I think we can all agree that without any bias, the 80s was the greatest decade to grow up in. Admittedly, I wasn’t really at much of an age to appreciate the finest year in cinema history, 1984- birthyear of Gremlins, Ghostbusters, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Beverley Hills Cop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, The Neverending Story, Police Academy, Romancing the Stone, Splash, The Terminator and This is Spinal Tap (yes, all in the same year, seriously- can you even imagine a year like that coming along again?), but I was still witness to my share of amazing moments growing up.
Among these was another thing from 1984 that Orwell failed to mention, when some bright spark at Hasbro had a ‘Reese’s Peanutbutter Cups’ moment and got his vehicles stuck in another guy’s robots, and a legend was born in The Transformers toy line, a line so iconic that my word processing software auto-completes the word ‘Transformers’ after just the letters ‘Tra’ (complete with the ‘s’!). If I had to rank the greatest discoveries of my childhood, they would be up there with Lego, which would be about the only other toy to be launched in the 80s that has been in (near-)continuous production (though admittedly in varying quality- Beastmasters anyone? Weak) since its inception.
The 80s was also the very early days of affordable home computing, and with it computer gaming. I had a Commodore 64 growing up, and it didn’t take long for the appeal of Transformers to cross over into the digital entertainment realm, with the first (awesome) game surfacing in 1986. It looked like this:
That red and brown blob standing on a blue pipe is you. And if you are five, that is AWESOME
It was great. Incredibly simple (they only had 64kb of memory to play with, after all – probably less than this page uses), the most entertaining thing was transforming between robot and vehicle modes, which gave you basically no advantage in-game and was made up of about five frames of animation, but was enough to convey that elusive sense of being that most childishly amazing of entities, a ROBOT THAT TURNS INTO A TRUCK. Sold.
In the same year we also saw the release of the only Transformers film to have ever been released (fuck you Michael Bay), the animated Transformers: The Movie, dealing with the Autobots trying to stop the evil Unicron (like Marvel Comics’ Galactus, only slightly less retarded-looking) devouring their home planet of Cybertron. It included a prestigious list of voice talents for something that was essentially an 84 minute toy advert, including Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson, Casey Casem (the original Shaggy in Scooby Doo), the legendary Frank Welker (think every animated show ever) and Peter Cullen (the soul of Optimus Prime), and even Orson Welles in his last performance as Unicron, the planet eater.
Sadly there was a long wait (including a pretty shitty PS2 effort from Atari) until another Transformers game came along, and even more sadly, it was tied into the 2007 turdfest Transformers film (I’ve officially never heard of it). A third-person shooter effort, it was actually ok, but not great – for me it failed to live up to the history, the excitement, the feeling of what Transformers should be. Maybe that’s always going to be the curse of translating a toy line into other media – so many will have their own experiences and imagination around how they related to the toys, you’re going to be on the back foot trying to put that on the screen, whether movie or monitor. The sequel game also went the way of many movie tie-ins, i.e. straight into the bargain bin.
Freed from the shackles of a movie licence, High Moon Studios (developers of the largely ignored but promising Bourne Conspiracy and Darkwatch games) have set their game on the Transformers homeworld of Cybertron, chronicling the events that led to the Autobot and Decepticon exodus that eventually led to their arrival on Earth, neatly sidestepping the baggage that comes with the last two (non-existant) movies and showing a ‘prequel’ side of the story that might be unknown to all those whippersnappers who have only known Bay’s twisted perversion of the robotic truth.
This gives them a little bit of artistic licence to ‘re-imagine’ the characters too: usually this is a term that is as welcome to an established canon as the term ‘complications’ are to a medical operation, but High Moon have managed to tread the fine line between respect for the history and a far more entertaining artistic vision than the (non-existant, remember) recent movies ever did, creating different, interesting, and yet at the same time familiar versions of the classic Transformers from both sides: fan favourites Ratchet, Starscream, Ironhide, Barricade and more are represented.
Of course, being freed from the restrictions of a movie licence also means they are deprived of the built-in audience that such a game would attract. Generally, this means that the developers have to put more effort into the gameplay than they would otherwise, and on this score the game doesn’t disappoint. In a lot of the missions, the gameplay most closely resembles the first Gears of War, as a run-and-gun shooter against hordes of largely-identical enemies. This is also mixed up with flying missions that stop things getting too repetitive, and well thought-out boss fights to combine into a highly enjoyable 8-hour experience, which you can play co-operatively with a friend if you have one available.
The 10 missions are split equally between Decepticons and Autobots, and this ‘two-sided’ approach is a nice touch, where they have managed to resist the urge to ‘humanise’ the bad guys, and instead give you the chance to play as the relentlessly pantomime-evil Decepticons, or the noble Autobots and switch between the two campaigns whenever you like. In addition, you always have the choice to play as one of three characters for each mission, which adds a nice variety and an element of personalisation to the proceedings.
There’s obviously also a lot of reverence for the original toys and cartoons here, and the level of personality injected into these inorganic protagonists is commendable and really draws you into the experience. Not only does the irreplaceable Peter Cullen return as the voice of Optimus Prime, but as you progress through the levels, the three characters will banter amongst themselves, with a surprisingly high quality of voice acting, and the odd joke or nod to history, such as when one Autobot utters the universal greeting (‘Bah weep gragnah weep nini bong’) to some Cybertronian slugs, which caused a small explosion in the nerd centre of my brain.
In addition to the slightly short main campaign, there’s also very standard online horde and deathmatch multiplayer modes, with a reasonable amount of character/power customisation, but neither are much to write home about, though I can imagine with the right group of friends they could be quite entertaining.
Overall, this game is everything that the recent movies failed to be: an exciting, fun and excellently-produced experience that respects the past history of the franchise but also puts a new spin on it for the modern gaming generation. Yes it’s short, but it’s a very solid and enjoyable 8-10 hours of gameplay that you will happily trot out when friends come over. Highly recommended.