A good game in disguise? Kristan tackles Atari's surprise PS2 mech smash.
I was never into Robots as a teen. Transformers well and truly passed me by the first time around, and have already had to put up with astonished gasps around the office when I admitted I'd never seen the movie [astonished gasp! -Tom]. I'm not sure what it was about Transformers. I recall finding the theme tune fantastically annoying for a start (but I'm over that now) and had, at the age of 13, already grown out of cartoons about improbable superheroes - even if they could turn from a stompy robot into a truck when they felt like it. 18 years on, you'd think that I couldn't possibly find the enthusiasm to play a nostalgia-fuelled videogame, when I didn't even care about the subject matter in the first place. Wrong.
Sometimes this job forces you to face your prejudices head on in a way you never do as a punter, and for once I'm totally surprised and blown away by what Melbourne House has achieved. 18 years ago this veteran developer was making text adventure interpretations of Tolkien and Doyle novels, now it's finding new and interesting ways to make a big stompy robot game that quite frankly takes the piss in terms of visceral ambition and crafted execution.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Set in the oddly near-present day 2010, "the war for supremacy between the Autobots and Decepticons continues". Just as well, that, because it means that you get to take control of one of three Autobots (Optimus Prime, Hot Shot and Red Alert) and basically wreak havoc through eight sprawling landscapes.
After six solid years of being the gaming equivalent of Fois Gras, hooked up to the PR machine and force-fed a diet of sickly PR hyperbole, our immunity levels to infectious superlatives like "intense destruction", "white knuckle action" and "adrenaline fuelled" have become "quite literally awesome". But, for once, every one of these made-up (but crushingly accurate) superlatives only just touch on the child-like fear and awe that Transformers inspired during some of the more hectic sections of this crazy, mentalist game.
Choosing your Autobot depends on your preference for defence, attack, speed or power capabilities. Optimus Prime holds the aces in terms of attack and power, Red Alert excels in defence, while Hot Shot can outrun anything with his speed. After that, you're dropped into one of the game's exceptionally detailed battlegrounds and tasked with neutralising everything in sight.
A mini con adventure
Along the way, each area contains a number of Data Cons to collect as well as Mini Cons. The latter serve as permanent or swappable upgrades to your Autobot, which are assigned to the shoulder buttons and used against the many adversaries. The former provide intelligence on your surroundings, while the regular save points that crop up also act as portals to enable you to dive back into the main menu and tweak options, such as which Mini Cons you want equipped or even which Autobot you want in action at the time.
From the five (of the eight) levels I've played so far, it's certainly one of the most exciting console games in prospect for the entire year. Control-wise, it's instantly accessible, with a solid, convincing feel - so important in a game that could have so easily become yet another clunky, dull mechalike.
For example, the transformations are handled with exceptional fluidity. With a stab of the triangle button your bot glides gracefully into vehicle mode - and instantly feels satisfyingly 'right' with a convincing weight, yet a smooth controllability that makes getting around a joy for the most part.
One area that does irk slightly is the rather limp jump ability, which will find you regularly unable to traverse seemingly manageable ledges without first gaining the necessary inertia - and on the hilly Amazon and Antarctica levels this can be a real hassle as you clump around rather haplessly. Then again, car transporters - Autobots or otherwise - probably do have trouble jumping in general.
Blazing a trail
But where the game will undoubtedly score points with players is in the combat department, which although highly repetitive at times, conveys an immensely satisfying sense of fierce, futuristic battle, with enemies always providing a harsh but fair contest - forcing you to go to war with intelligence and tactics rather than merely all guns blazing. Combat essentially draws on the Halo school of dual weapons (although you can always return to a portal and swap weapons if you're unhappy with what you've got), but expands upon the principle with a series of other optional and swappable shields and enhancements.
Mapped to R1, the rather useless Blaster comes as standard, but you'll quickly be rewarded for exploration and persistence with many others, including the Spark Jump arc gun, the Skirmish heavy blaster, Aurora heavy ribbon beam and so on, while R2 gives you the chance to utilise dozens of enhancements such as the Lookout sniper rifle, Rangefinder range enhancer, Lock On homing missile (a personal favourite) and tons more.
On L1the game gives you the choice of things like Safeguard armour, Slipstream glide wings (useful for flying to far off islands etc), while L2 offers the Deflector shield, Hawkeye energon vision (heat seeking enemy detector) and a slew of others yet to be discovered. Half the fun, in fact, isn't racing to the finish line, but seeking out hidden goodies. Some, though, plainly can't be accessed until you've got a power up from a later level, which gives further replay value and presumably comes in handy later on too.
How did they do that?
But all this would mean very little if it weren't for the impressive power of Melbourne House's game engine which seems capable of rendering an almost impossible degree of scenic detail at vast distances, not to mention immensely impressive character models - some of which truly have to be seen to be believed. The end of the Antarctica level, for example, just has to go down as one of the most impressive moments in gaming history and had the entire Eurogamer office transfixed and making peculiarly endearing noises at the spectacle. I'm happy to report that playing it was just as fun, and frankly I'm almost annoyed that I have to cease my gaming to report on my findings!
But it's not just about the odd flashy boss monster. Just general ambling about feels fun, taking in truly spectacular Amazonian scenes from a hilltop, with trees and land marks trailing off into the horizon with barely a hint of slowdown. Just as impressive are the wince inducing moment when defeated mechanical foes explode in a gob-smacking hail of metallic shards, sparks, flame and smoke. You really don't have to be a Transformers aficionado, Mech fanboy or even remotely interested in robots to appreciate that this is entertainment of the highest quality. Maybe its even the best use of a cartoon licence ever in that it will not only have the hardcore in fits of ecstasy, but bring on board an entire new generation of converts eager to fill in the knowledge gaps of all things Transformers. At the very least they'll be having a blast on surely one of the most accessible and enjoyable attempts at this thus-far niche genre of Mech combat.
Reviews may have appeared elsewhere, but be aware that this was not finished code. Movie interludes lacked sound, and a few technical glitches and bugs were apparent in our preview build as you'd expect, but the second we get a review build we'll be eager to play the game inside out and bring a full assessment of what is clearly the surprise package of the year so far. It's been criticised for being a little on the short side, but don't let that detract from what is indisputably one of the most impressive action shooters we've seen - ever. Pre-ordering is a moral obligation and we're hoping next months OPSM2 demo does it justice.