Version tested: Xbox 360
In a just world, Transformers: Dark of the Moon would be a bit of a victory. It would be a sign that the right team - a team that had already made a decent Transformers game, when left to its own devices - could tackle that most treacherous of propositions, the movie tie-in, and emerge with something brilliant.
Sadly, this is not a particularly just world. The bad go unpunished, the good are rarely rewarded, and Dark of the Moon is yet another victim of the brutal race to match a film’s release date.
High Moon’s follow-up to the thoroughly decent War for Cybertron isn’t a disaster, it’s just rushed. Tied to a movie’s schedule, the designers have opted for a single-player campaign that’s limp, unambitious and short, and bolted it onto a multiplayer suite with only three game modes, two of which end in “death match”.
The plot, which provides a confused build-up to the new film, leaves the developers messing around with Michael Bay’s off-cuts, while the cinematics, front-end and absence of co-op support all suggest something that was put together with one eye on the clock. This feels like a work project rather than a game: you can sign off on the deliverables, but you won’t really want to play it.
What really does Dark of the Moon in is a lack of weight. Whether you’re clomping through the campaign as a three-storey robot or firing explosive rounds from the gun you’ve got bolted to your arm, Dark of the Moon struggles to create a convincing world of heavy metal and ten-ton warriors.
The robots you get to play as may look the part - character models have a toymaker’s eye for detailing, transformations are suitably intricate and the voice actors are all there and doing their best to provide Shakespearian treatments of lines like “You must defeat Mixmaster!” - but they float through a series of environments that often barely register their presence. There are no earth-shaking thuds as Ironhide drops down from a ledge, and little in the way of genuine impact as Soundwave fires off a sonic boom. In the Detroit section you can blow nearby cars to pieces, but there’s little to indicate that you’re genuinely causing extra-terrestrial havoc.
Beyond that crucial disappointment, the campaign’s something of a non-event. The story’s made up of seven missions that shuffle you back and forth between roles as A-list Autobots and Decepticons, but two of those stages are little more than slightly expanded boss fights. While the levels often come with pretty skyboxes, whether you’re in a chewed-up urban centre or a Mayan ruin complete with a terrible secret, you’ll likely find yourself moving through endless corridors and clearing out room after room of identikit enemies.
The odd objective tries to provide a little variety: Mirage’s cloaking ability introduces an element of stealth (who doesn’t crave that in a game about, you know, giant robots?), while Soundwave spends a good deal of time titting about with Laserbeak, a bird-like infiltrator drone that you get to guide around. But you’re still either shooting things, opening doors or flipping switches, and even when you get to fight alongside famous allies, they’ll spend a good deal of their time jogging against pillars while you get stuck on invisible walls. Heroic.
When you’re in robot mode, you can at least juggle rapid and heavy weaponry alongside a range of character-specific recharging moves, ranging from Ironhide’s homing grenades to Megatron’s energy drain. When you’re not in robot mode, however, things start to fall to pieces.
Each character’s vehicle incarnation is all but relegated to a few bespoke chase sequences, which showcase clumsy car handling if you’re on four wheels or gutless and sluggish aeronautics if you’ve taken to the sky, while the new - and entirely unnecessary - Stealth Force configuration slots in between the two existing forms as a kind of tank option.
Visually, it’s the least exciting of the three, and yet it’s also the one you’re going to rely on the most as it offers the greatest manoeuvrability, punchiest weapons, and strongest defensive options. It’s an addition that manages to diminish the game’s overall impact, in other words, offering a dull and corrosive usefulness that distracts you from stomping around like a robot - which is probably what you signed up for - while also making a quiet muddle of the controls, sending your lock-on flitting between trigger and bumper, and leaving you steering vehicles with the right stick and reversing with the left. That’s going to catch on. (It isn’t.)
Multiplayer, meanwhile, doesn’t build on the strengths of War for Cybertron so much as quietly back away from its dented wreckage. The XP progression and kill streaks are still there, but you’re reduced to picking between two flavours of death match and the node-capturing Conquest mode. Games play out in a range of fairly cramped, confusing arenas, and the classes feel a little unbalanced at the moment. It’s still an acceptable take on My First Call of Duty, but it could have been something much more interesting than that.
As could the entire game. If there’s a lesson to learn from Dark of the Moon, then - other than “Try not to pick a fight with anyone named Shockwave” - it’s that movie tie-ins can defeat even the nimblest of studios. High Moon should have been given a little more time - and a lot more freedom - to play with their toys than they received for this outing. Hopefully, if we ever head back to Cybertron, the team will get another chance to show us what it can really do.
5 / 10