IGN Review of Transformers: Decepticons
As of this writing we're still waiting for giant, transformable robots to finally blast onto the big screen thanks to Michael Bay and his unique, over-the-top, almost videogame-like production style. But Activision's ready to give us our giant robots now, in videogame form. Vicarious Visions, the team that wowed us with the DS version of Spider-Man 3 -- easily the best of the versions released -- brings us its portable take on the Michael Bay flick. At the very least, the DS versions can arguably be considered the best of the Transformers bunch, but that doesn't let them off the hook -- it's got its moments but it's not a "great" DS experience.
Unlike Transformers on the console where the choice is in the game, the Nintendo DS edition forces players to pick their loyalties on the retail side. There are two unique versions of the game, one branded Autobots, and the other Decepticons. For anyone that's been into the handheld market, this is nothing new -- many games for the portables, like Pokemon and Mega Man Battle Network, have milked it on the retail side with multiple editions of the exact same game.
But there's a huge difference in Transformers: the two games are completely different experiences. Pick the Autobots version, and you'll follow a mission arc that fits the "good guys." On the Decepticons side, you'll be playing the bad guys who don't care what happens to the pesky earthlings. Though both titles feature the same core mechanics, game engine, and visual style, everything else is independent. Each game has its own characters, its own perspective on the movie's situations, its own missions and its own conclusion. Even though you may think that separating the production into two versions might be an example of "milking a property," it doesn't feel that way in the final product -- each game is a full-length, unique experience with enough going for both versions to justify the double trouble...and, almost, the double dip.
There's really no debate that the Nintendo DS doesn't exactly have the same "oomph" under the hood as even the last generation of console game systems -- so to expect the same level of production as the console on the DS wouldn't be fair. But Vicarious Visions took on that challenge, getting a similar "open world" design that Traveller's Tales pulled off on the Xbox 360, PlayStation and Wii systems to the smaller game device. The effort is definitely commendable, but the compromises are hard to ignore.
DS gamers get a completely open world experience where they can romp around, climb buildings, leap from rooftop to rooftop, zoom around in vehicle form, and just have fun kicking around cars, trucks, and trashcans. There's plenty to do in both versions of Transformers, like picking up object and throwing them, or uprooting poles and using them as weapons. But the game's a bit light on the atmosphere -- environments are rather bare and lack detail, but it's obviously more a limitation of the DS hardware's capabilities.
Unlike the console game, players are initially restricted what their capabilities are through a role-playing game-like level up process. On the one hand, the levelling up is a cool way to reward players as they plow through the missions. But on the other, the limitations enhance the game's "clunky" feel. Yes, these are robots, and yes, they're technically gigantic so a little clunkiness is expected and welcome -- at the very least, the developers made the game feel like the Transformers are gigantic robots. Hell, they make cool craters when they jump up and down. They certainly have the firepower and the fighting moves for both distance and up-close combat...but there was almost zero focus on the defense. If enemies shoot at you, the only real maneuvering you can do to avoid getting shot is to simply drive, fly, or run out of range. And when punching and kicking enemies, the inability to block is almost entirely unfair...there's just no real way to defend yourself. Instead of offering defense, the designers simply throw health power-ups around like candy in an attempt to balance it all out. It helps, but it just feels like a big cop out. And it's worse when you discover that the best defense is to exploit the game engine's limitations -- you can simply run away and use the game's limited draw distance and pop-in to make bad guys vanish, a strategy that comes in handy more times that you'd think.
Transformers also suffers from obvious "we need to get it out before the movie, damn the bugs" syndrome, and right from the start we've had issues with the game starting with a glitch where the lead transformer's first vehicle form refused to carry over to the first mission...so you'd drive around as some unrecognizable blob with the camera having a hard time trying to figure out how to display such a form. The camera also loves to get sucked into airborne vehicles -- a significant number of missions had to be aborted after backing too close to the camera and getting it stuck inside the 3D model.
But even with the glitches and the lack of balancing, there are some good bits to like about the DS versions of Transformers. The ability to change form pretty much at any time is a cool rush -- the console version limited the transforming sequence, but in the DS game you can leap off a building as a robot, hit the touch-screen transform icon, and hit the ground zooming as a car without a hitch. And the ability to scan and collect forms is a rather cool addition, too, and beefs up the game's bragging rights for players competing to complete the game's collection of vehicles. The addition of incredibly well acted voice-over for all of the game's characters gives the game a much more "console" style of production -- you're likely to watch every cutscene because of it instead of skipping right on through to the next mission.
Transformers puts a good focus on multiplayer, though you might get a little suckered by the "Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection" logo on the box. Yes, the two games link together for four player competitions -- including deathmatch modes and a neat variation on Capture the Flag -- but these modes are specifically for local area connections. The online functionality is an odd Worldwide Competition where players download daily challenges and upload their best score, and the server tracks which team -- whether it's Autobots or Decepticons (chosen by the cartridge you play) -- takes the win. It's a cool feature but not nearly as significant as actually competing in real-time against each other.
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