It must be an emotional one-two punch of elation and imminent dread when a studio discovers that they have been allowed to work on a licensed multi-billion dollar franchise. Transformers, shortly set to return to cinemas this summer with Michael Bay’s Age of Extinction, is one such culprit.
After the faithful stewardship that High Moon Studios lent to converting Hasbro’s creation into pixel form, Activision now turns to Texas outfit Edge of Reality to their own take on robotic warfare. The result is a rather dull experience that feels more clinical by design than revelling in the source material that it is driven by.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark unnecessarily divides its narrative in two, mainly fuelled by the desire to place you in control of as many Autobots and Decepticons in the eight-hour campaign as possible. That will initially see you battle through Earth’s rugged terrain as you seek to prevent Lockdown’s schemes to harness the power of the Dark Spark, an ancient relic that is claimed to be as equally powerful as the Matrix of Leadership. The relic empowers those who hold it to bend the fabric of the universe and inhabitants to his will, so soon becomes a cause for concern.
At the close of the opening chapter, you’ll transition back in time to Cybertron – the ruined homeworld that the Transformers once peacefully inhabited. From this point, and for the majority of the game, you will witness the Autobots and Decepticons as they tussle to secure the ancient device for themselves. It’s an underdeveloped plot that never quite delivers on the premise’s potential, only made more credible by a stellar voiceover cast that adds authenticity to the experience.
Activision says that Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark was “inspired by many of the amazing action sequences directed by Michael Bay,” although this is a muddied experience that lacks any sense of gravitas. The gameplay itself is largely monotonous, players lumbering along a linear path of corridors and rooms as they eliminate all enemies in their way. Whether that be Autobots, Decepticons, Insecticons, Combaticons, or Cybertronian Mercenaries, enemy AI is largely unimaginative and either see your foes blindly dashing into swathes of your bullets or continuing to hide behind terrain even when you’ve flanked them.
It, therefore, becomes a test of endurance, the player rushed at every turn with continual waves of enemies, muddled in with unimaginative objectives that task you with pulling levers, destroying beacons, or holding a defensive position while you await the next train. Design ideas are uninspired throughout, reducing Optimus Prime to chapters where he must thrust open every door that he encounters whereas Grimlock’s rampage through the streets is equally ungratifying. It all feels dull, and entirely without impetus.
A new unlock system sees players level up and rewarded with Gear Boxes, their contents revealed by opening them through the pause menu. This includes new weapons and upgrades alongside HACK and T.E.C.H., enabling multiplier parameters to boost your earned XP or allowing the use of supportive items that aid your progression. Repeatable challenges, usually revolving around killing enemies with specific weapons, will continually drive your levelling aspirations, even if they don’t really feel integral. While not open to player choice, it is the breadth of playable characters that present most of Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark‘s strength, and this degree of customisation fuels that further.
Beyond campaign completion, there’s nowhere else to direct your attention, aside from the full arsenal-toting Primus Mode for those willing to grind their way up to Level 25. We were warned a week ahead of launch Escalation Mode had been axed for the Wii U version, although no reasoning behind such decision was provided. With Mario Kart 8 now actively driving multiplayer activity on Nintendo Network, it’s regrettable that the four-player co-op mode is missing – inevitably making console owners feel short-changed, and further limiting sales of Wii U copies despite the marginally lower price.
The Wii U GamePad itself sees no integration beyond permanent Off-TV Play, which can’t be deactivated within the settings menu to save the controller’s battery. The Wii U Pro Controller does receive support, for those looking for an alternative controller to wield.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is a visually outdated game, with the notable intricacies of the Transformers’ animations between robot and vehicle forms completely at odds with the lacklustre textures that continually surround them. Texture pop-in is noticeable, random loading happens midway through chapters, and the frame rate regularly dips. It feels unfinished, and while Age of Extinction is nearly upon us it’s always baffling that such games aren’t allowed another month of polish and refinement to avoid such criticism.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is, therefore, an irrepressible disappointment, but more for being yet another missed opportunity to deliver something truly great – especially after the relative successes of the Cybertron games before it.