If nothing else, Transformers: Dark of the Moon proves that movie tie-ins are doomed to mediocrity. Until the current strategy is changed to encourage elongated development times, there is absolutely no way that the traditional method of releasing movie tie-ins will yield a product with triple A credentials….it’s just not gonna happen.
Just last year, High Moon Studios released War for Cybertron to both critical and commercial acclaim. Finally, someone had stepped up to the plate and delivered a Transformers game worthy of the brand. While not without its faults, War for Cybertron was a beautiful, well crafted experience that did a good job of making the player feel like they were controlling a twenty foot tall robot. Fast forward one year and the same team have released Dark of the Moon; a poorly developed, ugly, feature-light product not worthy of the Transformers name.
So, have High Moon Studios lost their touch in just twelve months? No, I don’t believe that for a second. The fact of the matter is, regardless of the team on development duties, the scant time offered to create and distribute a product that has to coincide with the release of the movie upon which it is based is simply too short. Rather than struggling to iron out the finer points of the games mechanics, the developers are instead struggling against the clock. The reason that movie tie-ins will never be anything better than mediocre is that, in the current climate, it’s all that the developers can hope to achieve.
That might sound somewhat defeatist, but unless developers are given earlier access and greater development time, movie tie-ins are going to continue to disappoint. Look back at the best movie tie-ins the industry has delivered in recent years: The Chronicles of Riddick, Lego Star Wars, The Warriors. What do they all have in common? None of them were developed under the strict time scale that comes with the majority of movie tie-ins. Coinkidink? I think not.
While I could moan about rushed development until the cows come home, I guess I should get down to the nitty gritty of what makes Dark of the Moon just another in a long list of poorly developed movie tie-ins. Beyond being criminally short (there are just seven mission in the whole game, two of which are glorified boss battles) Dark of the Moon’s biggest problem is that it never makes you feel like a giant transforming robot. There’s absolutely no weight to any of the characters in the game. They glide along the floor like they were made out of lightweight carbon rather than heavyweight steel, with none of their actions having any lasting impression on the world around them. Bumblebee’s drop from a ten story building is greeted with the kind of muted thud you would expect from a deflated basketball hitting carpet, while the result of Megatron’s mighty fist meeting a feeble wooden crate is, well, nothing at all actually. For the majority of the game, the Transformers and the world they are supposed to inhabit feel like two completely separate entities.
In fairness, the basic mechanics and familiar faces will drag you through a lot of the otherwise characterless battles thanks to some competent game mechanics. You shoot, you hide, you Transform but…..oh, wait a second, that’s when the game transforms itself into a metalic poo again.
One of the biggest problems with War for Cybertron was that the Transformers in vehicle mode felt far too light and suffered from some rather wishy-washy controls. Dark of the Moon suffers from the same problems while somehow managing to make the driving sections even worse this time around. When Transforming into vehicle mode, each ground based vehicle (that’s every playable character with the exception of Starscream) has two modes. The first of these is Stealth Force Mode – this form controls in a very similar manner to that found in War for Cybertron with strafing and blasting both possible. Regardless of the vehicle, when in this mode every character controls like some kind of hovercraft tank with little in the way of speed or finesse. In fairness to High Moon, the idea to have a secondary driving style was a solid one on paper, but the execution….oh dear. Hampered by an awkward control scheme, the ability to put your vehicle into full driving mode delivers little more than weight free, inaccurate and often hugely infuriating driving. Honestly, it’s just terrible – if there is little weight and believability to each Transformer’s movement when in robot mode, there’s almost zero when in vehicle mode.
Saying that, even if this game did manage to create a believable sense of weight and tighten up the vehicular control scheme, Dark of the Moon would still be dragged down by the boring, imagination-free level design. Whereas War for Cybertron was filled with unforgettable vistas, a believable alien world and a host of memorable set pieces, Dark of the Moon delivers poorly realised locations, lazy level design and a shooting gallery mentality that gets boring long before the game’s 4-5 hours of gameplay have run their course. There is a half baked stealth mission while playing as new boy, Mirage, but that’s exactly what it is….half baked.
Playing as Starscream for a mission might have served up as a pleasant change of pace, but the whole level reveals itself to be little more than an elongated boss battle with little in the way of excitement or new ideas. It is admittedly one of the better looking missions that the game has to offer, but still comes nowhere near the quality of some of the air-based missions found in War for Cybertron.
And that brings me to my next point: while I’m all for taking control of a host of Autobot and Decepticon characters, it’s still the big name players that I (and I can imagine most) look forward to controlling. Well, without wanting to give too much away, fans of Optimus Prime will be left somewhat disappointed by the big man’s screen time. It is criminally short….unbelievably short….really, really short. You get the message.
Despite the games myriad of problems, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much fun I had with the game’s multiplayer options. Although only three game modes deep, and hardly home to the finest collection of maps the online gaming world has ever seen, the floaty vehicular mechanics and weightless robots are a lot easier to forgive when thrown into an online arena. Maybe it’s the immediacy of online combat, but the simple pleasure of Transforming between vehicle and robot is far greater expressed when going up against human opponents. It may not keep you from Call of Duty for long, but it’s a very pleasant distraction for as long as it lasts.
The detailed character models, impressively animated transformations and solid voice work do bring the experience up a notch, while the vacant, largely non interactive gameworld is pretty in a boring postcard kind of way. But sadly, a lack of imagination in both level design and script serves to deflate the entire audio/visual experience.
I appreciate that I haven’t even mentioned the story so far, but honestly, I hardly even remember it. It’s set in the build up to the movie but feels completely inconsequential from beginning to end. It’s just another bland, rushed, poorly developed aspect of a bland, rushed, poorly developed videogame. I’m sure High Moon Studio’s will be back to developing high quality Transformer videogames when work on War for Cybertron 2 begins, but until then, just try to pretend this never happened.
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