Here’s what I want to know. In an ever expanding nebula of licenses, waiting to be made into video games, why did Transformers have to be in that number? I was pretty upset when the first TV series – the GOOD one – culminated with the motion picture which I watched with a mournful, jaded eye. Then, after years of simmering on the Classic Status hotplate, my favorite morphing machines “evolved”, spawning great numbers of new and largely mediocre TV series and toy lines, bringing with them tepid shadows of the exciting universe the Transformers use to exist in. In the latest crossover from Atari, the Transformers take on the familiar forms that I love and remember in a more traditional role than any of the other Transformers games of the recent past, but somehow their shape-shifting universe just isn’t as compelling, even in this particular interactive package.
There is a decent story here, but it’s pieced together with flashy, disparate and apparently unconnected pieces. Figuring out what’s going on is either an exercise in staring at the TV screen, or enduring the game’s futile gesture at dramatizing the age-old epic conflict between Autobots and Decepticons. Pivotal in this particular episode of good-versus-evil are a lost race of Transformers called Minicons. After being discovered by Optimus and Megatron mid-battle due to a distress beacon that the Minicons sent out from their landing site on beautiful planet Earth, both sides sought them out to tip the balance of power in the most current Autobot/Decepticon war. As plots go, that’s about all there is to it. The rest is simply slugging through some admittedly lush and beautiful environments, littered with mechanized cannon fodder.
One of the most impressive things about Transformers is actually the different locations you’ll traverse to various ends, nine in number. You’ll gun through such diverse battlezones as the wrinkled verdancy of the Amazon, or the blowing, snowy flats of the Antarctic, and on to such fantastic levels as a starship and even the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron. All of these levels are built well and serve their purposes as thoughtful arenas for battle and treasure hunting. Which leads us to the crux of each level...
The primary objective throughout the game, bosses notwithstanding, is to discover the location of and retrieve Minicons from scattered points within the levels, which are denoted as glowing balls of light. Aside from their responsibilities as bearers of the rice-paper-thin plot, Minicons are smaller Tranformers and a collectible source of ability augmentation that actually serve the gameplay rather well. The four shoulder buttons are configurable with certain Minicons, depending on what they provide the equipper, and make for relatively powerful combinations. Missile racks, grenade launchers, plasma streams, defensive shields and more become available as the tiny robots are collected, and some will be accessible only after a required Minicon has been tracked down. For instance, within the very first level, one must use the Slipstream Minicon available in a later level, which allows the user to glide on extended wings to acquire a few of the less accessible Minicons perched on high plateaus or unscalable inclines.
It’s expected that a game based off of a TV series that self-promoted the toys it featured would have collection as a central activity. Along with the Minicons, inconsequential Datacons are lying around, which open up meager extras like concept art, cutscenes, music, and other collectible trivia. This is an aside at best, and not something I would suggest anyone go out of their way to do, despite how easy it is to get most of them.
Most disappointing, perhaps more than the story, is the fact that only three Autobots are on hand to play, and their transformations, while accurate in sound and motion, seem more gimmicky than the defining characteristic that they are. The familiar faces of Red Alert and Hot Shot are in line with the ass-kicking Optimus Prime, each with their own attributes in speed, power, defense, and attack strength. Choosing between them for each level is part of the strategy; picking the best 'bot can mean the difference between a solid victory and getting your ass-can handed to you. A central hub of sorts, labeled with the banal moniker of “HQ”, divides levels and mission save points, and is where you’ll choose which Autobot you currently want to use, what Minicons should be employed, and what areas you’d like to visit/revisit. It’s a decent setup, and takes the edge off the game in places where boredom and repetition could strangle the gamer’s interest in continued play. Tired of Optimus and his lumbering gait? Try out Hot Shot’s speed as an advantage, or the unmatched defensive wax job of Red Alert.
In-game action is rather hard to appraise. Most of the time the controls felt sluggish and watery, like I was in the bottom of a lake trying to move around, yet I had to keep reminding myself that the movement physics of these hulking robots is probably emulated as well as could be expected. Running across the hillsides, pummeling enemies with gunfire and whatever projectile augmentation my equipped Minicon provided was definitely a blast, and I had to let myself feel some astonishment at what the game could display in terms of environmental depth and enemy numbers. In the heat of action, the explosions really packed a decent punch, and made the bulky dancing and dodging of my Transformer worthwhile. If you want to do a little sneaking, there is a first-person stalker mode that makes you quieter and more able to make that headshot to the Decepticlone cranium. There’s even a Sniper Minicon, which served its purpose well for a planner like me. Heh. Battles are presented quite well throughout, but give yourselves some time with the bosses – balance issues will certainly challenge you with the big guys.
It’s really a pity that Transformers doesn’t stand atop a better foundation. Honestly, if this weren’t attached to such a fanatically nostalgic license and fan base, it would be just another vanilla robot action game. I’m sure I’ve waffled all the way through this review, but the bottom line is that there are very recognizable and appreciable Transformer trademarks amidst well-rendered levels, a decent interface, questionable battle action, and boring storyline objectives. Take it for what it is, I guess. Fans will love it for all the positives it beholds, and uninterested passers-by will not be enamored with any one piece of it. I’m sure this line has been over-used in reviews for this game, but with Transformers, there really isn’t much more than meets the eye.