Take any sample of young twenty-something men, regardless of their profession or personality, and tell them to talk about Transformers. I guarantee you that no matter who they are, they’ll all have something to say. I’m sure there were kids who thought the Turtles were stupid, or that GI Joe was lame. But giant talking robots who turned into cars and jet planes? Its practically illegal for a young boy to scoff at that.
Thus it seems impossible for the Transformers PS2 game to be any good. It isn’t just based on a legendary license; the story and characters are based off of the recent Transformers: Armada anime. If history is any indicator, then this game should be less playable than the latest Pixar/Dreamworks movie tie-in.
However, it seems one of the gaming gods has decided to take pity on us. Transformers was assigned to the fine folks over at Melbourne House, a veteran developer that has been around about as long as I have. Even more shocking is the fact that Hasbro seems to have been incredibly serious about this one. Run to the hills and ring the bells, good people; Transformers does not suck. In fact, it is very good. Gorgeous graphics, adventurous game design and an excellent use of the license make this a huge “Thank You” note to all the original fans, while still being modern enough to attract the kids.
I’ve read several descriptions of this game that compare its gameplay to that of Grand Theft Auto. It is true that each level consists of a very large, open environment, and the fact that the Autobots can move both on foot and as vehicles is a striking similarity. Still, this doesn’t seem like a good analogy. The car/on foot design is not a ripoff of GTA, but is instead due to the nature of the Transformers. Furthermore, while the majority of GTA involves fighting, there are still other things to you do with your time. Transformers is an action game, plain and simple.
If I had to pick a game that Transformers most closely resembles, I would have to say Halo, with a sprinkle of Metroid thrown in for good measure. Say what you will about them, but both Halos did a good job at creating large outdoor battlefields that encouraged both long and short range combat, and were large without being confusing. The use of Warthogs and other vehicles also meant you could cover ground quickly. Transformers, with its expansive battlefields, FPS-like controls (complete with first person sniping mode), and built in transportation embodies a very similar style of action gaming. Once you start seeing dropships arrive with reinforcements, you may start having flashbacks of Master Chief . Like Halo, it is also important not to rush in guns blazing. Aside from boss battles, your enemies here are armies of Decepticlone drones that boast surprisingly good accuracy and teamwork. Maybe not Halo quality AI, but it’s far better than the “forward rush” tactics of most action titles. Attacking and retreating, as well as using cover and stealth, can make all the difference, and even then you might find yourself in a few nasty scrapes. A run and gun game with a decent challenge? You heard it here folks.
The Metroid aspect comes from the Minicons. There’s quite a large number of these little suckers to collect, each one acting as a different kind of powerup. Like Samus, you’ll start off with a simple blaster, but soon enough you will be armed to the teeth. You will also discover that these non linear levels aren’t completely open ended, at least not at first. Some areas cannot be accessed without certain enhancements, meaning there will be some backtracking. The Metroid style of gameplay seems to be all the rage these days, and it works well enough here to enhance the action, rather than being the primary flavor of the game. Perhaps more interesting is how different loadouts of Minicons can drastically affect how one proceeds through a level, especially since each area gets repopulated with tougher foes as you progress through the game. While not infinitely replayable, Transformers never gets terribly repetitive if you don’t want it to.
I have to stop gushing, however, because Transformers has its flaws. While most are small, they all do their part to tarnish an otherwise great experience. As a fan, I take some issue with the implementation of transformation. There are a few instances where zipping off in vehicle form can save your life or help take out a cluster of enemies, but most of the levels do not encourage driving. The amazon stages have dense forests and deep ravines, while the Mid Atlantic is all water. Plus, it just seems weird to see Optimus cruising along as a truck in the middle of Antarctica. Perhaps some racing levels would have helped after all.
More frustrating is the large dose of platforming. These are huge, heavy robots. They don’t jump very high. You’ll constantly find a rock or a ledge you really want to get to, and find you just barely can’t make it. Even the jumps you are able to make are suspenseful, since you are never quite sure if you’re going to land (seems the Autobots don’t know how to grab a ledge). This problem is compounded later on, when you’re given some wings and can hang glide across the stage in order to find out-of-reach Minicons. Sometimes they might be hiding in a small glade. Other times they’re jumping around on an icy glacier surrounded by lethal water, or on a small mountain peak guarded by a massive heavy-bot that blocks off all the landing space. Did I mention you are usually getting shot at the whole time? There’s a reason they’re called Autobots – they operate on the ground. If I want to hop and fly, I’ll give Mario a call. This is the first PS2 game that almost drove me to fling a controller in frustration. Enough said.
Those damn Minicons aren’t angels either. They’re so useful, and so plentiful, that when coupled with the platforming they threaten to make the game a Rare-esque collect-a-thon. There have been times when I’ve plowed my way through a wave of enemies, grabbed a Minicon, and zoomed off in a hail of gunfire, not once bothering to even fire a weapon. After you’ve explored an area, there are not many reasons to concern yourself with fighting, unless not doing so gets in the way of obtaining a new goody. It doesn’t really ruin the action, but it does make return trips a bit less exciting, knowing there’s no penalty for going kamikaze and spitting in the face of death (you can just continue after dying, and you still keep the Minicons you found). By the way, if all these Decepticlones are guarding the minicons, why hasn’t Megatron collected them and used them for himself? Better yet, how the hell did he amass such an army of drones, while the Autobots are just three strong? Was Optimus taking a leak or something?
But why worry about plot holes and story? Transformers has always had a long, deep lore, most of it based on children’s TV shows, and all of it is convoluted as hell. Sure, some fans are going to clamor for a deep story, but come on people. This is a franchise based on selling toys. Its always been about cool robots doing cool things, and in this respect they’ve done a solid job with the license. Yes, some of the characters look a bit different, and some have changed completely (like Ratchet becoming Red Alert), but we finally get the chance to run around as Optimus Prime. And we get tons of bonus content, including a couple of PSA’s from the 80’s cartoon. This is Transformers done with care and attention to detail, and its enough to push this game over the edge. It’s hard enough to find faithful adaptations to any license. To think that this one also includes solid, challenging gameplay is nothing short of a miracle. While not perfect by any stretch, Transformers is still one of the best surprises of this generation, and has more than enough to like, whether you’re already a giant robot fan or not.