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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Great in concept, kind of meh in practice
What's It All About:
I love the Transformers as a concept, and especially enjoy them as the original toys and cartoon. The first film by Michael Bay wasn't bad either as pure popcorn action. But the game based on that film was a pure cash-in tie-in. The second film has come and gone, and the consensus from even loyal fans is that it wasn't as good as the first one. What that meant for the inevitable video-game adaptation, one of the industry's most reviled genres, was not a subject of optimism, despite some positive early leaks about the game.

In the end, the game was delivered based on the story in the film, about the returning threat from the Decepticons, though you can play it as either the good guys, the Auobots, or the bad guys, the Decepticons. (Most of the human-centered storyline is relegated to the cutscenes.) Choosing from an assortment of robots with different abilities, including Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, you tackle a number of stages with assorted missions, building your team along the way, as you defend the Earth.

The structure of the game is pretty straightforward, as there are 14 zones on Earth to unlock, which you do by progressing through the various missions in front of you. Though there are a couple of different mission types, including seek and destroy modes, escort assignments and search and rescue efforts, but at their cores, it's all about killing enemy robots and doing it efficiently, as the rewards for completing missions, which include campaign points for advancing in-game and energon cubes, used to enhance your team's abilities, are based mainly on how quickly you complete a level.

You have an assortment of attacks at your disposal, including hand-to-hand combat (including more powerful charged attacks,) a pair of long-range weapons, a vehicular weapon and combo moves, but it ends up as a hybrid of a button-mashing beat-em-up and a first-person-shooter, as you struggle to find the quickest way to off your enemies. Precision shooting seems like the best route, until you see the AI's favorite move is to scale a building, wait for you to do the same, and then jump off. A few exchanges like this, and you'll soon be pounding that punch button. Fortunately, that same AI will, when shot in the head or chest, usually choose to just stand there and take it.

As you progress forward, alternately killing robots and saving people, it becomes clear that nothing much is changing. Then, you get the last two stages, which offer up more varied gameplay, but the one, a massive boss battle requiring you to pick apart your enormous foe piece by piece, points out the trouble with a game based on speed runs. It will take you a while to beat this stage. Yes, there are people online who have done it in minutes, but if you're trying to beat it your first time through, it takes a good deal of time, and that means you can beat the boss, but not advance, simply because you haven't met the time requirement. So you have to do it again, and again, until you do it quickly. It's one of the most annoying boss battles ever.

Though the repetitive gameplay is a weak point, the lack of real story is a bigger issue. The cutscenes are mainly the autobots standing around a globe talking (mostly bitching about what you did wrong in the last stage) before heading to a holographic map of your next mission. It's like the radio play version of the movie. Once in a while you get a somewhat interesting lead-in to a stage, but mostly it's robots standing around, as if it's the anti-Transformers movie. But there's a possible reason you'll stick around to play, and that's the unlockable content. Achieve certain goals, most of which are actually advantageous to your goals, and you can unlock previously locked players in each stage, new characters in multiplayer, concept art and illustration galleries, and, in one of the coolest unlockables around, episodes of the G1 Transformers cartoon.

Online Play
This game's online play is probably its saving grace, as many players are likely to spend more time with it than the standard mode. In addition to leaderboards that rank your performance against other XBOX Live players, there's multiplayer action, with five five modes and five maps, letting you go head-to-head, Autobots against Decepticons. Anyone who's played Halo, or anything similar will know what to expect, as you take part in solo and team deathmatches, king of the hill battles, and land-control and capture the flag modes. Having the powers of the Transformers in a Halo-ish setting, including three exclusive to the multiplayer modes, is a blast, as you can jet or drive around nicely detailed stages that have plenty of landscape types to use for hiding or sniping. The balance of power is a bit uneven, as the smaller Protectorbot is simply deadly thanks to speed and the ability to easily stay out of view, while Long Haul is too slow and plodding, with a special ability that's not much use, as it only heals you and those nearby (which isn't the finest skill in a deathmatch.) There's also an issue with Megatron, as his special attack will kill most anyone in the game with just one shot, but that strength is balanced by a lack of agility. The only real negative about the online play is the lack of players available to face, as I was frequently stuck going one-on-one, instead of enjoying full four-on-four battles.

Aside from the limited and repetitive nature of the gameplay, the controls may be the area that breaks the game more than any other, as they can be debilitating at just the wrong moment. Transforming from robot to vehicle, which one would assume to be as simple as pressing a button, is actually controlled by holding down the right trigger. Thus, any time you want to be a vehicle, you have your one finger stuck holding down a trigger. This is very clumsy, as the triggers are key to most of the gameplay, since you use them in tandem to fire any of your weapons. At least at first, and less so later on, I would accidentally transform instead of shooting, and vice versa.

It's unfortunate that the transformation isn't a button press, as that would make the combat far more flexible. Instead, half the time you're hoping you get the timing right to drive and attack or drive and jump, instead of smoothly cutting down your foes. The awkwardness continues in the weapons system, as any character with a sniper weapon has to first hold down the left trigger to activate weapons, then push down on the right analog stick to bring up the scope, then press the right trigger to fire, once you aimed with your sticks. Once you get used to it, it's actually pretty fun to pick off foes with a head shot, but it takes some patience.

This might not have been so bad if the first level, a walk-through tutorial, actually told you how everything worked. Instead, the game keeps secrets, like something as unimportant as being able to slow down or go in reverse when driving. Yes, it's in the manual, but the only time it's mentioned in the game isn't until much later than you'd actually like to know it. Flying also isn't the easiest thing to get a handle on, since you can hover and shoot, but it's far too involved to be a lot of fun.

The imagery is actually rather nice, if we're talking about the robots, as they are nicely detailed, and have an impressive smoothness to both their movement and their transformations, with the God of War-worthy Devastator looking especially nice. When you score a particularly hot advanced takedown, you even get a nice slow-motion look at the assault. But the world around you doesn't hold up as well, as you'll notice small issues throughout, including some odd aliasing in spots (though the damage you can do to the environment is nice.)

There are some cutscenes between missions, and they looks good for what limited action there is, though the clips for the Deception campaign are far too dark, apparently to indicate that they are the bad guys. More distracting is the frame rate slowdown you'll experience when there are more than a handful of characters on-screen and lots of explosions. Things nearly grind to a halt in spots, mostly later in the game.

The Dolby Digital surround audio in this game is well utilized, putting atmospheric effects to the sides and delivering a well-mixed soundtrack full of appropriate sound effects (lots of clanks and blasts) and a musical score (mostly from the film) that's neither distracting nor memorable, which is fine for all the brawling you'll be doing. The voice work is rather good, with actors straight from the film, including the voices for Optimus Prime and Sam, and Frank Welker providing Megatron's bellowing screams, but that comes into play mostly in the cutscenes, where you want to get away from them as quickly as possible.

And in the End...
When you first start out, the game is a ton of fun, as getting to romp around the city as a Transformer, in robot and vehicle form, and kick butt for whichever side you like, is as close to pure video game pleasure as you can get. But when it quickly becomes clear that there's not much more to do, besides romp some more and kick a bit more butt, the thrill subsides, only returning when you take your game online for multiplayer fun (though the inclusion of some G1 episodes as unlockables is pretty sweet.) Though the game looks and sounds solid (which should be expected) it's jut too repetitive and too short (thankfully, due to the repetition) in single player mode.