Last year, High Moon Studios proved to me, and a lot of other gamers, that they had what it took to make the Transformers franchise relevant in the gaming world. Their fresh take on the classic series was treat to both gamers and life-long Transformer fans alike. Based on what I saw recently during a short trip to San Francisco, we are in for just as much of a treat this year with the pending release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Recently I got a chance to go hands on with a near-final build of the Xbox 360 version of the game in order to test out both the single- and multiplayer offerings in the title. The single player portion of my demo covered four different stages, each one focusing on a different Transformer. The first thing that players returning from War for Cybertron will notice is that the game looks (presentation-wise) and feels the same. The environments look completely different though. The previous game was set in the technologically advanced homeworld of the Transformers, Cybertron. Everything in that game had a sharp and “edgy” look to it, whereas the new game puts our favorite robots in more Earthly settings.
The change in scenery makes for a really different feel to the game and opens up the possibilities for some cool scenarios. One scene in particular that really stood out to me was the stage that I played which focused on Ironhide. This level was set in an small urban area with a lot of parked cars and abandoned buildings; as you progressed across the various parking lots and alley ways, you never knew which cars would spring to life and attack you. The whole scenario puts the player on edge and kept pushing the pacing of the stage at full force. I found myself preparing for attack at every turn, even when the area ended up yielding no attacks. It was also a nice touch to see Decepticons bursting out of the windows of abandoned warehouses when you would least expect it.
The environments are going to be one of the major changes in the game as placing it on Earth versus Cybertron creates and entirely different feeling with the game, and not in a bad way. Another stage in the single player demo put you in the role of Mirage on a stealth style mission through a jungle / rainforest style setting. While I wasn’t witness to the events leading up to the mission, I was informed that Mirage was in a position where he was operating with limited abilities; the only thing that I could do was use my cloaking ability and melee attacks. Meanwhile, the Decepticons on patrol throughout the stage were full armed and in abundance. This introduced a completely different gameplay experience that rivaled the various stealth games such as Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell. The game was specifically designed with this sort of experience in mind; every stage brings a different transformer and a varied gameplay experience. When you play as Mirage, you will experience and take part in actions that Mirage would take part in within the Transformers universe. The same thing could be said for Bumblebee, Optimus Prime, or even on the Decepticon side of things with Starscream and Megatron. All in all, these development decision lead to a more focused gameplay system that helps to engulf players into the Transformers world which I think that players will be really thankful in the end.
Each of the four stages shown to me also put a focus on the game’s new Stealth Force system, which is a hybrid of the robots’ vehicle and combat forms. You can sort of thing of them as more weaponized vehicles. Switching to the form is as simple as either pressing the left thumb stick or the Y button on the 360 controller. Once in the Stealth Force mode, players simply need to hold down the left trigger to proceed into the full vehicle mode. Doing so will make your character much more mobile and change your overall functions accordingly. Vehicle mode is meant specifically for movement and in turn it is the most effective means of getting around. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your outlook, your enemies aren’t content with just letting you move around at will without putting some roadblocks in your way. This is where the Stealth Force mode comes into play.
All in all, Dark of the Moon feels like a refined advancement of the War for Cybertron. I was very skeptical about how it would come across since the game had to tie into the movie license but High Moon has once again managed to exceed my expectations. The weapon systems still allow you to equip two different guns which can be found throughout the various levels. This helps to ease the differences in the “feel” of the of the characters. With the right arsenal, even the smallest, speed based character can hold his own against the larger powerhouses.
The refined gameplay and feel of the game’s environments directly transfer over to the multiplayer modes as well. While the game will unfortunately see the loss of Cybertron’s popular Escalation mode, the changes have been made in order to focus more on the competitive aspect of the game. There are three multiplayer modes in the game, at least thus far. We were able to try out our skills against the development team in rounds of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and the new Conquest mode. Although the name may sound new, Conquest should actually be familiar to anyone who has played any of the big-name FPS titles in previous years. The mode pits teams of players against each other in a competition to capture and maintain “nodes” on the various maps. The longer that you hold onto a node, the higher your team’s score goes. The deathmatch variations on the other hand are exactly what you would expect: shoot everything that moves. The action of the multiplayer matches feels a little bit faster than before, since the focus has been shifted to amplifying the competitive feel. This is enhanced by the Stealth Force mode which makes the battle more mobile in the long run.
The class gameplay established in the previous game returns as well though it has been tweaked slightly. Instead of having Scout, Leader, Scientist, and Soldier classes, the new game has Scout, Commander, Hunter, and Warrior classes. The Scout class consists of you cars, which are the speedier characters of the game meant to attack and move on a constant basis. The Commanders are the trucks, more heavily armored and a little stronger in terms of their attack powers. The Hunter class replaces the Scientist class of flying vehicles. Last, but not least, is the Warrior class which consists of the tank-style vehicles which deliver a heavy offensive attack at the sacrifice of mobility. This time around though, High Moon is letting players tweak and customize their different characters to their liking. This will go behind simple cosmetic changes such as paint jobs and logos but will also include the ability to equip special skills and attacks regardless of character class.
Although my time with the game was short, it definitely left a lasting impression on me. I wasn’t shy in proclaiming my love for High Moon’s last game and will likely be shouting similar praise for Dark of the Moon. Despite being based on the upcoming Michael Bay film, the game manages to give off a unique feel and experience that could only have been created by true Transformers fans. the staff at High Moon knows and respects the source material and it shows in their work on the franchise. A little bit of love can make all of the difference in the world and when you consider that there was more than just a little bit put into this game, the effects shine through. The combination of the new game with a new Hollywood film will only prove to strengthen this franchise and should set this up to be one of the sure-fire hits of the summer, in both the gaming and film markets. I cannot wait to get my hands on the game when it launches on June 14.