February 9, 2007 - As far as I'm concerned there are only two major rules when dealing with my childhood memories; don't screw with the Ninja Turtles, and don't screw with Transformers. As luck would have it, both franchises are getting rebirths this year on the big screen, and in true Hollywood fashion they're being screwed with in a huge, huge way. TMNT now looks like a shell (pun definitely intended) of its previous design, and Transformers is getting zapped with the Bay-ray, as the franchise is now true-to-life, has a ton of explosions, and is - quite frankly - pissing off the loyal fan base left and right.
Whether you're a fan of the movie or a hardcore loyalist, it really shouldn't matter too much when you jump into the official Transformers game though, as everything that's being added into the franchise remake - lots of explosions, mindless destruction, and robots kicking the ever-loving tar out of each other - are all fundamental elements for an entertaining videogame. Bumblebee may not be an 80's VW Bug, and Optimus has flames, but when it comes to busting some good ole' deceptichops Activision's movie-game still works to get the Transformers feel down.
From our first official eyes-on with the game today at Activision HQ, it was pretty easy to tell where the design inspiration for Transformers came from. Take one part Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, one part Grand Theft Auto, and one part Transformers remake, throw it in a pot and let it simmer on high for 20-25 minutes. Players can kick off the game by selecting either Autobot or Decepticon affiliation, and from there work through missions that run somewhat parallel to the main movie. We'll avoid any spoilers for die-hard fans out there (the 12 of you that haven't already read the script, that is), but basically the game builds off the key pops of the movie, recreating the battles, areas, and characters you'll be seeing on the big screen. On the Autobot side, the game is pretty much a comparable to the movie, since the Autobots are the focus in the main story. With the Decepticons, however, you're getting more of a "what if" scenario, as you try to topple the Autobot warriors and take over earth for yourself.
Once you select your allegiance you're dropped right into the action. The game is laid out in the oh-so-familiar sandbox atmosphere of titles like GTA, Crackdown, or True Crime, where you've got a top-view map with destination blips, red dots for enemies, and green areas for objective sections. Along with the familiar map system is a integrated "good/evil" meter that works along the lines of Star Wars: Nights of the Old Republic. Just because you're an Autobot doesn't mean you can rampage through the city without the cops, military, and CIA noticing, and if you select Starscream and start helping little old ladies across the street instead of trying to become the Decepticon's "New LEADER!" you'll be sure to lose some alliance points as well. It's a pretty cool feeling to see Optimus rampage through the city knocking over police stations and Burger King buildings (it's like the old 80's episode where he turned evil, minus the red eyes), and while it's a bit out of character for the Autobots to be destroying everything, there's something to be said for taking into account the amount of collateral damage you cause during battles.
To add to the formula, nearly everything in Transformers can be smashed, picked up, and used as a weapon. Trees were torn from their roots, light posts were used to knock Decepticon cronies (that looked a bit like the 80's Shockwave, by the way) into busses, and buildings would crack and crumble as Bumblebee scaled them to reach a higher vantage point. If you want to knock a Decepticon on his ass and use him as a projectile, it's all fair game. Likewise, if the local police are getting in your way you can lift them sky-high, scout out a target, and give them a little airborne encouragement to fight the real enemy. It should be noted though, that players can't actually fight physical humans, so rather than having hundreds of puny earthlings nipping at your heals you'll be getting a lot of squad cars, tanks, and helicopters instead. We would have loved to stop over buildings, ending thousands of lives just to take a short-cut, but it just wasn't in the cards.
Since the game is still in development we weren't able to enjoy any of the more vehicle-specific missions, such as air combat with Starscream and Megatron (who, by the way, is a stealth bomber if you aren't up to speed in the new Transformers) or rampage driving missions with Optimus, utilizing real transform and roll out action. Still we had a chance to see the transformations in action, and though they don't have the classic noise from the original 80's show they're still really cool to watch. Switching from robot to vehicle is as easy as hitting a button, and a transformation can occur at any time. That means you can leap off buildings and go into jet mode with Starscream, transform from car to robot and then back again to jump over roadblocks with Jazz, or try to reenact the classic "Optimus jump" from the first movie, where Prime blazes into a group of enemies, transforms into a jump, and blasts the hell of them before landing. What we saw in action was a pretty solid start, but hopefully the idea of transforming everywhere (something that Activision was very adamant about) realizes its full potential before the game goes gold.
As a quick side-note for Wii fans, Activision also mentioned that the company is working to bring out a visually impressive game that makes use of the Wii remote as much as possible. The ability to aim and fire with the cursor was mentioned, though all other intricacies of Wii gameplay will have to wait for a later time. Executives did say, however, that character models are being taken from the 360 version and brought down, and that the game will still have strong visuals despite current assumptions that Wii is essentially just GameCube plus. That being said, we didn't have a chance to see the game running for ourselves, so we'll have to hold impressions until then.
On the visual side of things, Transformers comes up a bit short when compared to the more dazzling 360 games out there, but is still a pretty standard visual presentation as far as sandbox games go. The amount of space in the towns and cities are pretty huge from what we could tell, and all graphical goodies such as normal mapping and bloom effects are put to good use. The game uses real-time shadows and has some solid explosion effects, but while the Transformers themselves are pulled directly from the movie models (scaled down a bit, of course), the world around the characters is a bit less impressive as a whole. Cars and busses have more of an Xbox look, rather than 360, and the human models are totally basic. Still, the game's presentation has a solid feel, with the camera bouncing to follow the robots' heavy steps, or shaking wildly as buildings crumble to the ground. It isn't the most visually-appealing title out there, but it does carry a decent overall style. As a quick note on audio, there's no official word yet as to whether or not the main actors will be used for VO or not, but we can tell you that the opening cinema (which had a pretty cool look), did have the voice of Optimus Prime included in it. They even end it with a classic line; one shall stand, one shall fall.
From what we saw today Transformers: The Game isn't a perfect title by any means. The game makes great use of the world the movie creates, plops some solid looking robot models into the mix, and delivers the same destrucable environments as a game like Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, minus some of the speed and solidarity. Still, the general entertainment in cruising through city streets, beating the hell out of enemy robots, or driving in a stealth "robots in disguise" mode to avoid panicking police is still a blast. It may not be the classic 80's game we imagined so many years ago, but it's definitely a good first step in winning us over into the new look and feel of the franchise. We're hoping to see a bit more frenzied action added into the mix, as the lack of killing humans makes for mainly vehicle/vehicle combat when dealing with police, and the addition of more character-based attacks or power-ups to look forward to is always a nice top-off as well.
As a final note, Activision couldn't tell us anything about the extras in the game, but knowing how big of fans the team seems to be with the franchise I'm personally expecting some awesome extras or bonus features included in the final version. Maybe we'll be treated to some classic audio samples or some sort of retro flair to the game, but if all else fails I'm still holding my breath for the song "You've Got The Touch" from the old 80's movie. Guys, we love that song, and in two decades of music there's still no better tune we can think of to light our darkest hour.
We'll have more on Transformers: The Game as it nears completion, as well as an official hands-on shortly. Transformers: The Movie hits theatres on July 4th.