The robots in disguise are coming soon to a PlayStation 2 near you.
If you're in that early to late twentysomething age range that just happens to be gaming's largest demographic, there's little doubt that you remember the Transformers. Though the original series and toy line faded into obscurity in the late '80s, the Transformers franchise has popped back up several times since then with a few toy reissues and the television offshoot Beast Wars. Recently, the Transformers were given a proper revival with the introduction of two new TV series in Transformers: Armada and Transformers: Energon. Now, Atari and its Aussie studio Melbourne House are bringing us a video game based on this recent resurgence in the appropriately titled Transformers for the PlayStation 2. It's not the first Transformers game ever made, but it's easily got the highest profile, and it may very well be the best too.
Like the backstory from both the original and updated series, the plot of Transformers sees Optimus Prime and the heroic Autobots waging a never-ending war against Megatron and the diabolical Decepticons for control of the Transformers' home planet Cybertron. Though the two factions were locked in a stalemate for millennia, Megatron has recently created an endless legion of lesser soldiers, called Decepticlones, that he's using to effectively turn the tide of the war. Just when all hope seems lost for the Autobots, a signal comes from planet Earth alerting both sides to the presence of the Minicons, a long-lost race of miniature Transformers who can enable a host of new weapons and abilities in the larger robots. Hoping to gain the edge they so desperately need, the struggling Autobots head to Earth to gain the assistance of the Minicons--with the Decepticons hot in pursuit.
The single-player campaign in Transformers is set up in a linear, mission-based fashion. You'll take control of one of three available Autobots--Optimus Prime, Red Alert, or Hot Shot--and you'll blast through a series of heavily combat-focused third-person action levels. Each of the playable characters has different attributes. Prime is the slowest character but deals more damage and can take the most punishment, while Hot Shot is fast but is relatively weak. Red Alert is the most balanced of the three. Of course, no Transformers game would be complete without the ability to transform, and here it's possible to do so at the touch of a button. Each of the three Autobots' alternate forms is some sort of ground-based vehicle. Prime becomes a tractor trailer; Hot Shot becomes a sports car; and Red Alert becomes an SUV. This means that once you transform, the action plays a lot like a racing game. Though you'll spend the vast majority of your time in robot form fighting the Decepticons, you'll occasionally have to go four-wheeling to traverse certain obstacles. Driving is also a much faster way to get across some of the game's rather expansive levels, too.
Aside from transforming, the three Autobots' capabilities are pretty basic, so you'll start off with only a simple blaster and a jumping ability. The game becomes much more interesting and varied as you play because you'll find Minicons scattered throughout each level. You can have four Minicons equipped on your Autobot at all times (and one is bound to each of the four shoulder buttons on the controller), and the different slots generally serve different purposes. R1 is your primary blaster weapon, while R2 functions as your secondary weapon, which can be a sniper, a missile-cluster launcher, or a minelayer. L1 is your jump button, and you can equip Minicons in the L1 slot that provide passive defensive bonuses. Finally, L2 is an active defensive slot that activates such complements as an energy shield that deflects enemy attacks. Each special ability is powered by its own energy meter, and all of your meters recharge pretty quickly, so you'll never have to worry about running out of ammo.
The combat in Transformers is surprisingly intense (given the license), and frankly, it's pretty darn cool. The Decepticlone enemies explode in really fantastic ways--with sparks and metal body parts flying in all directions. All of the characters (including your own) make use of rag-doll physics, so you can fire a pair of rockets into a group of enemies and watch them go flying in all directions. The boss battles are also downright hardcore because you'll spend them fighting some of the more memorable Decepticon characters as they transform between robot and vehicle forms. The game is pretty tough, even on the easiest difficulty setting (though the difficulty may be tweaked before its release), so it ought to provide a pretty stiff challenge for action game fans.
There should be a lot of incentive to replay Transformers' levels because of the way the secrets and unlockable content are distributed throughout the game. You'll collect both Minicons and "datacons" in each mission, and you'll be told before the level how many of each there are to find. Each Minicon will give you one new ability, and it will be available for use from that point on, while the datacons unlock bonus material that's found outside of the main game, such as Transformers-related videos, instruction manuals, and artwork. After you finish a mission the first time, you can go back and replay it at any time to search for additional Minicons and datacons. In fact, some of the items in earlier levels require you to gain new abilities later in the game to reach them, so you'll have to engage in a bit of back and forth action if you want to collect everything.
Though it's not final, Transformers is so far looking to be quite a visually impressive game. Melbourne House has been developing on the PS2 for some time now, and its engine has matured enough to create the extremely large and detailed levels and characters you'll find in Transformers. The natural-looking levels span the globe, from the Amazon forest to Antarctica, and the Transformers themselves are all modeled accurately after the original characters. There were a few frame rate hitches in the build we played, although they were not severe and were covered up by an interesting, cinematic sort of blur effect. Since the game is a few months off, it may be further optimized to smooth these minor blemishes out.
Some of Transformers' audio is still placeholder at this stage of development, but what we heard seemed to be right in line with the franchise. The voice acting and action sound effects were all appropriate for the license, while the music had a surprisingly dark, ambient tone that seemed to work well with the goings-on.
With three months to go before its release, Transformers is already in a pretty refined and playable state, so the team at Melbourne House should have no problem polishing it up before it hits shelves in early May. The game's development has lasted only a year at this point, so it's surprising and commendable that the game is as good as it is, even in this unfinished state. Transformers fans have been clamoring for a good action game based on their favorite "robots in disguise" since the days of the NES, but for some mysterious reason, that game has never materialized. Keep an eye on Transformers in the weeks leading up to its release to find out if it is, in fact, just what fans have been waiting for all these years.
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