As far as franchises go, Transformers is a behemoth which holds power over millions. From the casual drifters who’ve seen Michael Bay’s recent explosion-porn adventures to life-long fans whose homes are adorned with their collections and everything in between, the Autobots and Decepticons have a worldwide appeal which few others can compete with. As a cross media properly which already has decades of films, toys, comics, TV shows, even cookie cutters to its name, frequent games releases are no surprise. The most recent is Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark and oh boy, the only thing rising here is the darkness.
Past releases of Transformers titles have been epitomized by High Moon studios with their critically acclaimed (War for and Fall of) Cybertron games. They always had interesting and cinematic stories set alongside jaw-dropping landscapes, pockmarked by the craters of enjoyable combat. Gameplay in Rise of the Dark Spark however just doesn’t match up to this precedent. As a third person shooter, the majority of your time here is spent blowing apart enemies from an over-the-shoulder viewpoint. Since this is the most important aspect of a game like this, you’d think developers Edge of Reality would have spent the majority of their time actually making it a little more… fun?
Scratch that actually. For something to be more fun it has to be fun in the first place. Even the most simple act of shooting a Decepticon/Autobot/anything in the face is frought with inconsistency and frustration. Enemies flit around on irritating meanders before suddenly gaining enough intelligence to point and shoot at you. All at once. And together. You can spend hours out in danger with no more reason to worry than a happy rabbit in a meadow. However, then, much like the sudden appearance of a hundred hungry foxes, out of nowhere, they learn to take you out in seconds without warning.
Where these inconsistencies shine at their worst is during the game’s few boss fights. One particular debacle centres around a battle against Ironhide where you have the option to pummel his rotund rear with bullets or plant a bomb on his head using stealth. In five different battles he insta-gibbed me twice out of nowhere, set himself on fire once, got stuck on the terrain once and set himself on fire again. Even the final encounter against Lockdown is a long journey dotted with idiotic conditions and ‘tips’ that are of no help. There’s no joy to be found in the single player gameplay outside of a long overdue power trip as Grimlock (which kicks in an FMV every time you transform so even that’s not great).
Visually, the latest outing of the robots in disguise is the very definition of a mixed bag. During chapters based upon Cybertron, character models and locations have a pleasing aesthetic quality to them. Quality, hm. An interesting concept when applied to the way everything has been stitched together. You see, Rise of the Dark Spark is built not from assets fashioned purely for itself. Sections which play out on Cybertron are fashioned from the graphical elements used in High Moon’s esteemed entries while battles which play out on Earth are built by Edge of Reality. This disparity gives everything a the same level of polish you’d expect to find in a teenager’s room after being told to ‘clean’ it. At a glance, it’s passable but should you put your hand on the furniture your body is overcome with a feeling of illness and displeasure.
Even the pre-rendered cutscenes, which should at least be on par with the rest of the title, are compressed poorly. Victims of crime obscured in news reports have more obvious features than any Autobot or Decepticon in these. Still, there’s more definition on them than during any portion of the half played out on Earth. Structures are so dull you root for the mercenaries or whatever the hell Lockdown is leading to destroy it all. The brown buildings would look infinitely more appealing if they were burning. That’s how poor it looks.
At least there’s a good story though, right? Wrong.
Rise of the Dark Spark presents an uninspired tale which tries to meld the storylines from Michael Bay’s movie series and the Cybertron franchise but fails to make any aspect of the tale remotely powerful; it’s barely even memorable. It all feels as if they got part of a beginning, the end of a middle, and the start of a conclusion. I literally finished the game for a second time 10 minutes before writing this review and I’ve got no real idea what actually happened outside of robot on robot action. What Rise of the Dark Spark achieves in its story is the stitching together of a very strange creature. The 14 chapters each feel like a long, protracted slog towards a conclusion that never materialises.
Beside a couple of choice lines from Starscream and Shockwave, the dialogue is shallow and poor. The Transformers voice cast are usually a passionate bunch but Rise of the Dark Spark is peppered with phoned in performances. At their best, they are on a par with Robert Downey Jr’s infamously awful performance in the Iron Man tie-in.
All the time during Rise of the Dark Spark these things called Gear Boxes are flung at you. As rewards for completing challenges like killing so many enemies or destroying certain parts of the environment, they are the system for unlocking different pieces of equipment and characters in Escalation mode. These Gear Boxes can be earned during single player or multiplayer, but, in both cases, they feel like last ditch gifts from a desperate romantic partner, showering them over you in a hopeless need for companionship.
Credit where credit’s due, Escalation Mode is a more fun than the single player experience, in the same way being stabbed once is a whole lot more fun than being stabbed twice. This 4 player co-operative horde mode provides an enjoyable distraction which doesn’t match up in any way to the amount of money spent on a full retail purchase. With only a handful of maps on offer, the bemusing lack of any way to customize your character further cements the fact this was made as a heartless film tie-in rather than a river of passion and respect for the property.
As a child, the Transformers franchise puts an idea in your head: the idea that any boring 5 door family runaround could actually be a kick-ass robot – with missiles for fingers and a plasma coil for genitals. Past Transformers titles have adhered to this ideal of there being an enjoyable game where one might expect to find a passionless cash-in. Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark strays away from this in the worst way possible. Rather than a badass robot resting beneath the benign exterior, there’s a throwback to the games you loved which transforms into an off-white minivan filled with nothing more than tedium and missed opportunities.
If you’ve just gone to see Age of Extinction and really want to play an awesome Transformers game, High Moon’s past efforts are all you should even consider going for. Leave this pile of scrap out to rust until someone comes along to polish the franchise up again.
[+Original Voice Cast and Soundtrack][+Passable Multiplayer][-Poor Visuals][-Nauseatingly Poor Combat][-Muddled Story][-Lack of Passion for the Property]