Xbox 360 Review

Transformers: The Game

A decidedly undercooked tie-in

I like to think of myself as a bit of a cook, nothing too fancy, none of these small piles of intricately arranged food in the middle of a clean white plate like you see on TV or anything. But, when it comes to everyday cooking, I know my way around a kitchen having been encouraged to learn the required skills as I was growing up. Over the years and through much trial and error one of the most important things I've learnt about cooking is that you can't rush things. No matter how good the raw ingredients are or how lovingly you prepare them if you don't keep them in the oven or the pan long enough your finished dish will often be inedible. This seems to me to be a perfect analogy for game development, take your raw ingredients of genre, story and gameplay ideas, give them to a group of talented developers and artists then simmer, stirring occasionally, until ready to release taking care not to serve it up too early so as to avoid the risk of all your hard work being wasted by the gaming equivalent of food poisoning. It's a shame then that despite the great raw ingredients and the obvious talent of the developers the thing that hits you between the eyes within minutes of play is just how undercooked the new Transformers game really is.

To start off with the positives, and don't worry this isn't going to take long, the game world itself is nicely realised with impressive care taken to ensure its buildings are as destructible as you'd hope them to be when controlling a huge rocket firing robot through them. The Transformers themselves look great too, matching the movie versions bolt for bolt and possessing a simple but pleasingly effective one button transformation move. Unfortunately that's about it for positives, and even those couple must come with some huge caveats.

The destructible environments are all well and good, but the engine that renders them appears in need of some serious optimisation work. While it may generate some impressive screenshots there's considerably less fun to be had actually playing a game where the framerate dips to single figures as soon as the on screen action hots up. The Transformers themselves are also far nicer stood still because once you start trying to move them around you come up against some of the worst character handling seen in a long long time. On two legs they're slow, clunky and unresponsive (to be fair you could argue that walking a few tonnes of steel around should feel like that) while in vehicular form they slip and slide all over the place with barely a passing thought for any kind of conventional driving physics. Come across an enemy however and things get even worse. While you can fire your ranged weapons from in your vehicle form it's hard to take out assailants this way once they get up close and personal, besides this is Transformers, giant robot action is what we're here for! Unfortunately, once upright and ready for some Transformer on Transformer combat you realise the painfully backward camera relies almost entirely on user control meaning should you do anything unexpected like, for example, turn around or walk near a bit of scenery you can end up in all sorts of bother as you have to swing the cumbersome camera around so you can see where you're going all the time.

This awkward control system makes the prospect of any fast paced combat a tad troublesome from the start, a situation not helped by a one button melee system that would have looked out of date years ago. Anyone used to the flowing combo rich combat in games like God of War and Devil May Cry can walk away now safe in the knowledge that mashing the 'hit' button as fast as you can while hoping your target doesn't move (not only will moving both yourself and the camera to follow them be a pain if they do, but you can't interrupt a combo once you've started leaving you open to attack all too often) isn't going to come anywhere near the depth they've come to expect however visually impressive this almost automated combat can look on screen the first few times you see it.

Since almost all of the missions involve nothing more than travelling to the next point on the map in a set time limit while having to kill anything you meet on the way before then defeating whatever you meet when you get there, you can see how these flaws may, over time (ten, possibly twelve minutes), become just a little bit game breaking. While the game does try to offer some kind of value for money by including a campaign for both the Autobots and the Decepticons the lack of actual variety in either side's missions means that both play out nearly identically. Playing as the Decepticons does offer the chance to slightly more wanton destruction as they're the bad guys but since this inevitably induces the aforementioned jerk-o-vision that proves not to be the enjoyable distraction it was intended to be. While we're on the subject of destruction, even playing as an Autobot seems to involve a worrying lack of respect for the inhabitants of planet Earth that get caught up in your missions. Buildings are demolished, cars and busses plucked from the road and used as weapons while the people milling the streets run in terror as you stomp your way through them. As humanity's protectors in all this the Autobots don't seem too well versed in the concept of protection.

Amazingly though, there's still worse to come. The horribly limited and poorly implemented melee combat could be overlooked to a degree if the ranged combat offered a bit more fun, guess what. It doesn't! Instead it's actually even more frustrating. While your two projectile weapons can deal easily with the more entry level enemies once you start meeting more advanced Transformers complete with shields you have to think again. Just don't let that thinking be logical in anyway or else you'll never work out how to defeat them. While being able to resist a constant stream of high powered explosive rockets with no hint of damage can give them the air of being nigh on invincible these alien super robots clearly didn't consider a plan to counter the outrageous fire power of... wait for it... trees! Yep, that's right, pick up and throw one of the plentiful tree trunks (or fence panels, or bits of building debris, or tin cans, or empty crisp packets) laying around the place at them and they're promptly knocked to the floor ready for you to wander over and pummel a few times till they explode. I'm sure someone somewhere will tell me about how a slow moving object like a tree can pass through an energy shield configured to repel high velocity weapons but such Star Trek science doesn't hold up here if for no other reason than such silliness looks daft and feels worse. Of course, even this backwards feeling tactic it never quite as simple as it sound since actually picking up anything to throw is needlessly fiddly, requiring near pixel perfect precision and a slice of luck. Even when you've finally got something in your hands, trying to successfully throw it at a target that's all too often obscured by whatever you're carrying never feels as reliable as it should.

There's a million other things wrong to add to the already crippling list, context sensitive action buttons that result in you regularly starting to clamber up walls when you're really trying to turn round and hit the thing that's killing you from behind, mission breaking bugs like vital enemies getting stuck in the scenery and the fact that you can drive up almost sheer cliffs and through metal fences yet sometimes get stopped dead by a simple signpost. The catalogue of problems seems to grow the longer you play, which makes the fact that despite its duel campaigns Transformers is still a relatively short game something of a plus point. It's longevity is drawn out a bit by being annoyingly hard at times, although more often than not that's because of the crippling faults rather than any kind of honest gaming challenge. The story, such as it is, is barely properly explained despite the frequent well realised CGI cut scenes. No doubt the plot holes are filled in once you've watch the movie (although it is a Michael Bay film so don't hold your breath) but taking the game on its own you'd find far more story in an episode of the old cartoon series.

Seeing the credit 'Directed by Michael Bay' attached to a film gives cinema goers a decent idea of what to expect from a film. Lots of explosions, chase sequences, fights and lots of eye candy all edited together to in such a way as to disguise how little there is in the way of plot, human drama, character development or well written dialogue. In that sense Transformers: The Game fits the film like a glove, taking the Michael Bay movie ethos and applying it to gaming terms perfectly. There's eye candy galore (even if it often chugs along at four frames per second) and you're never more than a few minutes away from the next big set piece. But none of it is any real fun to play, most of the game mechanics feel broken or half finished and after half an hour you realise that behind all the whiz bang flash on display there's absolutely nothing behind it worth spending time with. Given another 6 months or so to actually finish what they started the chances are Traveller's Tales would have come up with a more than decent Transformers game since a lot of the game engine and building blocks are in place; they're just so under developed that it all feels like a mess. Unfortunately, it seems needing to hit the movie's release date meant that what appears to have made it onto shelves is essentially a promising but woefully unfinished game.

Given another six months development time we may have been talking about a real treat, as it is we're instead talking about a game that fails on every level to do the licence justice.