Version tested: Xbox 360
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.
Insert variety here
And secondly, to reliably throw items at your intended target, you have to be incredibly precise. You can't just pick up and throw in one swift motion, but (fiddle fiddle) pick up (faddle faddle) lock on to your target (ngggh, I've targeted a flying bus!) and then throw it and hope that a) it doesn't get deflected off-course by another piece of random flying debris or b) it doesn't just arbitrarily miss your target even through it will appear to go right through them.
So, when you're not just mashing one single button in a flailing whirl of robotic limbs, you're waddling around cities and suburbs trying to find stray lamp-posts or trees to throw at the handful of enemies who have stupid, arbitrary blocking tactics. It's the most depressingly brain-dead use of the licence possible.
In a hapless attempt to make use of the robots' transforming abilities, we have the odd interlude where, for example, we have to perform high-speed checkpoint races, or engage in an exceptionally weak air combat section. Sometimes there's a flicker of potential when, say, you fly around Central Park in a jet fighter, or fly around a desert complex raining destruction down upon it. But in seconds you realise that despite the generally pretty game engine, the actual gameplay is so desperately undercooked that the tasks at hand are no more than sketched ideas that were never fully realised. That's the whole game in a nutshell, in fact.
And because TT has spent so much time getting the art, animation and game engine up to scratch, the satisfying sense of destruction and chaos can fool you for a few seconds into believing that this is enjoyable, dumb fun. But it's not. It's just plain dumb. And even on a technical level there's plenty of cause for complaint. Sure, the robots look absolutely great, and you can't fault the animation or destructive effects used when they're smashed to pieces, but the engine used for the game is one of the most horribly unoptimised we've seen on the 360 to date.
It might add to the immersion to allow the gameworld to be absolutely torn apart by enemies and players alike, but, by God, it absolutely murders the frame-rate - to the extent that it becomes an intolerable slideshow towards the climax of both campaigns when things get extremely hectic. It's hardly surprising, either. You'll often see a dozen vehicles exploding simultaneously, while trees and miscellaneous debris gets swept up into the air by devastating attacks. It's a game that needs this degree of chaos, for sure, but not at the expense of actually being able to play it properly. I don't know about you, but playing a console game at less than ten frames a second with an extremely unhelpful (and often nauseating) camera system isn't my idea of fun - especially when I'm trying to line up the aforementioned fiddly throws.
To compound the catalogue of complaints against this truly awful game, it's full of unforgivable glitches and stupid bugs that point towards a rushed development cycle. For example, entire missions often have to be terminated because an enemy has become wedged in an item of scenery, or - in one memorable instance - two enemies were seen running continuously into the side of a building and were unable to join the battle. And these are by no means isolated incidents. Reading forums on the game highlighted a catalogue of issues. So not only is it poorly designed, it's hopelessly unoptimised and riddled with bugs and minor issues.
Nothing to see here
So if that isn't enough to put you off, how about the fact that it only lasts about six hours, or that it doesn't have any multiplayer? You'll satisfy your obsessive compulsive urges if you're some kind of concept-art perv who enjoys traipsing around levels picking up all the glowing yellow boxes, but the rest of you can just save yourself the effort, because, trust us, absolutely nothing outside of the main missions is worth a second of your time.
Transformers: The Game had masses of potential to be a thrilling action-adventure, stitching together popular gameplay styles and delivering a varied, enjoyable experience within the framework of the licence. But instead, it's a depressing example of how videogames can be little more than cynical exploitation of a high profile product. Traveller's Tales, in particular, should be embarrassed. After years of steadily carving itself a reputation for solid, enjoyable games, this one is a major black mark on its track record. To produce a technically sloppy title is one thing, but the game is horribly flawed from conception to execution in a way we haven't seen since, ulp, Driv3r. Marred by a remarkably vacuous combat system, the pathetic driving and undercooked flying elements merely underline what a thoroughly wasted opportunity this was. Protect your reputation by Destroying games like this.
3 / 10