Michael Bay has dumped his latest summer action blowout into theaters, much to the horror of die-hard Transformers fans, and to the mild amusement of bored teenagers. The unwritten law of movie tie-in games dictates that a console-spanning game must accompany any summer blockbuster, and so Transformers The Game has arrived on the Wii. Similar to its Xbox 360 and PS3 counterparts in most respects, the Wii version of the game sports a few motion control moves and slightly downgraded graphics, but for the most part you’re getting the same experience—a film cash-in title.
While movie games are almost universally mediocre (or worse), a few have managed to rise above the rest. Transformers samples both ends of the spectrum, and ends up with some promising elements that are unfortunately bogged down by typical movie game tedium.
Like most titles in the movie-game genre, Transformers takes as much from its source material as possible to recreate the general atmosphere of the film, but reworks the various cinematic sequences so that prolonged video game battles fit in between. Transformers takes a road less traveled by telling the story from the perspective of the protagonists and the villains—you’ll get to play two separate campaigns for the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons. In the Autobot campaign you’ll be trying to protect Sam Witwicky and retrieve the Allspark, and the plot follows the film for the most part. You play as Bumblebee, Jazz, the legendary Optimus Prime and a couple other good guys. The Decepticon missions also mirror the film to an extent, with Megatron, Barricade, Scorponok and their other cronies trying to kill Witwicky and take his grandfather’s glasses. The twist is that the later parts of the game work differently; you can actually win as the bad guys, unlike the optimistic Autobot triumph at the end of the film.
The story is still nicely unobtrusive, so if you haven’t seen the movie or just want to smash a lot of robots, the plot won’t get in the way. You’d better want to smash a lot of stuff, though, because that’s mainly what you’ll be doing in this game.
From the minute I started playing and saw the small craters the robots make by simply walking, I knew smashing stuff was a big part of Transformers. In both campaigns, beating the hell out of anything within reach seems to be the primary form of gameplay. There might be time limits imposed, or a directive to destroy a specific enemy/building, but you can still blow up just about anything you want. The environments are almost completely destructible, and to prolong the mayhem, large pieces of debris (telephone poles, fences, hunks of buildings) can be picked up and thrown to wreak even more havoc.
All characters can transform at will, and both mech and vehicle forms are relatively seamless to control and equally capable of doling out the hurt in the form of melee and ranged attacks. The Autobot missions tend to steer you away from senseless collateral damage, but in the Decepticon missions, only the occasional time limit impedes your rampage. “Wanton Destruction” might have been a more suitable title for the game, if not for that shiny license that Mr. Bay is so proud of.
Aside from the buildings and hapless vehicles just itching for a pounding, there are also dozens of enemy robots to trash, no matter what side you’re playing on. Both Transformer teams have a seemingly bottomless army of “drones” they throw in your way, while the star characters show up every few levels for a boss fight. These battles are initially epic in their proportions—you’ll easily demolish ten city blocks as you duke it out with your opponents, as the helpless humans scurry about like ants. After the fifth or so epic conflict, the flaws start to show themselves (much like another drawn-out summer blockbuster involving pirates.)
Transformers ends up suffering from a decent mechanic that’s been played to death. There’s very little variety within the objectives besides “blow this up” or “chase this guy down and then blow him up.” There are a few novelty missions that take cues from the film, but most of the time you’ll be walking through the same punch-punch-kick combo over and over, just on the scale of five story tall robots. The gesture controls perform all of the melee attacks, and after so much flailing I got more arm strain than I do from a rigorous game of Wii Boxing.
If the repetition of the missions was enough to keep you satisfied, I’d recommend this game as a sure rent. Beating the living daylights out of cityscapes is fun enough for a weekend of mindless action. The mechanics, unfortunately, muddle the experience further.
The camera is by far the biggest problem. I heard that it isn’t too hot on the 360 or PS3, but on the Wii it’s downright aggravating. An on-screen cursor controlled with the Wii remote dictates the camera movement, exclusively. If your hand wanders and the cursor moves off the screen, prepare for some wild camera rotations. Manually dragging the cursor back onto the screen is the only way to center the camera, which leads to moments of frustrated adjustments and even more arm strain. I would’ve liked if they’d replaced the redundant grab control on the C button with a camera centering function. The Z targeting lock-on helps a little, but there’s so much going on most of the time that it’s hard to discern any specific target.
In fact, the amount of debris and motion on the screen keeps the frustration level pretty constant. A clever cartoonist portrayed the action sequences in the movie as a mass of scribbled lines, and that’s pretty much what you’ll get in the game too. Bits and chunks of stuff are constantly flying every which way, mixed in with a generous heaping of sparks and fire. I’d commend the game’s graphical artists on their superb use of particle effects, if they weren’t so confusing.
The icing on the disappointment cake is the way in which the game constrains you to the objective area. Instead of flashing a neon “go this way idiot!” arrow on the screen or throwing up the invisible walls we’ve all come to live with, Transformers does something far more irritating. It displays a small circular zone on the map, the “action zone” they call it. Straying from the action zone starts a short countdown timer, and unless you return to the zone of much action before time expires, you fail the mission. This wouldn’t be a huge issue, except that the action zones are roughly the diameter of a quarter, and require two or more building-sized robots to duke it out within. I’m exaggerating of course, but more often than not you’ll feel like you’re playing a big, sumo version of Battlebots.
It’s a shame that the gameplay is so hindered by the wonky camera and the general design flaws, because Transformers is otherwise rich with high production values. A movie license must carry a hefty budget, because even the Wii version of Transformers is easy on the eyes. Regardless of your stance on the new, movie look of the robots themselves (old school fans hate it, average moviegoers really don’t care), you’ll probably be impressed by how well they’ve been recreated. The seemingly redundant clicky-slidy parts that the fans can’t stand are all fully rendered and animated on the various bots, and the on-the-fly transformations are movie faithful. Because each city can theoretically be razed from one end to the other, all buildings smash and crumble with a plethora of dusty particle effects. The sheer number of effects and stray debris popping off everywhere is unheard of in a Wii game, and rarely does the framerate suffer. There are noticeable differences between the Wii graphics and those of the PS3 and 360, but it isn’t nearly as night-and-day as it is in other platform-spanning games. I wish other third party developers would put this much effort into graphical design, because Transformers proves that the Wii can handle more than N64 graphics. Ya hear that guys? Your “lower specs” excuse for making Wii games look god-awful just died.
Sound design is high quality too, with most of the movie talent reprising their roles, and even a few of the veterans from the old 80’s cartoon show are back. Sound effects get about as repetitive as the gameplay, but with so many crashing, crunching, and metal-squealing sounds, it really doesn’t matter. Music is decent quality, but it hid beneath the action most of the time and never made its presence known, even during the most heated moments.
Despite all of its glitz and movie inspired hype, I just can’t recommend this game as a purchase, and a rent is iffy too. Transformers is packed in a nice shiny box and gleams like Optimus Prime’s fenders, but transformed into its game mode it isn’t nearly as impressive. The camera and beat-em-up gameplay will likely frustrate you within the first hour or so, and the gimmicky motion controls will wear your arm out even sooner. For such a short game, it becomes a chore far too quickly.