoming by having multiple types with different abilities.
Control is undertaken via the analogue sticks in a manner not that dissimilar from your typical TPS/FPS, and the weapons are assigned to the shoulder buttons. You enter into missions via warpgates, of which there are a fair few dotted around each level. Upon reaching enemy units, you open fire with your arsenal. It sounds immeasurably simple and straightforward but it isn’t. The varying types of Decepticlones will give you a run for your money, and the Commander units – already pretty potent in their own right – have the annoying habit of commanding their subordinates into rather intricate attack patterns.
Thankfully your eponymous transformation abilities allow you to mow down closely packed enemies with suitable aplomb (think “mechanical roadkill” and you won’t be far off). The majority of the game actively discourages the player from transforming though, leaving the resulting slugfest to be fought out purely in robot mode.
The player has access to three playable transformers: Optimus Prime, Red Alert and Hot Shot. Each varies in their attributes and on what type of Minicons they can use. The Minicons are also another big part of Transformers, again much like Armored Core, they serve as “parts” that each of the transformers can use. These vary from an assortment of guns and missiles to the likes of a hand glider and shields. Each transformer has a power rating which determines how many can be equipped and that helps to balance the proceedings somewhat (e.g. Hotrod, a fast, nimble transformer, can’t equip too many high powered additions, whereas Optimus Prime, a slow behemoth, can). However whilst there is a modicum of balance in the loading out of Minicons, there is an awful lot of redundancy in the selection. In that many will simply not be used once more powerful ones are acquired. Interestingly, if the player equips two or more Minicons of the same colour their armour rating will increase. This is a clever feature and does help to improve diversity within the customisation aspect.
In addition to the collectible Minicons, a selection of Datacons can also be discovered. Datacons differ by not being contextual improvements to your transformer but instead offer production materials that can be viewed in the Archive section. Some of these production materials are particularly interesting but the most fun is that of unlocking the original Transformers TV series “TV spots”. These are particularly endearing and amusing pieces of “advice” that the Transformers give to their viewers. This alone should satiate some of the nostalgia and is a nice touch on the part of Melbourne House and Atari.
Transformers is set over seven vast areas, with a final area unlocked towards the end of the game. Whilst the areas are very big, the path through them is often linear. Admittedly, the discovery and acquisition of the various Minicons and Datacons does help to open up the levels, as well as increase the longevity of the game, but considerably more could have been done with the design of these areas so as to make them feel less restrictive.
On top of this is that the navigation of these areas can be immeasurably frustrating, often due to the poor implementation of platform jumping. This is accentuated during one particular section, where the player has to make a series of tricky platform jumps in the dark. Coupled with this is a rather bizarre physics model, which makes the Transformers feel as though they are jumping through some kind of viscous fluid. Whilst the main parts of each area can be traversed with relative ease, the clumsy and inconsistent layout for jumping onto ledges and across gaps does irritate and impedes the transforming abilities the series is known for. It is also worth mentioning that not having some kind of versus mode is a waste, especially considering the size of the environments and the varied amount of transformer customisation.
Transformers is visually impressive but the game itself is pretty deficient in some key areas. The game is clearly on the cusp of being something quite special and unique but it’s a big let down in terms of how the gameplay pans out. If you’re going to make a Transformers game then at least allow the player to use the signature aspect of the series as much as they want.