Movies based on toy-lines or cartoons are seldom good, and games designed as movie tie-ins are seldom likely to excite.
Expectations for a game based on a movie franchise that itself is based on a toy-line that had its own cartoon should therefore be kept low.
However, in the case of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there is surely some reason for hope. What movie franchise is better suited to a gaming tie-in? Cars and planes that transform into fully-armed robots, stomping through cities monster-movie style? Iconic characters that have been part of the fabric of popular culture for the better part of three decades? A well developed mythology and endless array of possible story-lines? There is no doubt there is a great Transformers game to be made.
Sadly for fans, this is not it. Instead of working with all that the franchise has to offer, Activision Blizzard's High Moon Studios has delivered a shallow, flawed gaming experience that does little to buck the trend of underwhelming movie tie-ins.
The action takes place in the period following the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen film, with the Autobots racing across the globe to thwart the schemes of the Decepticons. The plot quickly becomes tedious, however, as helter-skelter dashes into battle prove a poor substitute for real drama, and players are given little time to connect with the events and characters they control.
Beginning as Bumblebee (the yellow Camaro that will aid even the most awkward of lads in landing Megan Fox), players transition through a series of chapters as various key transformers, both good and evil. In itself, the opportunity to play as an array of characters is sensible. Why limit players to only one of the dozens of characters that have existed across the toy, cartoon and film continuum? However, this makes it difficult for a player to become invested in their character, and the game feels increasingly like a series of distantly related events, rather than a coherent story.
This feeling is only reinforced by the manner in which players are bounced from the Autobot to Decepticon side as play progresses. Sure, many would rather play the bad guy, but to find yourself piloting the jet that was bombing you only a few stages earlier undermines what little narrative flow the game has to offer.
The multi-character approach does offer the player a wide array of vehicles, weapons and abilities, and this is one point at which Dark of the Moon excels. While the characters of the early stages are all cars and trucks, their robot forms offer a variety of weapons and abilities that keep combat from becoming overly repetitive. The shift from the bludgeoning Ironside to the fleet-footed and stealthy Mirage is an enjoyable transition, as is the move from terrestrial vehicles to fighter jets.
Of course, the key transitions of Dark of the Moon are those between robot and vehicle. The very concept of transformation has enthralled children since the '80s, and it is hard to imagine that the average player won’t spend their first few minutes of gameplay gleefully leaping from robot to Camaro and back again just for the heck of it.
However, High Moon has taken what ain’t broke and tried to fix it. Instead of the time-honoured transformation from fast, agile vehicle to battle-ready robot, players are presented with a third stage. This ‘Stealth Force’ mode sees robots morph into a combat variation of their respective vehicles that has stronger armour and more powerful weaponry than their robot form. In this mode, vehicles also have a hovercraft-like range of motion that bears no resemblance to what any car can do. With access to this more powerful, manoeuvrable mode, the whole need to transform is mitigated in many scenarios (unless, of course, you need to get your sports car up some stairs). What this adds to the game, beyond a gimmick, is not immediately evident.
These are far from the only problems with the game though. The physics for movement as a whole are flawed, with vehicles bouncing around like Matchbox cars and flight proving to be sluggish and unexciting. Meanwhile, combat is generally a simplistic and repetitive battering of anonymous opponents, often in cramped quarters that allow for no real strategy or use of transformation. There are occasional high-points delivered by via sniper rifle, stealth attacks and spectacular explosions, but Boss battles are overly drawn-out and there is none of the excitement one might expect from going to war with such unique combatants.
The world in which this all happens is underdeveloped too. The environments look pleasant enough, but there is very little in the way of depth or interactivity to the game’s surroundings. Where are the people? Why can some walls be destroyed but not others? How can an alien robot that can take a missile hit possibly die after falling off the edge of a mountain road? Given that one of the key attractions of Transformers is the novelty of giant robots striding through human environments, the inability to really interact with those environments is another opportunity lost.
Likewise, the online multiplayer is little to write home about. A lack of anything more exciting than basic deathmatch and conquest lends little to ongoing enjoyment. With unbalanced gameplay and poorly designed arenas it's little wonder that the local server populations are heavily diminished. It's really another missed chance to elevate the title beyond the underwhelming campaign.
As much as fans may be hoping for that great Transformers game, and as much as Dark of the Moon offers occasional moments of enjoyment, this is a game that will ultimately frustrate fans with robotic precision as it underutilizes or undermines every defining aspect of the Transformers franchise.
Sort of like the movies, then.