Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

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With last year’s War for Cybertron, High Moon Studios did a splendid job returning the Transformers brand back to video game respectability after what had been a string of lackluster games of Autobots versus Decepticons. Largely because it didn’t have the resource constraints and the stigma that comes attached with movie tie-ins – it was its own game, and the developers even said they were allowed to treat it almost as if they were creating a new IP. It definitely showed, and the game was received so well that a sequel is supposedly on tap for next year.

In the meantime, High Moon was put in charge of the movie tie-in for the third Transformers film, Dark of the Moon, which is printing cash at the box office as we speak, despite a predominantly ho-hum reception. After stomping, transforming, and blasting my way through it, I feel strangely satisfied and disappointed at the same time.

There’s a reason why movie games have such a dubious reputation, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon exemplifies that reason more clearly than any other recent movie game I can think of. It’s a game from the same developer that just produced an outstanding game within the same franchise last year, with pretty much the same basic gameplay style and control feel left intact. Yet given the limited resources and development cycle that comes with this type of project, you can tell that the entire game was pared back and rushed to be out on time with the film.

It is readily apparent from the second you begin that this was a game saddled with a limited budget and limited creative vision, compared to the free reign High Moon was afforded when designing War for Cybertron. By comparison, the prologue storyline is treated as a total afterthought, clearly the result of the developers having to hold back from revealing too much about the movie plot; the scale of the levels has been brought down a peg; and both the campaign and multiplayer have been downsized substantially.

Instead of dedicated campaigns for each faction, Dark of the Moon gives you three levels from the Autobot perspective, three levels from the Decepticon perspective, and a boss finale as Optimus Prime, collectively totaling no more than six hours. Similarly, campaign co-op and the Escalation co-op survival mode have been removed since the last game, and the competitive multiplayer has been chopped down to three basic mode options (deathmatch, team deathmatch, and conquest). It is usually a policy of mine to avoid comparing games so intensely, but this is a special case where I think it is not only fair to do so, but also necessary.

Yet through the unfavorable comparisons to its recent predecessor, Dark of the Moon does deliver a popcorn-munching, blockbuster third-person shooter experience, and to a small extent it does improve upon certain aspects of War for Cybertron’s gameplay. This is a game that’s all about stress relieving robot-on-robot shooting, and whether you are an Autobot or a Decepticon, piloting a Transformer feels as it should: somewhat rigid and mechanical, but simultaneously responsive and agile. The sound effects are also as clanky and explosive as you would expect from a robot action game based on a Michael Bay flick – and that is most definitely a good thing.

Throughout the campaign, you get to play as Bumblebee, Ironhide, Mirage and Optimus Prime from the Autobot side, and Soundwave, Starscream and Megatron from the Decepticon side, and each character has unique weapon sets and special abilities to keep their respective stages from bleeding together too much. In one stage, you’ll be sneaking around in cloaking camouflage and picking enemies off with a sniper rifle as Mirage, zipping around as a Soundwave’s small, bird-like pet in the next, and then taking to the skies as Starscream’s jet form in full-fledged flight combat missions after that. There isn’t a whole lot of variety to speak of, but the characters and objectives are different enough to prevent you from nodding off as the campaign progresses.

A successful new addition to Dark of the Moon is a third transformation mode called Stealth Force, which is a hybrid mix of the usual robot and vehicle modes. By clicking in on the left analog stick, you can switch between robot form and Stealth Force, and while in Stealth Force you can depress the L2 trigger to enter vehicle mode and use the right stick to steer. Having these three forms opens up the gameplay to offer more choice, since you are free to change modes at will. Each form has its advantages and disadvantages as well. In robot form, you have access to more powerful character-specific abilities and the robots control more nimbly, but their defense is a bit soft. But in Stealth Force mode, you sacrifice some maneuverability for boosted defense and the ability to strafe and lock onto targets, which is particularly useful when up against airborne enemies.

Vehicle mode, however, is to be avoided whenever you aren’t forced to use it. It’s cool to be able to motor around as a sports car, tank or big rig, but the steering is far too touchy, and the physics are downright absurd, to the point where every little bump sends your car flopping into the air like a misshapen bouncy ball. Fortunately, the vehicle sections are mostly in place for intermission travel between action set pieces, so you only have to fight the controls on a few occasions.

A couple other things I would say Dark of the Moon improves upon are the ammo system and level diversity. For me, the most annoying thing about War for Cybertron was its scarce ammo supply. In this game, weapons have a clip capacity, but ammo is unlimited, so you can freely blast away without constantly worrying about conserving your bullets. As a tradeoff, the weapons you start with for each character cannot be switched out at any time, but that’s really no big deal.

As for the levels, while they are sparser and narrower in scope, the scenery is much more varied. War for Cybertron’s visual design was essentially metal on top of metal on top of metal, and after a while the game grew tiresome to look at. Not so here. In Dark of the Moon, the campaign takes you all around the world, from the forested mountains of South America to a burning, war-ravaged cityscape based in Detroit to the sun kissed tropics of the South Pacific. The graphics are pretty sharp overall too – not exactly spectacular, but the scenery is detailed and well lit, and the transformation animations never get old.

Like the rest of the game, multiplayer is a mixed bag of disappointing feature loss and satisfying robot-on-robot violence. As I mentioned already, all co-op modes have been axed, and all that remains are the three most basic multiplayer match types, four classes to choose from, and a simplified system of player progression and customization. Overall, it’s a fun outlet for fast-paced shooting competition, and the performance is solid. But I don’t see the multiplayer having any long term value. Each of the four classes has a level cap of 20, and within my first hour and a half of online competition I had already maxed out one of the classes, and from then on felt like there wasn’t a whole lot more to accomplish.

By now I think I’ve established a crystal clear case that Transformers: Dark of the Moon fails to escape the ‘just another movie game’ label, in that it has an unfinished ‘let’s crank this out as quickly and with as little effort as possible’ quality about it that simply can’t be ignored. However, as discouraging as that may sound, Dark of the Moon is surprisingly a very good game that can stand proudly on its own merits as a wholly enjoyable run-and-gun action romp. A rental should certainly suffice, but if you are a Transformer nut and/or an action junkie in need of your next adrenaline fix, I actually wouldn’t be against picking up a copy when it inevitably winds up in the bargain bin.

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Pros:
+ Running and gunning and driving as giant robots is a simple pleasure
+ New Stealth Force form opens up more gameplay opportunity
+ Varied and nicely detailed level environments
+ Multiplayer is fun enough to keep you busy…at least for a few hours
+ No more worrying about ammo conservation

Cons:
– Shallow, throwaway storyline
– Campaign is noticeably small in scope and longevity
– All co-op modes stripped away
– Multiplayer scaled back to the bare minimum
– Awful vehicle mode steering and physics

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Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for Xbox 360
Publisher: Activision
Developer: High Moon Studios
Release Date: 6/15/2011
Genre: Third-person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1 (2-10 online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!