We approached Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement because we love the IP (the classic series is currently being dusted off and watched with the kids). Trepidation because the studio who brought the robots in disguise back to prominence (at least in the sphere of videogames) - High Moon - have handed over development to another team, Edge of Reality.
That conflicting emotion goes someway towards accurately mirroring the Transformers experience on offer here; it's a solid if unspectacular game, low on content and complexity, but ultimately playable enough for it not to be a write-off.
The campaign, which plays out over 14 missions, is fairly straightforward fare. You control characters on both side of the Autobot / Decepticon divide in a narrative that doesn't linger long in the mind once the credits have rolled. The story involves the titular Dark Spark and the Matrix of Leadership, Optimus, Megatron, and a plethora of familiar robotic faces from the enduring series.
The different bots that you enounter on the way are a means of much needed variety. As you'd expect given the property in question, you can transform from robot to vehicular-form with a simple button press. Switching between the two changes your options in terms of mobility and firepower. You can move faster when you're using four wheels (or whatever - some bots can fly after all), but there's better vertical movement when you're in bipedal form. Both forms have their own weapons and handily the ammo is separate, so when the robot is out of bullets from both primary and secondary weapons, you can quickly switch to its vehicle form and go again (it' also worth noting that some of the weapons are pretty cool). There's also a neat dash move than lets you dart away from attacks when you're on two legs, and transforming gives you a speed boost if you need to get out of a bind.
It's not quite a new bot for each level, but even still you get to control a decent selection of characters in the campaign. The levels themselves are fairly straightforward, and they won't be winning any prizes for originality. There's hacks (think Halo's skulls) that can alter the experience a little via changing the amount of health or ammo that gets dropped when you take out an enemy, but other than that the usual third-person shooter tropes and set-pieces are all rolled out, with switches to flick and waves of enemies of wipe out. It's solid enough, but spectacularly unspectacular. There's moments where you start to get into the groove, only to be jarred out of the moment by inexplicable difficulty spikes and odd checkpoint placement.
Things get moderately more interesting when you boot up the online multiplayer mode, Escalation. During the single-player campaign you unlock gear boxes that can be opened later to reveal unlockable characters, weapons and upgrades. In the multiplayer mode you can then pick your bots (one Autobot, one Decepticon) and set them up with primary and secondary weapons, plus perks and buffs. Then, once selected, the characters drop into a fairly standard wave-based co-op shooter, the likes of which most of us have already seen before.
Again, this is utterly standard stuff. Over fifteen waves of increasingly hardy opponents, players will be required to work together to stay alive. There's a nice selection of different bots to control, something that fans will appreciate no doubt, but in truth there's only a limited amount of special abilities to distinguish the characters from each other. Some can drop weapons for friends, others pound the ground, another might drop mines; these basic special abilities, mixed with different weapons and perks, are the best way of stamping personality on the mode.
From a visual perspective there's not a lot of positives to list. Once the textures have loaded (it can take a while), the different environments - both on Earth and Cybertron - are solid enough, although there's not much here that couldn't have been achieved on an old-gen console (we tested the PS4 version). The cutscenes are fairly straightforward, but even here the visual quality isn't very high. Nobody should buy this game thinking that it's going to push their next-gen console to the limit, because simply put, it's not going to. Audio is a bit better. Optimus and company are all well voiced, and the soundtrack is also on the good side of standard.
As you'll have no doubt noticed, there's not a tremendous amount to get excited about here. The campaign flies straight as an arrow, following the through line laid down by shooters before it, for better and worse. That means we've got a campaign that ticks all the boxes, but fails to really deliver in any one area. It's mindless action, and if you're looking for a shooter that you can complete on autopilot, then you'll find it here.
The ability to transform your character offers the occasional dynamic moment, but for the most part it fails to raise the pulse as often as it should. To make matters worse, it's a short-lived experience. You can complete the whole thing in a couple of extended play sessions. Yes you can go back on harder settings and chase trophies/achievements, but only completionists will get pleasure from doing so. The rest of us are left with an 8-10 hour campaign and a online wave-mode that, at the time of writing, is woefully short on players (so much so that getting a game is starting to get tricky).
All told it's hard to recommend Transformers, because for its current price there's better experiences out there, on all platforms. If you enjoy the IP then it becomes and more interesting proposition, as there's plenty of fan-service in there via the characters you control in single-player and the bots you can unlock in multiplayer. However, even diehard fandom won't be enough to paper over the cracks. Transformers fails in the most important area; it's just not as fun as it should be.