Three years ago, Melbourne House did something spectacular and wholly unexpected. It took the perennially abused Transformers licence and conjured an almost-wonderful game for Atari. We described it as "one of the most enjoyable games" of 2004. If you have a PS2, and have some sort of movie-related Transformers itch that you just have to scratch, you should definitely track it down. Not only will you be saving yourself the pain and misery of playing the latest botched attempt, but you'll become the proud owner of one of the most bafflingly overlooked PS2 games ever made.
No disguising mediocrity
But seeing as you're here, you may as well read what we have to say about the latest one. It's a return to form, you might say, in the sense that it's a return to the kind of hastily knocked-up licensed rubbish that we'd normally associate with a) Transformers titles and b) blockbuster games-of-the-movie. It's every bit as uninspired and insipidly generic as you might fear - and sometimes Traveller's Tales seemingly does everything it can to hammer down whatever cynicism you might harbour for this kind of by-the-numbers fodder.
At its core, Transformers is possibly the most unsophisticated mech brawler since Rise of the Robots. Although sometimes we long for a return to the pick-up-and-play sensibilities of the '80s and early '90s, Traveller's Tales has managed to come up with a combat system that makes even Golden Axe seem complicated by comparison. Requiring just one button for melee combat, you'll pull off relatively flashy, destructive manoeuvres that shatter your enemies into a gleeful shower of sparks and twisted metallic shards, but you'll do the same moves so often that you'll be suing TT for repetitive strain injuries. It all adds up to an attractive, pulse-racing spectacle, sure, but in terms of gameplay variety it's flatlining from the moment you put the disk in the tray. The folks Melbourne House must be either laughing their heads off or distraught that no-one at Traveller's Tales thought to build on their good work.
It's depressingly evident from the very beginning that this is going to be a turkey. Whether you choose the Autobot or Decepticon campaigns, the mission types follow a similar pattern: follow the green dot on the mini-map until you reach the beacon and then engage in muchos clobbering. From there, you might smash up a few obliging bots with minimal effort, transform into a car/lorry/fighter jet/chopper, high-tail it over to the next beacon within a strict time-limit, and then fail because the handling on your vehicle was so hilariously flappy that you got snagged on an item of scenery and couldn't turn around in time. Well done! Now go back to the start and do the whole section over again because we couldn't be arsed to checkpoint your progress.
Once you've gotten to grips with arguably the worst vehicle handling in two gaming generations, your attention will be focused on exactly why TT thought that a good Transformers game would involve little more than bashing brain-dead tin cans to bits with one-button combat. It gets so repetitive that you fear that it might just be some sort of deliberately simplified tutorial section. But no: it really is this simple, this uninspired, this pointless and this crap throughout.
In-between chapters you might be 'treated' to some fairly lavish cut-scenes, but the story itself is way down south of the line marked 'humdrum'. As the box says, it's 'Protect or Destroy'. Good versus Evil. However, regardless of which side of the conflict you choose, the lines are blurred to the point where it makes absolutely no difference. You smash everyone and everything to smithereens regardless of whether you prefer all those great satanic tunes or bob your head to Sir Cliff. The end result is massive destruction with minimum effort, either way.
In order to shoehorn in some much-needed strategy and variety, you'll start to come across the kinds of enemies that don't just yield obligingly to your one-button master-plan. The most obvious alternative to start with is firing your guns, but beyond the initial cannon fodder this is a hugely ineffective strategy - as is loosing off a few rounds of your slower, more powerful weapon. With enemies now capable of resisting your melee attack and your projectile weapons, you'll find yourself wondering how the game can go from giving you pathetic cannon fodder to invincible death machines in one fell swoop.
And then it clicks: you have to throw things at them. Yep, that means trees, cars, buses, stairwells, fences and whatever else must be lobbed in their direction to either interrupt their attack pattern for a moment (allowing you to continue your one-button march of death) or to take a few points of health from them. Sadly, TT has managed to cock up even this elementary game mechanic in spectacular style. Firstly, picking up items right in front of you is an inordinate faff, and requires your metal death machine to be lined up just so before they can be persuaded to pick things up.