Transformers: Dark of the Moon Review: No More Than Meets the Eye

One year ago, our own Justin McElroy called High Moon Studios' Transformers: War for Cybertron "a crystal clear, easy-to-follow example of how to do a licensed game." Maybe the example wasn't so easy to follow. When you play the movie tie-in, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the surprise isn't that it feels rushed and incomplete. The surprise is that High Moon made this one, too.

Most of the features that made War for Cybertron a standout are gone. Gone is co-operative play. Gone are several multiplayer modes, including Escalation. In their place are three standard multiplayer gametypes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, and conquest), and a campaign so short that it feels like it was based on an episode of the cartoon show rather than a movie.
%Gallery-122764% If nothing else, a game based on the Transformers ought to provide a thrilling sense of transformation, but Dark of the Moon is only partly successful on this count. You switch seamlessly between "robot" mode, which plays as a standard third-person shooter, "stealth force" mode, which plays as a tank shooter, and "vehicle" mode, which plays as an arcade-style racer. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and when the game gets cooking it is satisfying to snap back and forth to gain an edge on your opponents.

... the surprise isn't that it feels rushed and incomplete. The surprise is that High Moon made this one, too.

But in an attempt to provide a fluid sense of your character's transformation from one state to another, High Moon devised a strange, shifting control scheme. Each of your characters' modes has a unique controller layout. In theory, this should make it easier to exploit each form's abilities. Instead, it confuses the issue, as similar functions suddenly swap places on the control pad.

In robot mode, as in most shooters, pressing the left trigger zooms in on your target. Once you're in stealth force mode, though, you want to press the left bumper in order to aim. Holding the left trigger, confusingly, puts your car into vehicle mode and acts as the accelerator.

It gets worse. When driving, you steer with the right stick. Accelerate with the left hand, steer with the right – that's the mirror image of how every other racing game in the history of the world has done it. I lost track of how often I crashed into walls because I was nudging the left stick to try to stay on the road. The choice is as nonsensical as it is unnecessary. When you're driving, the left stick isn't even given a function.

(That's not totally true. You do use the left stick to back up. Which you have to do constantly. Because you keep crashing. Because steering is mapped to the right stick.)

Despite the game's attempt to give the bots different powers, they all end up feeling the same in the heat of combat. In stealth force mode, your options are always a rapid-fire gun or explosive rounds, no matter which Transformer you're controlling. The particulars may vary – grenades for one versus rockets for another, say – but their effect on the battle doesn't. Even the difference in feel between a wheeled Autobot and a winged Decepticon is less dramatic than it ought to be.

Although Dark of the Moon is missing several of the online game types from War for Cybertron, it does retain that game's multiplayer class system and player progression. Players can customize their loadout as they gain XP, and earn Call of Duty-style killstreaks. This is more robust than the stricter single-player campaign, but the action is punchless. The robots are too slow and the weapons too uniform for thrilling battles. Objective-based multiplayer might have been the better way to go. Besides which, it's all done in by a poor sense of scale: the robots are large and imposing when bipedal, but as soon as they transform into vehicles you're left with the unmistakable sense of a bunch of RC cars zipping around the backyard.

Sometimes, when Dark of the Moon seems about to break out of its shell, it's done in by an inability to develop its ideas beyond a completely superficial level. For a good chunk of Soundwave's chapter, you control his tiny bird companion, Laserbeak. Soundwave instructs you to disguise yourself as various innocuous objects in order to hide from the Autobots. This suggests a tantalizing set of tactics, in which you assume various forms and acquire different powers to manipulate the environment in surprising ways. Instead, you hide in some boxes.

Further, this chapter encapsulates the lazy level design that afflicts Dark of the Moon as a whole. All of the maps are a series of arenas connected by long corridors. (This is true whether the level takes place inside or outside.) For as short as the game is, most of the missions start to feel padded by about the halfway mark. Add to this badly placed checkpoints, constant loading interruptions, and even occasional slowdown, and you have a game that's rife with rookie mistakes.

But the presentation is of a higher quality than usual for a movie-based game. That's thanks largely to the cast, made up of many of the same voice actors from the movie, who don't have the disaffected air of the contractually obligated. And the game's one significant human role is played by a consummate professional. If you guessed Nolan North, congratulations: You don't win anything.

Most unexpected is the strength of the game's writing. Chapter 2, in which you play as Ironhide, turns out to be the comedy event of the year. The quips are sharp, and the delivery wry. After blowing up a wall in Detroit, Ironhide muses: "That certainly didn't help the city's image." There are other gems, too, including Mirage's dripping condescension toward his human contact, and Starscream's barely concealed insubordination. One doesn't ordinarily expect sly humor from a video game based on the third movie in a series based on a 25-year-old cartoon show, but there it is.

Then it all ends, seemingly out of nowhere, and after only a few hours of play. There's nothing wrong with a short game that feels complete, but Dark of the Moon feels half-finished. In fact, it pulls a neat transformation of its own. From a full-priced retail release on the store shelf, it changes to a glorified mission pack the very first time you press the start button.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Transformers: Dark of the Moon provided by Activision.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.