Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Xbox 360)
Lots of movie reviews have compared "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" to a videogame. It's a big, loud exercise in creating explosions without consequences, they claim, and as such the "Transformers" sequel resembles the big-budget videogames that have penetrated the mainstream consciousness.
As a videogame critic, my impulse is to jump to the defense of the medium: "Our explosions have consequences!" Predictably, however, the new Transformers videogame undercuts that whole argument.
Some of the greatest cultural artifacts of our times get defaced in this game. And the pyramids get a thrashing, too.
There's not a total lack of consequence, but your actions ripple only minimally through the game world. You'll see tiny, panicked humans running to and fro as you play, but that's about the extent of it. The dialogue in cut scenes changes depending on how you perform in missions. Your faction leader or NPC will comment on your completion speed or targeting accuracy. That's kinda like a consequence, right? It's a nice touch, but it only serves to bookend the level rather than impact the gameplay.
Performance gets judged on multiple levels in the game. Taking a cue from The Club, each mission is timed, giving you a chance to earn more Energon for upgrades and a shot pegging a ranking on online leaderboards. And as in The Club, you'll be able shoot special icons (called Skill Shots here) that give you more time to complete levels.
You can choose your faction, deciding to play as Autobot or Decepticon. The Decepticons continue to wreak havoc on Earth in search of a mysterious goal and the Autobots team up with the US military to thwart the evil robots' plans.
The varied abilities of the various Transformers do mix things up in interesting ways and you'll be able to upgrade your whole faction's abilities at the same time. So, if you prefer using Ironhide to play through a mission, Bumblebee's abilities won't have stagnated when it's time to take him out for a spin.
Entire city districts are your playground in Revenge of the Fallen, but in a different, overscaled fashion than in, say, Crackdown or Infamous. Climbing up a building and raining hot plasma death on your enemies feels gratifying in a lizard-brain kind of way. The best aspect of the game's missions comes from the blend of vehicular and robot modes. You'll track down enemy robots on your radar and engage them in firefights, but then they'll transform into a Ford Pinto or whatever and you'll have to chase them to continue the battle. That cat-and-mouse feel -- along with the ticking clock -- adds an undercurrent of urgency to what's otherwise by-the-numbers gameplay.
That said, the driving in Transformers is flat-out terrible. You'll careen out of control into buildings, skid through turns ungracefully and generally feel like an ass. You can't even reverse in vehicle form, which makes the dodginess of the driving engine even more frustrating. While it's slower plodding your way on foot, getting around on wheels takes you out of the game. That's a damn shame, considering you're always being timed and that many of the game's characters are cars or trucks of one sort or another.
The rest of the controls are a jumble, too. The right trigger has three different functions mapped to it, so you'll find yourself accidentally transforming when you want to fire a weapon. There's a different button for firing weapons, depending on whether you're in vehicle form or robot form. Some streamlining would have made the experience of playing the game a lot smoother.
The thing is, despite all of that, Revenge of the Fallen isn't an entirely terrible game. It's an improvement from its predecessor and I wanted to give it a "Try It" rating. I really did. But as I played it, I kept thinking, can't you get this stuff -- driving, combat, large-scale giant robot mayhem -- done better elsewhere? The once-intriguing action gets repetitive: track down enemies and blow them up, again and again. The big-boss fights feel kind of threatening, but as I said before, you have done this in more engaging ways elsewhere.
In the original animated series, Starscream was a love-to-hate conniving bad guy. In the game, he comes off as just 'meh.' Just like this exceptionally grey screen...
Worst of all, the core chromosome in the Transformers DNA -- the actual shape-changing -- just feels tacked on. The special attacks you can bring to bear while transforming from vehicle to robot feel ineffectual.
The game also looks deadly dull. The animations lack charm, the environments are awash in muddy shades. Even the aerial combat sequences fail to pop. For a game tethered to a Michael Bay movie, this feels like a particularly egregious sin. (Say what you want about Bay, but he knows how to tickle moviegoers' pupils.)
People always assume that movie tie-in games suck because the development teams don't have enough time to work on them before the release date. To me, the Revenge of the Fallen game represents something different: the frightening idea that, as Hollywood and big-deal corporate videogame companies cozy up to each other, the worst excesses of each medium will dominate. The distinction I'm trying to make is that, even with enough time, access and resources, the best we can hope for is a muddling mish-mash that approximates what a Hollywood studio thinks best serves their investment and what a videogame company thinks will make will make that studio happy. The singular experiences that players might want out of a Transformers game seem to be the least of those concerns. Revenge of the Fallen belongs in a junk heap.
This review was based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of the game purchased by the reviewer.