Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark

In the time leading up to the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction, a new Transformers game was announced, titled Rise of the Dark Spark, that would not only tie into the movie, but also feature a sort of crossover between the Live-Action Movie Continuity and the Aligned Continuity, specifically within the events of the Cybertron games by High Moon Studios. When I first heard of this, I thought it was a rather interesting idea, since this hadn’t been done very often in mainstream Transformers fiction, though never in video game form (the Dreamwave Armada comic toyed with continuity crossovers briefly and the lesser-known Fun Publications material features multiversal crossovers often as a plot point in their Timelines stories). In any case, I was excited to the point where I pre-ordered the game (even getting a free poster for picking it up at GameStop on launch day) and decided I wasn’t going to play it until after seeing Age of Extinction to avoid movie spoilers. Due to the game being developed by a different studio than High Moon (Edge of Reality to be precise) and it being made as a movie tie-in, I decided to maintain a sort of cautious optimism, though I wasn’t expecting Rise of the Dark Spark to top Fall of Cybertron and actually decided I would persist through the game even if I didn’t like it (I braced myself for this based on online reactions). After playing through the game, I found that while the end result was decent, it still had some shortcomings that overall affected the final product.

In the Movie timeline, Drift is on his way to meet up with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee in order to stop Lockdown from claiming the Dark Spark, an ancient Cybertronian relic that acts as the opposite of the Matrix of Leadership. However, the Autobots are too late, as Lockdown manages to retrieve the Dark Spark and set his plan into motion. Meanwhile, on Cybertron in the Aligned continuity, Optimus Prime and a team of Autobots are trying to prevent Megatron from getting his hands on the Dark Spark before it’s too late.

The story, for the most part, feels kind of thin, since the story mainly centers on the Autobots and Decepticons fighting over the MacGuffin that is the Dark Spark, though evidently Megatron and Lockdown seem to have their own reasons for wanting the relic. There are also certain points in the story where it seems to try to hit the same notes as in the Cybertron games (ex. speeding through a highway, Bruticus, Grimlock), though it feels like it’s missing something when it does. Taken by itself however, there is enough of a story for the game to work, but it doesn’t feel like it has quite enough meat on its bones. However, I will give it credit for managing to fit itself well into the continuities it is trying to represent, barring a couple of errors.

For example, Megatron (voiced by Fred Tatasciore) should
not have this body yet.

Gameplay is similar to that of the High Moon games, though with a few differences. Minor differences apply to how returning playable characters are used; for example, Swindle returns as a playable character from Fall of Cybertron, but you can’t use him to grapple anymore since the section he’s playable in does not require platforming (this is not a complaint so much as an observation, since while it felt weird at first, any changes made are fine so long as they suit the game well). Major changes include the addition of Gear Boxes, which can be earned by Leveling Up, completing any number of Challenges, or defeating enough enemies (think the Prize Boxes and Ribbons from Gears of War: Judgment). These Gear Boxes usually reward you with something you can use in single player or Escalation (multiplayer, which I admittedly did not try out because it’s not my forte), which can also include extra playable characters for the latter. As with the High Moon games, you can also find a number of audio logs scattered throughout the stage to add more depth to the story (although I found it difficult to find any, so this is probably to add replay value).

The graphics are actually pretty decent, but they look a little unpolished (not sure I can say anything about texture loading since that was a minor issue in the High Moon games as well). It’s clear that some assets were used from the Cybertron games, at least as far as character models, though they look cleaned up and yet unpolished at the same time; the same also goes for the Age of Extinction character models, since while they do accurately represent the characters found in the movie (at least with the main characters), they look a little incomplete. The cutscenes also look good in places, but half the time, they look kind of like cheap machinima, as though not enough time was put into them. The backgrounds also have a good amount of detail in them, especially the Cybertron levels, but at times the levels looked a little incomplete, especially in the Earth stages, but they are nonetheless at least presentable.

An example of (some of the better) in-game graphics.

The voice acting is also decent, but it sounds a little mixed. Many voice actors return to reprise their respective roles from the Cybertron games, but some of them, such as Keith Szarabajka (Ironhide) and Nolan North (Cliffjumper), don’t really sound like they’re giving it their all like in Fall of Cybertron. Peter Cullen, of course, still gives an amazing performance as Optimus Prime(s) in the game, and Troy Baker still does an amazing job channeling the late Scatman Crothers when voicing Jazz, as do a few of the other voice actors, but it doesn’t sound like everyone’s having a very good time with this game. A couple of characters from Age of Extinction, Lockdown and Drift, don’t have their respective VA’s from the movie (understandable), but while Gregg Berger does a good attempt at trying to sound like Mark Ryan when playing Lockdown, Chris Jai Alex’s performance as Drift sounds noticeably different than Ken Watanabe’s from said movie (it’s not bad, it just sounds different).

The music is also pretty good, though the most memorable tune from the soundtrack is what you hear in the title screen (to be fair, it was composed well). As for the other sounds in the game, it seems that Edge of Reality also recycled High Moon’s sound bank, which isn’t really a problem since it creates a sense of familiarity, but there are times where it feels like there isn’t enough sound, mainly when it comes to the Teletraan 1 screen (where you get to equip weapons and upgrades). When you’re trying to equip a weapon, there isn’t much of a sound when scrolling through stuff, and there’s no sound at all when you actually equip something, so for a moment I thought the action didn’t go through. Aside from these issues, the sound design wasn’t too bad. (As a sidenote, after having recently replayed Fall of Cybertron in preparation for this game, it seemed odd not to hear Teletraan 1 make a comment related to the character accessing it, but I attribute this more to the game having conditioned me to expect that more than anything.)

The titular Dark Spark (and a missing punctuation in the description).

However, there were a few things that also kind of bogged down the experience somewhat. At one point the game froze on me, requiring me to restart the console, and at least once I ran into a broken checkpoint, forcing me to restart the current objective in order to be able to advance. Also, even when playing on Easy, there were a few sections that still felt pretty difficult, as in a level of difficulty I didn’t expect to experience on the lowest setting, and so I eventually managed to barely make it through those parts, hoping I wouldn’t run into something that would make me have to go through them again.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is not one of the worst games, but it is rather disappointing, especially as a Transformers game. While the voice acting remains good, even if some performances don’t sound as strong as in previous Transformers games, the combat, graphics, and sound design seem unpolished at times and technical problems bring down the experience a bit. However, while the story isn’t all that fleshed out, it still manages to create a new part of the Movie and Aligned canon, even showcasing events that were only mentioned in Fall of Cybertron (again, barring a couple continuity errors). Transformers fans might get something out of this game, at least as far as Transformers canon is concerned, but the slightly unstable and generally unpolished state of the game might cause potential buyers to reconsider. While I was definitely not expecting this game to top Fall of Cybertron, it’s certainly not something I would pop back into my PS3 anytime soon.

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