On paper, the idea of a Transformers game gave us the fear, conjuring up all sorts of terrifying images of the usual hastily knocked up licensed rubbish, with big stompy Mechs zapping each other over vast featureless terrains to the sound of ear-splittingly bad music and over enthusiastic voiceovers. We couldn't have been less excited if you'd given us the latest Adiboo game to play. But, in practice - as you may recall from our first impressions - Melbourne House has created a near masterpiece, managing to not only stay utterly faithful to the subject matter, but in many respects creating a benchmark mech shoot 'em up that practically bends the PS2 out of shape for technical merit. It's a bit on the short side, and is single-player only, but for non-stop concentrated action you can't go wrong.
The premise hardly matters at any stage in a game that's hell bent on action. Taking place on the planet of Cybertron, the age-old war between the Autobots and the Decepticons forms the basis of the eight missions in the game. The nefarious Megatron has created a massive Decepticlone army, and it's up to you, as Optimus Prime, Red Alert or Hot Shot, to put a stop to his plans to dominate the universe. That means a whole lot of twisted metal has got to fall.
It's okay, they're only robots in disguise
On your side is the third race of Transformers, the Earth-based Mini-Cons, and the game basically involves seeking out these friendly robots around the globe in places as far flung as Alaska, the Amazon, a remote Atlantic island, a downed spaceship and a Volcano. Tipping the balance of war gradually in your favour, each of the forty-odd Mini-Cons effectively acts as offensive (R1, R2) or defensive (L1, L2) upgrades to your Autobot. Starting off in a basic shield and homing missile, you quickly assemble an almost overwhelming array of gadgets, which you must tactically decide where best to use and when, as you're only capable of carrying two offensive or defensive 'Cons at a time - and you're also limited by the power they consume, with some consuming up to half of your entire capacity in one go. By the end of the game, juggling a vast array of gadgets can be quite overwhelming.
But throughout the game, it's never less than one of the most endearing exploratory shoot 'em ups ever devised, with vast, massively detailed environments that require multiple visits to unlock all their secrets. As a coherent gaming world, it works brilliantly and it's one of those rare games where we find ourselves actually enjoying going back to levels we've already conquered in order to scoop up previously unreachable objects that make our lives easier later on. One such ability that you lack in the beginning is the Slipstream glider, but once you have it, it completely opens up much of the game.
The diversity of the weaponry is mirrored in how many different ways there are to tackle your foe. Often you might prefer to keep your distance, zoom right in and snipe away, while peppering them with long range projectiles, but other times you're almost overwhelmed by wave upon wave of armies - with entire dropship-loads topping up the battle. Transformers starts off by just offering up manageable clusters of enemy, and at first you're blown away by the incredible explosions as they seemingly shatter into a thousand shards of twisted titanium. As your weaponry and armour improves, so the action moves up a notch - firstly with a succession of evermore evil and spectacular bosses, but then from the fourth level onwards begins to really test your mettle with the seemingly overwhelming weight of numbers.
Armed and dangerous
Not only that, more intelligent, better defended foes enter the fray - shielded enemies, enemies that zap your entire energy bar with their dreaded EMP blast, and others so vastly proportioned that they pick you up, swing you round discus-style a few times and hurl you like a rag doll hundreds of feet away, before you land dazed and confused ready for more punishment. By the time you reach the fifth level, armed to the teeth and facing upwards of twenty gloriously detailed enemies at once, with not even a hint of frame rate loss, you're in no doubt that as far as all action shooters go, they don't get much more enjoyable than this. With the odds seemingly so stacked against you, the real pleasure comes from discovering the right balance of offence and defence and then ruthlessly exposing the chinks in even the most powerful enemy's armour.
Sometimes you might even remark to yourself that it was easy, but don't kid yourself - this is one of the more challenging games we've faced, even on the Recruit difficulty setting. We started out on Veteran level, but quickly had to concede a bloody-nosed defeat - it's simply one of those games you have to know inside out before you can waltz up a notch, but actually quite likely to be the sort of game you won't mind running through again, so the talk of its being 'too short' is wide of the mark. What's there has an absolute ton to uncover, both in terms of new upgrades as well as a myriad of Datacons, which loosely translate to being unlockable extras in terms of art, comics, toys, music and so on. For the hardcore fans this is an especially nice touch, given how much of it there is.
Transformers is never the most complex of games, and nor should it be. It's a pure shoot 'em up in the best sense, never once leaving you confused as to what to do, and even largely leaves it up to the player whether or not to fight or fly and with each Autobot able to switch to vehicle form at the touch of a button, often you'll just decide that getting the hell out of any given situation is the best course of action. Every level has a number of save points that also double up as portals back to HQ, and when you're in trouble it's often the case that you'll scramble back to base to rejig your Mini-Con configuration - with the side benefit that your health gets restored. Even in the event of death, you'll just re-enter at the last save point, so the frustration factor of having to replay the same portions over and over again is kept to a merciful minimum.
Big screen justice
Visually, it's hard to think how it could be any better on a PS2. Normally, cranked up on a massive widescreen TV you'd see the cracks in even the best-looking games, but if anything it looks even better, displaying stunningly beautiful views at a rock solid frame rate with a degree of detail that must have fellow developers scratching their heads in despair and admiration. As a technical showcase for what the oft-maligned Sony machine can do when a canny developer gets to grips with it, this is the benchmark.
We can, hand on heart, say we haven't seen a finer looking game on the platform to date. Standing on the top of the temple on the third level overlooking the rainforest's dense canopy of intricately detailed trees stretching right off into the distance - with zero pop-up - is not a sight many can have expected to see on this machine. The great thing is, should you single out one piece of the landscape, you can basically glide all the way there and watch in admiration as the whole scene gradually changes until you find yourself suddenly dwarfed by a huge canopy of massively detailed trees. What an achievement.
Transformers doesn't always get things right, of course, and it would be foolish to overlook some of the annoyances. The clunkiness of controlling this weighty beast can often make for a frustrating experience when you're expected to perform a series of jumps. These hulking great lumps of metal simply weren't designed to shoehorn into a platform mechanic, and when Melbourne House tasks you with this at various points in the game (particularly on the less than brilliant second level, easily the weakest in the game) you'll curse them for not giving you adequate abilities. Meanwhile, on the one occasion you're expected to traverse corridors (inside the temple on level three), it's quite apparent that robots weren't really designed for such environments - you can overlook these minor issues once you've seen the rest of the game, but at the time they're not especially encouraging.
We'd also point out that some of the levels seem to have enemies in them for the sake of it. The seventh level, for example, is jam packed with bad guys who you can more or less totally ignore, allowing you to effectively cheat and just head to the next save point. Often the weight of numbers makes this a risky strategy, but the point remains that should you just want to scoot to the boss you can, and that in itself displays a frustratingly slack thought process in the design. You don't want to cheat, but offered it on a plate you often feel stupid turning it down, especially when you're having difficulties otherwise.
Mech your mind up
Aside from that, though, Transformers Amada is one of the most enjoyable games released this year. Anyone even remotely into Mech shooters should check it out, and even if you're not it's essential that you at least give it a try. Forget the rubbish demo that was released well before the game was finished - it's not remotely representative - and certainly take advantage of the price promotions currently doing the rounds. As a piece of code it's nothing short of an inspiration, as a use of a licence it's a lesson to many and purely as a game on its own merits it stands on its own as a class piece of entertainment that the majority of PS2 owners owe to themselves to check out.