Study Break - TRANSFORMERS

Hello again! Since all the big current titles are pretty much covered by the Escapist's staff or other talented reviewers on these forums, I decided to do a retrospective review of an old game I've had fun with in the past. Being a big Transformers fan and thus having extreme difficulties in containing my giddiness at the prospect of "Transformers: War for Cybertron" being released in less than a month, my choice for this review fell to the last proper Transformers game, released by Atari for the PS2 in 2004. So, strap yourselves into your Delorean and join me in my short blast to the past as we take a look back at "Transformers"!

Study Break - Transformers

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Developed by Melbourne House (now known as Krome Studios Melbourne), this game was originally going to be titled "Transformers Armada: Prelude to Energon", but someone at Atari apparently decided that name was a mouthful and needed to be cut down to size, hence the uninformative finalized title. As you may have already guessed from this fact (if you're a bit invested in the franchise centered around transforming alien robots), "Transformers" is based on "Transformers: Armada", an animated series that made its first appearance in 2001.

The central concept behind the show was that besides the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons there was a third faction of Transformers, a bunch of comparatively tiny bots known as Minicons, which had the ability to boost the big robots' powers by linking up with them; not wishing to be part of the brutal war ravaging the Transformers' home planet of Cybertron, the Minicons fled the planet in a giant space ship and crashlanded on Earth during prehistoric times.
This is where the game picks up: Megatron has managed to overrun Iacon (i.e. Autobot headquarters) with an army of mindless AI-driven drones (pun-tastically named 'Decepticlones') and is just about to grind Optimus Prime into scrap metal when he is alerted by a locator beacon signifying that the Minicons have reactivated on another world. Instead of doing what comes naturally in a situation where you have your sworn nemesis in a vice-like deathgrip, Megatron instead opts to trace the signal and travel to Earth in order to collect the Minicons for himself, taking his Decepticon lieutenants and his army with him and with the Autobots in hot pursuit.

The story doesn't evolve past the agreeably simple setup of 'collect Minicons and stop the bad guys', nor does it attempt to. And you know what? It doesn't have to. The setting is just fleshed out enough for the player to get involved in it and its characters, instead directing its focus on gameplay, sound and graphics to draw you into the experience. So how exactly does it go about this?

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Just in case you were wondering who exactly is running you over - Transformers nametags!

For PS2 standards the graphics are, simply put, drop-dead gorgeous. The giant, mostly free-roaming levels have no interior loading screens, are wonderfully designed and range from hot, sweaty tropical setups in the Amazon to the freezing cold of the Blizzard-wracked Arctic circle, dynamic lighting will often have you go "Ooooh" and "Aaaahh", the water and weather effects in general look very pretty and add to the immersion, and enemy vehicles and units are all nicely varied in color and shape and beautifully detailed. The fast-paced action animates fluidly and only suffers from minor slowdowns when extremely large groups of enemies and bloom-tastic explosions join forces to simultaneously gangrape you up the tailpipe; speaking of which, the character models of your playable bots are also painstakingly detailed and animated, no matter whether you're moving on foot, driving around or flying/gliding through the air.

The sound also does its best to add to the atmosphere. The soundtrack consists of about 15 songs, with each level having one or more distinct themes, and each of those themes has three different variations between which the game switches seamlessly according to what situation you find yourself in (exploration, proximity to danger or full-on combat); the general sound can best be described as calm and ambient when there are no enemies around, picking up in percussion when you approach trouble spots and switching to a loud mix of techno, rock/metal and orchestral music when you're plowing through your opposition (or getting scrapped trying). The boss battle themes are the definite highlights of the soundtrack for me, Starscream's fast-paced industrial metal mix and Cyclonus's stomping crossover beat in particular, but this ultimately comes down to personal taste, of course.
Aside from the soundtrack, just like the game's graphics the context-sensitive sounds add that extra level of detail that sucks you in and won't let you go, from chirping birds over the different communicative beeps and whirrings of enemy units to the sound of clattering scrap and thumping plastic and rubber parts following their desintegration at your hands.

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I should have become a service droid instead of enlisting as a Decepticlone, just like mommy said...

One thing I believe deserves special mention is the amount of little nods and winks in regards to the old Generation 1 cartoon from the 80s the game throws at you throughout its course. More than a few iconic dialogue lines from the movie released in 1986 have found their way in unaltered, a jazzy remix of the cartoon's theme song plays over the end credits, you'll find old PSAs from the show among the unlockable bonus material and even Optimus Prime's faceplate moves up and down when he talks like it did back then. It's not really important to gameplay, I know, but the amount of cleverly distributed fan love just makes me smile like the big old sap I am.

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G1 in modern times - anyone else think this would rock...?

With the story, graphics and sound covered, let's move over to the gameplay, the most important factor of this game and the main reason why it's so much fun... although, to be fair, this is also where my few complaints come into play.

Leaving aside for now that we're dealing with a game about transforming alien robots, Melbourne House have actually created a quite realistic game, especially concerning the physics engine. It takes your character a moment to pick up speed when you're on foot, falling from great heights will cause you to lose health, each bot has his own limits regarding agility, projectile weapons were programmed with ballistics in mind, and once you discover Slipstream, a Minicon that acts as a glider, you'll see that even aerodynamics were faithfully adapted into the game world.
While I certainly applaud all this, it often makes the controls feel a little bit sluggish and clunky, which can become frustrating during the few platforming segments of the game, such as ascending the inside of a mountain or making your way through a trashed space ship. The camera is tight and responsive, though, so at least that's not in the way.

"Transformers" is a single player 3rd-person shooter with slight FPS and driving game elements thrown into the mix; you become more powerful and versatile over the course of the game by collecting Minicons, you reduce incrementally more and more challenging Decepticlones to tiny component parts and tackle a big baddie at the end of each level. The progression through the sprawling levels is essentially linear on your first run through, but they do allow for and even encourage diligent exploration - after all, not all Minicons or Datacons (collected to unlock concept art, pieces of the soundtrack and more, but nothing relevant to gameplay) to be found in the game are just openly lying around on the main roads.

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Flying truck robots - you're f*cked now, Megatron.

My one BIG gripe with the game is the fact that the number of playable characters adds up to a whopping grand total of three Autobots. Seriously, guys? I wouldn't have complained if the game just started you out with only these three bots, but seeing how the TV show considerably expanded its character roster over the course of its 52 episodes, I don't see any reason why some of those extra characters couldn't have made the final cut as unlockables at least. Not only would this have livened things up a little, but off the top of my head I could also think of at least three additional quirks this could have added to the gameplay.
As it stands, we have Optimus Prime, Red Alert and Hotshot at our disposal, with each character showing a different emphasis on their stats: Hotshot is a speedster, ideal for scouting and evasive hit-and-run tactics but sorely lacking in the health department, Red Alert is a good all-rounder with moderate speed, the highest resilience and a vehicle mode capable of traversing even the most difficult of terrain, and Optimus is the slow powerhouse type with moderate health and additional Minicon support capabilities, making him your best bet for quickly pulverizing large groups of enemies in a surprise attack. Each bot can transform at any time at the push of the triangle button, giving players fair choice as to the pacing they prefer.

The levels are periodically dotted with save points that additionally act as direct gateways to your base of operations, where you can replenish your health, tinker with options, change your active bot and your Minicon loadout before redeploying. This is particularly useful since the game's difficulty is challenging, even on the easiest setting; you'll probably find yourself in more than one situation where you're playing tag with an overwhelming warband of enemy units, madly dashing towards a Local Spacebridge Node in order to initialize the autosave routine so as not to be forced to go through that encounter again should you fail to stay in one piece. On the chapter select screen in your base you can choose to deploy/redeploy from any node you already unlocked, allowing for somewhat strategic insertions.

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All jokes aside... did I mention this game looks awesome?

Unless you're particularly fond of the Minicon that acts as a sniper rifle, in which case you'll likely use the 1st-person 3-way zoom perspective a fair bit, the combat is basically 3rd-person run-and-gun action, with the added quirk of being able to steamroll through groups of enemies in vehicle mode, although the efficiency of that approach is directly tied not only to your current speed, but to your size and weight as well, so trying to ram a heavy unit with Hotshot will most likely result in catastrophically braining yourself against the big bruiser and leaving yourself open to even more punishment. Upon destruction enemies leave behind one or more Energon orbs of varying size and value which act as health refills, and believe me, you'll want to collect those whenever you can.

What makes the combat so much fun is the degree of customization the game allows for as you collect more and more Minicons along the way. Starting out with nothing but a basic blaster and melee capabilities (melee is automatically triggered by moving close enough to an enemy and controls no different from the ranged combat), you will find all kinds of Minicons acting as weapons, support abilities and passive stat boosters. Heavy and/or rapid blasters, arc guns, energy ribbon projectors, rocket launchers, mine/grenade launchers, EMP generators, melee boosters, thermal vision, extra armor and more - the combination possibilities are staggering, and often a single crucial Minicon in your loadout can mean the difference between glorious victory and a one-way ticket to the trash compactor.
You can take up to four Minicons into battle with you. The little guys are split up into color-coded teams; you can use whatever mix you want in your loadout, but you should consider that teaming up several Minicons of the same color will result in bonuses such as a health boost or reduced cooldown times. To keep things balanced your combination choices are limited by a loadout maximum: Each Minicon has a certain value ranging from one (weak) to four (extremely strong), and your Autobots can only support Minicons up to a certain total of value points; Hotshot and Red Alert have to make do with eight, Prime's maximum is set at ten.
I guess I should mention that after the first mission each Autobot gets a personal Minicon partner you can link up with at any time by pressing the square button. This will result in a sort of mild bullet time effect and all Cybertronian lifeforms in the vicinity lighting up like Christmas trees, which is handy but also drains your Energon, and seeing how this game really does its best to constantly kick your can I'd say that's a pretty nasty trade-off. To be honest, unless you're an awesome shot this ability usually does more harm than good in my opinion, so I hardly ever use it.

The boss battles of "Transformers" deserve special mention. These guys are fierce, and if you come calling for a whuppin' they certainly won't disappoint. The first boss becomes a standard baddie for the rest of the game, but every other one you meet from here on out is a full-fledged Decepticon warrior and will slice, shoot or pummel you into tinfoil faster than you can say "Give peace a chance" if you're not at the top of your game. If they shoot at you, dash away or raise a shield if you've got one, if they try to get in close make a run for it, because boy oh boy is it going to hurt if they get their hands on you. Part of the difficulty here is recognizing when your enemy is vulnerable enough to squeeze in a few shots of your own, finding the right Minicon loadout for the fight to begin with and quickly adapting to a new situation, because the bosses all keep switching between vehicle and robot mode... except for one of them, but he's so big he doesn't need his vehicle mode to kick your ass, believe me.
Oh, and there's another one after you scrap the Big M, but I actually count this one as more of a minigame than an actual boss fight. Meh. Once you see it you'll know what I mean - it's a nice thought, but I think the game could have done without it.

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Think that's tough? You'll wish he'd stayed in vehicle mode in just a moment.

Despite it being a fast-paced, action-packed, 10-15 hour rollercoaster thrill ride (depending on your drive to strive for full completion), "Transformers" didn't do to well in sales, mostly due to an apparently widespread epidemic of narcolepsy among the marketing department, which I think is a real shame. A sequel was actually underway, but after Atari looked over the somewhat lacking sales figures again and noticed the decided absence of enthusiasm from the gaming public (save for the fan corner) they decided to pull the plug about eight months into the development process.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this game, and it doesn't need to hide behind the games of today if you're prepared to turn a blind eye to the fact that we're dealing with (albeit for its standards great-looking) last-gen graphics. By now the game should be fairly cheap to pick up, too... true-blue Transfans probably didn't miss out on this title anyway, but even if you're not a fan and just want to play a different kind of 3rd-person shooter you might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

If you liked this one, check out other Study Break reviews:

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.197937-Study-Break-PRINCE-OF-PERSIA-THE-FORGOTTEN-SANDS

Transformers: War for Cybertron
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.204686-Study-Break-TRANSFORMERS-WAR-FOR-CYBERTRON

(More coming soon!)

You've got some nice writing talent. I like the depth you go into in this. Must have been a nice long study break for you to complete!

I... I like this, a lot actually. Well done to you, especially since I didn't look up from reading this and it is quite long. In fact my only real complaint is that if you want more people to read it you should cut down on the size a bit, or you could change the way you format your review to make it look shorter i.e putting the pictures on the sides so the text wraps around them.

Anyway, keep 'em coming.

toriver:
You've got some nice writing talent. I like the depth you go into in this. Must have been a nice long study break for you to complete!

Thanks! Took me a while to write, but I didn't have any work to do this weekend and I had to keep myself busy during laundry day... so yeah, it was a very welcome study break. ^^

Stranger of Sorts:
I... I like this, a lot actually. Well done to you, especially since I didn't look up from reading this and it is quite long. In fact my only real complaint is that if you want more people to read it you should cut down on the size a bit, or you could change the way you format your review to make it look shorter i.e putting the pictures on the sides so the text wraps around them.

Anyway, keep 'em coming.

Thank you! I suppose the size of the review is connected to how much fun I had with a game - the better the experience for me, the more I try sniffing out the details, as was the case with this title.
I don't really go into writing a review with plans for a set size, I just keep writing until I feel I've got everything covered to my satisfaction. However, I'll definitely look into the layout/design thing - I'm just getting into this, so I realize there's probably quite a bit of room for experimentation and improvement.

I'm impressed man, this was a really good write up.

The only criticism I can possibly think to give you is that it might be just that little bit too detailed and long. I know right, sounds ironic coming from me... I know it's hard to avoid that sometimes because there are so many things to talk about with these kind of games... but thankfully due to the quality of the writitng I didn't lose interest at any point.

I had this game on the PS2 and I loved it. I'm glad someone else agrees that it was tough, I had to drop it to easy mode (though it was one of the first times I'd ever played a shooter so maybe I'd find it easier now).

My favorite moment was the boss fight against the ship, that was so awesome.

MiracleOfSound:
I'm impressed man, this was a really good write up.

The only criticism I can possibly think to give you is that it might be just that little bit too detailed and long. I know right, sounds ironic coming from me... I know it's hard to avoid that sometimes because there are so many things to talk about with these kind of games... but thankfully due to the quality of the writitng I dond't lose interest at any point.

I had this game on the PS2 and I loved it. I'm glad someone else agrees that it was tough, I had to drop it to easy mode (though it was one of the first times I'd ever played a shooter so maybe I'd find it easier now).

My favorite moment was the boss fight against the ship, that was so awesome.

Thank you, my friend!
Yeah, well, sometimes I do go on... I suppose it's a habit grown out of all those exams at uni, I feel compelled to not leave anything out that I think might be relevant and sometimes get carried away.
I recently replayed the game and tried it on normal difficulty, but I couldn't do it. I barely managed the first level, but Antarctica kicked my skidplate so hard I had to drop down to easy mode again... I made it all the way to Starscream, but he made me his little robo bitch. ^^
And Tidal Wave is one of the most awesome bosses I've ever seen, for me he's right up there with Kronos. It's hard to argue with the impressiveness of a fully-armed aircraft carrier that walks like a man.

Sonicron:
If you liked this one, check out other Study Break reviews:

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.197937-Study-Break-PRINCE-OF-PERSIA-THE-FORGOTTEN-SANDS

Transformers: War for Cybertron
http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.204686-Study-Break-TRANSFORMERS-WAR-FOR-CYBERTRON

(More coming soon!)

Oh man, after 6 years of first playing this game, I finally came across it on eBay. And then ordered it. Very nice review, cannot wait to get my hands on Hailshot.

And after that, maybe download the entire G1 for good measure.

 

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