On paper, "Transformers" should have made an incredible video game. Towering robots that transform into vehicles like fighter jets and eighteen-wheelers? What’s not to love about this concept?
The execution of said concept, that's what.
Developed by Traveler's Tales, "Transformers" is currently available for most viable gaming platforms, from the Xbox 360 to the Nintendo DS. (This review is based on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 editions of the game, both of which retail for $59.99 and are rated Teen.) The most inspiring design decision is the split campaign that allows gamers to test their heroic mettle as the Autobots or indulge some darker, destructive tendencies as the Decepticons.
Each series of missions tracks the warring robot factions' quest for the Allspark, a source of Transformer energy that has been hidden on Earth. The story is incredibly thin, lacking any of the fun or intrigue of the cartoon series or comics, such as duplicitous Starscream's efforts to usurp Decepticon leader Megatron.
Unfortunately, no matter which campaign you choose, you are funneled into a litany of cookie-cutter missions that involve mindless combat or racing through checkpoints — neither of which really capture the essence of the source material.
The Autobot missions are geared more towards racing, and the loose controls (especially fan-favorite Bumblebee) make any driving decidedly un-fun. There are occasional showdowns with name-brand Decepticons, like Megatron and Starscream, but most robot-on-robot thrashing involves generic Decepticon drones and equally-generic attacks.
You have a handful of projectile weapons, but most fights devolve into melee brawls because the drones have shields they can use at will to draw you in close. What, then, is the point of even having these supposedly powerful missile launchers and cannons? Two robots clobbering each other does look cool, but with no real variety to the melee moves, pounding on the attack button mission after mission grows old far too quickly for a $60 game.
The Decepticon missions are slightly better, only because these monsters are admitted instruments of destruction. Whether you're in the sky with Megatron and Blackout or on the ground with Barricade and Scorpinok, getting to tear things apart as a colossus is a minor enjoyment until the repetitive nature of the game design gets the better of you. (Lots of "Destroy X number of Y before time is up" missions.) No matter which campaign you choose, you can plow through the missions in just a few hours. Small, optional side missions and scavenger hunt collecting contests add an hour or two to the entire game, but none of these extra activities are much fun.
Terrible camerawork short-circuits much of the game. Following these hulks through crowded cities proves too much for the camera, and it often results in you getting stuck on unseen objects or hitting a building, which is actually detrimental in the Autobot missions.
Also annoying: Even though the game is framed as a go-anywhere open world game like Activision's own "Spider-Man 3," this game is very linear. Artificial constraints called "action zones" keep you in small areas during many missions. Should you step outside for too long (or be pushed outside by a series of uncontrolled explosions, such as in Bumblebee's power plant mission), the mission ends in failure.
Aside from the split-campaign gameplay, this title has just one other merit: the design of the in-game Transformers. These robots are massive, conveying a real sense of scale against the otherwise human backdrop. Optimus Prime, for example, towers over suburbia and Blackout looks genuinely frightening when brandishing its helicopter blades like a samurai sword.
The Transformers are based on the new designs from the movie, but purists can unlock the original toy models. This bit of nostalgia is a double-edged blade, because while it's cool to see old-school Optimus Prime stand up to the Decepticons, you cannot help wishing he was staring in a game made of, ahem, "sterner stuff."
"Transformers" occupies that unfortunate nexus between mediocre and awful — if just a little more had gone right like fixing up combat or adding mission variety, it could have been a passable game that entertained the core "Transformers" fan base. But the game that touched down on shelves in anticipation of the Michael Bay-directed summer movie is also not enough of a disaster that it's worth a rubbernecking rental.