(Xbox 360 Review) Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Developer: High Moon Studios
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Action
Players: 1-10
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 5 = Average

The Transformers titles that began to emerge around the time of the first of Michael Bay’s trilogy had, until recently, showed some positive signs of improvement. Granted, the first release wasn’t terribly good, and the second, based on Revenge of the Fallen, didn’t set the world on fire. It did, however, introduce some novel concepts, such as post-mission dialog based on performance and decent multiplayer run-and-gun action, and was an undoubtedly better title than its predecessor. Things really began to pick up when High Moon Studios took over as franchise stalwarts and delivered the best title to date, War for Cybertron.

Hopes were high when it was announced that the studio would create a prequel to the upcoming film, setting in motion the type of inevitable transmedia explosion that cause fans to grab for their wallets and companies to don their fancy hats. With franchise fans and non-fans alike still enjoying War for Cybertron online, it seemed as though both the studio and the series had hit their stride. And then Dark of the Moon hit my 360. With a thud. Regardless of what constraints were at play—time, license, or both—the end product is a decided step down and backwards.

It’s surprising to go from 2010’s War for Cybertron to the anemic Dark of the Moon. While the year-ish-long development cycle couldn’t have been comfortable for High Moon Studios, the result isn’t terribly pleasant for fans either. In the end, what gamers are left with is less of everything: a shorter campaign, fewer multiplayer options, and far more restrictive combat.

Similar to previous releases, the campaign is split up between the Autobots and Decepticons. However, unlike some of the prior titles, the campaign plays out as a linear storyline and doesn’t allow for a choice as to which side gets to go first. From the first time you control an Autobot, you sense something is off. The grandeur of War for Cybertron is gone, with its massive towers and debris-filled streets replaced with human cities that are as confining as they are unimaginative. To be fair, the games have never had completely open worlds, but they did tend to offer a degree of freedom in how to accomplish the given objectives. Now, instead of scaling buildings and ripping through blocks of open city streets, we find ourselves zipping along narrow paths and, frequently, stuck indoors. If there is one place where a massive robot that can become any number of fast-moving vehicles—car, truck, jet, whatever—should not be, it’s indoors.

While War for Cybertron featured several indoor levels, the crucial difference between those levels and these is the scale of the world. Cybertron was built to replicate the Transformers’ homeworld, meaning there was room to maneuver and romp about. What the Transformers weren’t was hunched into tiny rooms that are crammed with vats, columns, ramps and other fleshling objects, constantly backing into walls and stumbling around trying to get a clean shot. Transformers can no longer scale buildings, either, further adding to the feeling of confinement. Instead, they, and you, are now in both indoor and outdoor corridors that offer little room to operate. Transforming is largely relegated to set sequences featuring even longer corridors, which in some cases can (and should) be traversed on foot. The new stealth mode, which is a hybrid of their robot and alt modes, isn’t terribly useful, despite the increased speed and lock-on ability—thankfully, it finds a more welcoming home in multiplayer.

Going through the story just doesn’t make for an exciting adventure. The Autobots start off and bookend the campaign, with each level focusing on a Transformer (or two, as in the case of Soundwave), before they pass off the narrative baton. Most of the areas are the same, with a small hallway or alley leading to a room where enemies launch an ambush, followed by another hall, another room, and so on. There are, however, a few times when the structure is broken up, offering a touch of variety, such as when a damaged Mirage has to sneak around patrolling Decepticons or when Starscream takes to the skies in a chase sequence. The few dedicated vehicle sequences underutilize the alt modes considerably, though, due to loose controls and airy physics; it feels as if the vehicles are traveling on ice instead of muddy tracks or paved roads.

As you wait for the campaign to really kick in—it ends. At about five hours, Dark of the Moon is, at most, half the length of War for Cybertron. Whenever it ends, with cool-looking but ultimately anticlimactic back-to-back Prime fights, that’s it. Without unlockables, save for two multiplayer skins, or side objectives or anything of the sort, there’s no reason to play it anymore. Considering that many of the tasks assigned are mundane chores, including tapping into a series of communication towers, there ends up being little enthusiasm to not only replay the game but to even check out the film to see how the loose threads are resolved.

While the single-player campaign is lackluster, there still remains a ray of hope, one facet that could pick the game up, dust it off, and have it confidently stride into a place on your shelf: multiplayer. However, as with the story mode, multiplayer has been stripped. The mechanics are the same as in War for Cybertron, with each side sharing five classes—commander (big rig), hunter (jet), scout (car), and warrior (tank)—that sport faction-specific primary weapons and abilities, such as a missile barrage (Autobots) and life drain (Decepticon), as well as selectable secondary weapons and abilities. There are also passive upgrades that aid in both offense and defense, offering ways to regenerate health faster and reduce weapon spread. Kill streaks are back, as are performance modifiers during combat to gain extra experience—kill the same person over and over, get a kill after dying, etc. As before, leveling unlocks additional slots for each class (allowing for different loadouts) as well as additional secondary items and upgrades. The trickling effect is still strong, with the steady stream of unlocks offering a strong incentive to continue playing. The problem here, though, is that there just isn’t much to play.

While many of War for Cybertron‘s multiplayer modes were common, or variations of one another, the selection was still robust with both support and versus Co-op, Code of Power, Conquest, Countdown to Extinction, Deathmatch, Escalation, Power Struggle, and Team Deathmatch. Dark of the Moon features a grand total of three modes: Conquest, Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch. Even when the multiplayer does get its hooks into you, the handful of maps and even fewer modes simply aren’t enough to sustain prolonged play. It also doesn’t help that it’s possible to level very, very quickly. While shooting up the ranks helps to unlock some interesting enhancements, it also limits the longevity as the incentive to continue drops precipitously when there are no more rewards. Conquest is especially prone to quick leveling, with anyone near a node when it’s captured receiving 300 experience points, regardless of when they got to the area, which can result in leveling up multiple times in a single game. There aren’t many levels for the hunter to shine, either, and it becomes routine to see the odd site of jets flying in rooms and tunnels. On a positive note, the ground-based units get some use of out stealth mode as a means to deter pursuers. At least there’s that.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
is a bog-standard third-person shooter that is inferior in every way to its predecessor. On the one hand, it’s not bad for a movie tie-in; on the other, that’s not saying a lot. While War for Cybertron was more geared towards fans, Dark of the Moon is only really suitable for the diehard—those who just want to ride the movie rush a bit longer. At about eight or nine hours, four for multiplayer and five for the story, this is, at the most, a rental. If you’re itching for some Transformers action and haven’t grabbed it already, then pick up War for Cybertron instead.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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