When High Moon Studios delivered War for Cybertron it reinvigorated a little part of my childhood psyche. The part I usually lock away and beat back any time I’m with anyone over the age of forty. It connected in a way that the first Michael Bay Transformers film did, too, reminding me why I spent all those afternoons as a kid crashing big plastic toys into each other. It’s simple really: robots are awesome. The original film and War for Cybertron were capable of reminding me of that. Astonishingly, the same development house has delivered another Transformers game and for whatever reason – and I’m willing to go out on a limb and peg this reason on the publishers – it’s the exact opposite of what made their past effort so grand. Disappointingly, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just like every other licensed game.
If It Ain’t Broke, Ruin It Completely By Missing The Point
It’s clear that High Moon tried their best to stick with the formula that worked so well in their past game: You play half the chapters as Autobots and the other half as Decepticons. The big difference this time around is that there’s only about seven chapters total and some of them last no more than ten or fifteen minutes. Furthermore, you don’t choose one campaign or the other; they simply blend into each other in a rather disjointed way that fails to capture the player’s interest. Transformers don’t need to be all about story, but Dark of the Moon highlights why even just a base level competent one is crucial in making a game fun.
The story itself falls somewhere between the second film and the third, and picks up with Bumblebee in South America trying to upload a virus which will help Optimus Prime and Co. hunt down the last remaining Decepticons. The events then turn into a cat and mouse game with Autobots chasing Decepticons and Decepticons chasing Autobots, but rarely does it ever feel important or exciting. There are no wide-scale wars against hoards of reinforcements, and no fights for survival against all odds. The levels tend to be long corridors filled with enemy road-bumps that aren’t particularly taxing or creative. And even though you play as a number of Transformers they all feel rather similar, with only ground or air being the biggest change in play styles. Players should also know that for some asinine reason you get to play as Optimus Prime for a single, ten minute boss fight. That’s it. The most iconic figure of the whole Transformer universe and someone decided you should only get to play as him for ten minutes in a $60 dollar game. At least he’s fun to play, and you can use him online if you so wish. That’s a good snapshot of what’s wrong here: the issue isn’t the quality of the action, it’s the design concepts behind what’s available.
The core gameplay is mostly unchanged from the previous outing but the few changes that have been made are perplexing. You used to have two forms; vehicle and robot. Now, you have a third form called Stealth Force, which allows you to use your weapons while retaining the mobility of your vehicle form. You’ll find yourself spending a lot of time in this mode since the game defaults you to this. The only negative is that you can’t use special abilities in this mode, but it’s hardly a complaint considering you’re far more resilient to damage and have unlimited ammo, two things your robot form lacks. Since you die faster, you’re slower and you have to wait around to reload it’s almost entirely pointless to stand up and fight, which is probably that last thing you want in a Transformers game.
Sometimes, Less Is Just Less
One of the best surprises that came out of War for Cybertron was that the multiplayer modes were a lot of fun. In such a highly competitive market it’s hard for games to stand out and earn a respectable share of online players, but between the cooperative Escalation survival modes and the competitive multiplayer War for Cybertron did just that. Dark of the Moon inexplicably drops the Escalation mode altogether. You’re left with only a bare-bones competitive team deathmatch and a conquest mode. Players can pick from a number of classes, for both Autobots and Decepticons, but they’re restricted to specific Transformers within each class. The real options come in player perks and weapons that you earn while leveling up. The selection is respectable enough to make loadouts feel sufficiently diverse, but not being able to customize your own robot is still bizarre. There’s just too many instances where an entire team is Starscream or Optimus, and being able to change looks would have countered that.
Of course, aesthetics aren’t all that important when playing team deathmatch, mechanics are. Dark of the Moon online suffers from the same issues the campaign does. Stealth Force mode is still overpowered resulting in a lot of anti-climatic battles where players float around objects firing at each other. Of course, that doesn’t mean online isn’t fun. There’s something inherently enjoyable about running around as a Transformer fighting other robots. Between customizing your loadouts, special skills and the odd kill-streak perk there’s actually a very serviceable online formula here. I had a good time getting each class to the level cap, it’s just sad that the time went by so quickly. In just a few short hours I’d maxed all classes and had little elsewhere to go, leaving me no longer interested in going back online.
War for Cybertron had the problem of the massive worlds overshadowing the scope of the Transformers but Dark of the Moon suffers from putting them in uninteresting and claustrophobic locations. If there had been total destructible environments around it would have helped reinforce the reality that these are giant mechanical beings in a world not meant for them. Instead you get to destroy trivial things like boxes and cars in a world that feels noticeably small. The game doesn’t look particularly good either, with only a few cool moments of good art design scattered throughout the game. You’ll frequently be put through long driving sections, but because Dark of the Moon funnels you down straight paths with no choice of where to go they feel longer than they actually are and more boring than they need to be.
You can probably tell by now that the best way to sum up my feelings for Transformers: Dark of the Moon is disappointment. On the heels of one of the best video game iterations for the franchise this is a major step back in virtually every single way. It’s in the nature of game critique to point fingers and find where things went wrong, but I’m inclined to believe that this was off on the wrong foot before a minute of development time was ever spent on it. From all appearances this game was designed to be released alongside the third film, with no attention paid to the quality that could be crafted in such a limited time. But this is speculative and beside the point. What matters is that Transformers: Dark of the Moon The Video Game is not worth your money, fan or not and is an immense failure to capitalize on the great progress made previously in the series.