Review: Transform and roll out!
It's almost redundant at this point to go into detail about the sorry history of Transformers games through the years. I've never understood why a big time Transformers game was never attempted. With the NES debuting in 1983 and Transformers coming to the airwaves a year after that, you'd think a video game (maybe even several) was a sure thing. Especially in the NES era, when every halfway decent license got turned into a video game. But it was not meant to be for The Transformers. All we got was a lousy NES game that was never even released outside of Japan. But finally we can say a good?Transformers game has arrived in the form of Transformers for the PS2.
Transformers is based on the latest cartoon iteration of the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, Transformers: Armada. Armada follows the original storyline fairly closely, but with a few added changes. The Autobots and the Decepticons are still fighting their million year Civil War for Cybertron. But now, a race of small Transformers known as Mini-Cons can turn the tide for either side. Mini-Cons link up with their large companions and give them extra abilities that they can use in the fight against the other side. Not unlike the Headmasters mini-series that was introduced in the last season of the original 80s cartoon. The Autobots also have a group of teenage sidekicks that the new cartoon focuses on way too much. The annoyance factor of these teenagers is actually what caused me to give up on the cartoon soon after it debuted. Thankfully, they are no where to be seen in this game.
Transformers the game is built on working your way through seven very large, but very linear, levels to reach the end. Along the way you'll be forced into confrontations with Decepticlones, worker drones that the evil Megatron has created to give him a massive army. This is a pretty clever fix to stock the game with low level enemies and so that the more well known Decepticons (Starscream, Cyclonus, Megatron) can be used as bosses.
You are given the choice to play as one of three different Transformers right off the bat. You can choose from Hot Shot (the fast but not very strong one), Red Alert (the well rounded one) and the immortal Optimus Prime (the strong one). Obviously, everyone will be playing as Optimus at all times because for one, he's Optimus ****ing Prime, and two, he's the only one with the firepower necessary to survive the game.
So with your Transformer selected it's time to drop into the game and play with the most important aspect of the game; the control. Throughout the game you're allowed to equip four different Mini-Cons, one each for the four shoulder buttons. They add extra power to your Autobot in the form of specialized weaponry or defensive capabilities like a force field or increased armor and one little guy even gives you wings to glide after a jump. Mixing and matching Mini-Cons to create a combination capable of kicking more ass is a major part of the game, and it works.
Transformers uses the pretty standard move/strafe with the left stick and look/turn with the right. This control scheme turns up pretty often and I last saw it in The Suffering. Only The Suffering allowed you to change it to move/turn on the left and look/strafe on the right, which I prefer. Transformers does not. It's not a big deal as the control is still pretty good, but options are key and more control schemes is one I always like to see.
What is a big deal is that the Transformers move very sluggish, especially when strafing. For a game that requires quick movements to avoid enemy fire, this is pretty frustrating. On top of that, your Transformers can barely jump. Little (to them anyway) jumps that should be no problem are a huge obstacle. It's ridiculous to see a thirty foot robot unable to jump up onto a five foot embankment. I realize these are supposed to be huge machines that must weigh several tons, but Transformers have always been very mobile and turning them into plodding behemoths is really detrimental to the run and gun gameplay the game sets up.
One of the things the developers did perfectly was allow you to transform at any time with a single press of the Triangle button. Complete with the transforming sound of course. One of the first things you get to do in the game is transform into vehicle mode and run down a Decepticlone at full speed. It's incredibly satisfying to run a Decepticlone over, transform back into robot mode and turn?around in mid-air while still firing at the rest of the squad. It is without a doubt the greatest part of the game and probably one of my top five gaming moments ever. It's just incredibly fun and the ultimate Transformers video game experience. If you stop reading right now, this is reason enough to at least rent this game.
Transformers also earns major points for being unforgivingly difficult. Even on the lowest difficulty level you'll be replaying sections of the game again and again. Wave after wave of Decepticlones are thrown at you constantly and if it weren't for the sluggish control it would always be great. But the odds are stacked against you with the control and it's often a better strategy to just run and find the next checkpoint. There you'll get blown to bits, but at least you'll start at this further checkpoint with full health.
For all of the enemies that constantly swarm the screen, the game looks great. And while the levels are set up to be very linear, you can always backtrack and the entire level is kept in memory. There's nothing quite like having a boss fight where the entire level is your battlefield and any Decepticlones you left standing before the big fight march towards you for an ambush. It's frantic, hard as hell, and fantastic. This is really showcased in the Deep Amazon stage as the battle with Cyclonus starts on the top of a pyramid. He then throws your Autobot off of the pyramid into a canyon river bed where the two of you battle it out as the Decepticlone army marches to the cliff's edge to watch. It's awesome.
Best of all, slowdown is pretty nonexistent. Maybe a little every once in a while, but the game moves at a good clip. And there's more than low detail here as well. The Autobots and the Decepticons look great rendered in full 3D. They're not the 80s version, but they're detailed and everything is fluid, it's very impressive.
The backgrounds are a little less impressive as generic looking trees, snow and water dominate the environments. I assume it's a case of cool looking characters so the backgrounds must suffer. And I'm entirely OK with that. They are not bad by any means and it keeps the focus where it belongs, on the cool Transformers. The level design was somewhat lacking in some cases though. All of the levels featured a deep canyon that if you weren't careful, you'd drive right into. And from there it was a chore to work your way back to the main section of the level and back onto the linear path to the end. And with all of the transforming it's very easy to get turned around and not realize which way is the correct way to be going on that linear path.
The audio comes through with some appropriate background tunes and plenty of explosions. Nothing revolutionary, but very good at what it has to be and very fitting to the Transformers theme. And as I said, the transforming sound is present and accounted for, what else do you need.
To round out the whole Transformers package, Atari hid Data-Cons throughout the levels that unlock comics, concept art, videos, and Transformers public service announcements from the 80s. Very cool stuff and a nice capper to keep players coming back for more.