If games are boxers, Transformers Prime is a heavyweight midget. Not without its charm, it’s nonetheless far too short, easy to beat, and really has no business being in there with the big boys.
Based on the kid-friendly show of the same name, Transformers Prime’s scant storyline involves the Decepticons attempting to awaken ancient and powerful Transformer named Thunderwing, while the Autobots spend most of their time rescuing constantly-kidnapped children – something which must make them question why they keep the wee flesh-bags around in the first place.
Although it is functional, there are two significant problems with the Transformers Prime on the Wii U.
The first is that it has clearly been ported across from the handheld Nintendo DS almost completely untouched. The game is bereft of graphical detail, with never more than half a dozen simple character models inhabiting small, flat, largely featureless landscapes. Further clues are abundant: there are loading gates after every small skirmish, allies are present in cutscenes but vanish once gameplay resumes, and both direction and velocity in vehicle mode are dictated using only the left analogue stick, like it’s 1995 all over again.
The second equally large problem is that even taking into account the age of its probable intended audience, Transformers Prime is pathetically easy. It’s possible to beat the game in fewer than four hours and in even fewer lives, and there is no difficulty setting to tweak. That Activision even considered – let alone decided to charge – full price for such a slight amount of content is criminally miserly by anyone’s standards.
The game’s 14 levels are divided up into normal third-person shooter fare with an irritating self-centering camera, vehicle-only sections, and boss “battles”. One of five playable Autobots is controlled per level, each with its own strengths: Optimus Prime inflicts a lot of damage at both melee and weapon range, Arcee is fast and super-manoeuvrable, Bulkhead can lock-on and shoot enemies while in vehicle mode, and so on.
There is no aiming in the game but instead enemies are auto-targeted regardless of where they are or indeed, whether they are even in line of sight. This makes ranged combat success simply a matter of holding down fire, with the occasional strafe thrown in for good measure. Enemies unlucky enough to come within melee range may be dealt to with one of three combo attacks, a much more damaging and efficient way of dispatching them.
The only variation in combat comes thanks to Energon shards collected from destructible crates and rocks, which quickly fill an Upgrade Gauge. When maxed out, this allows the player to enter a temporary bezerk mode, within which all attacks do more damage, a longer combo is possible, and movement is faster. At anything less than its maximum, upgrade gauge energy powers a shield that blocks all but the most ferocious enemy attacks.
Once underway, combos cannot be countered or blocked, but a shield deployed just before the first blow connects will parry it and stun the attacker. This works from the outset but the player isn’t made aware of it until at least two-thirds into the game, and even then only via text on a loading screen. Around that time players also learn that they could have been hitting the transform button just as they were downed to immediately recover as well.
Not all Transformers may shoot while in vehicle mode (or if they can it’s generally not with lock-on aiming), but all are capable of a leaping attack from vehicle mode that breaks through enemy shields. All combat in the game follows a similar routine, then: pepper targets with laser fire from afar, transform and charge should they put up a shield, melee, then repeat.
By and large the same goes for boss battles. Harder Transformers such as Soundwave may teleport about the place and employ cheap instant knockdown attacks but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter – they are still one-attempt cakewalks for the most part.
That leaves the game’s vehicle levels, wherein a Transformer hurtles down a canyon or similar area at a constant speed and the player is tasked with shooting obstacles or dodging them using the GamePad’s gyro to steer. As usual, the GamePad’s motion mechanisms prove excellent and provide precise control, but these levels are too simple to amount to much more than a game-lengthening gimmick.
The GamePad goes practically unused elsewhere, showing text of the current objective and the number collectibles found, but that’s about it. Its screen may be touched to enter the aforementioned bezerk mode, but it’s easier to simply press the left bumper instead.
The multiplayer component of Prime is also a laughably threadbare offering. There are no online modes, but instead up to four Transformers – two of which may be controlled by players – do battle in hold the flag, deathmatch, and team deathmatch modes. The arenas on offer are tiny but suitable for so few combatants, with the sole pleasure found in being able to play as any Decepticons that have been defeated in campaign mode.
That swells the character roster to 11, but not all are made equal. Due to lock-on targeting by Autobots, the Decepticons’ flying ability isn’t the advantage it seems, but Starscream’s guided missiles are far preferable to Soundwave’s pathetically short-range audio attack. It’s logical that the higher-ranking Transformers should best the scrubs, but that doesn’t make for balanced matchmaking.
Despite the above, not all is dire in Transformers Prime. The TV show’s voice cast are a great inclusion, and the sound is strong throughout, with the trademark transform noise and Optimus Prime’s gutsy truck engine particular highlights. Further, Transforming is encouraged by swift acceleration to top speed in vehicle mode, as well as the ability to jump in that mode which causes a momentarily switch of form in a most satisfying manner.
It plays just fine, and is mostly free of bugs and other annoyances, but Transformers Prime is simply not a console-quality game – not by a long shot.