I'm a massive Transformers nerd and I still treat myself to an occasional, well-designed figure. In particular, I have a set of many of the Optimus Prime figures that have been created over the years. I've played both of the High Moon Media games (War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron) and thoroughly enjoyed them. So I was eagerly anticipating Transformers: Devastation after I saw the early trailers demonstrating its lush cartoon-inspired visuals. But was this game more than meets the eye?
The game is gorgeous. Sometimes playing it feels more like watching an old Transformers cartoon than it does playing a game. Everything is crisp and clean and they've got a great cel-shaded effect that really cements the graphical style. They've gone with the classic cartoon designs for everyone (so no mouth for Optimus, thank goodness) even though Megatron is a tank in this incarnation. Frankly, I'm not sure how they could've had him use his gun form practically in a video game so that's probably for the best.
The first half of the game is spent tooling around the streets of an un-named city in an effort to prevent Megatron from using his latest McGuffin to cyberform the Earth, and there frankly isn't much variation in the locations. The city streets are a maze of passages all alike, but for all I know this could be a deliberate nod to the low production values of the cartoon?
They do mix things up occasionally with a sequence where you're playing from a top-down perspective or racing across a bridge in a side-on view.
The second half of the game suffers with a similar lack of variation except the game exchanges the city streets for the bowels of a long-buried Autobot spaceship.Devastation certainly won't be winning any awards for innovative level design.
But what about the gameplay? Before I proceed to talk about that I should say that I played this game on Commander mode, the hardest difficulty setting available out of the box. Most of the reviews I've seen say that this is pretty much impossible without having played through the game and levelled up a bit, so my experience won't be the same as it would be for someone who played the game on the normal difficulty setting.
As you might expect from the team behind Bayonetta, the combat engine in this game is pretty solid. It's mostly about building simple combos and using a slow-down-time dodge mechanic that will be familiar to anyone who has played Bayonetta to avoid damage and keep up the momentum. On Commander difficulty even grunt Decepticons can take off about a quarter of one's health with a single blow, so dodging and blocking is crucially important.
A particularly fun mechanic is the fact that when you execute particular combos you get a blue flash that signifies a vehicle attack is available. Push the right button and your Autobot transforms into their alt mode and crashes, slams, drives into or otherwise engages in attempted vehicular roboticide even if you're hovering in mid-air at the time. That never gets old.
Each Autobot also has a signature move they can pull off when they fill a power gauge. Optimus manifests his trailer out of nowhere and uses it to slam into the opponents surrounding him; Sideswipe does a flash-step dash towards or away from the enemy, and so on. Then, when you fill yet another power gauge, you get an even more impressive signature attack that shaves off a significant portion of most enemies' health when triggered.
There's a handful of extra moves you get to unlock throughout the game by spending money on them, but I kind of wondered why they bothered hiding these behind a paywall. Some of these are very useful though, especially a power-up that means you can dodge an attack just after it lands as well as just before.
You also get to pick up and upgrade weapons throughout the game, the main mechanic for which involves cannibalizing one weapon to give its buffs and a stat upgrade to your preferred weapon. Shooting is kind of frustrating and uses Energon fast, so I spent most of the game getting up close and personal with Sideswipe and dual swords.
There's another upgrade mechanic that involves making and equipping TECH, which are essentially random buffs to one or more traits that you buy with money. There's a simple timing-based minigame that determines the quality of each, but I didn't really bother faffing around with these much after I got one that gave me 15% extra melee damage.
Finally, each Autobot also has a bunch of stats (in the style of the old Tech Specs, each with an unintuitive three-letter name) that you can upgrade through earning experience or through exchanging money collected during the game directly for experience.
For me the biggest problem with the game was a lack of variety. It features quite a few Decepticons, but you end up fighting the same 'cons over and over again. You fight each of Megatron, Starscream, Devastator and more at least three times each, without enough variation in the arenas or the Decepticons' abilities or strategies to make the fights feel worthwhile. When you combine that with the game's occasionally awful choice of arenas--there's a particularly egregious example where you're expected to fight two combiner Decepticons in a tiny arena where the camera is absolutely no help at all--it can be a recipe for frustration.
Did I mention that on Commander mode this game is extremely difficult? If you graphed the difficulty curve it wouldn't be a gentle slope, it would look more like an outline view of Snarl's backplates (that's the Stegosaurus Dinobot). One can be trucking along defeating enemies with aplomb and feeling good about the game when suddenly it drops a boss fight where there's a massive spike in the difficulty and a sense of unfairness. The fight with two combiners that I mentioned above is the worst example of this. There's a checkpoint when you chip off half of the first combiner's health but after that you have to beat them both to get a checkpoint. And you don't get any health pickups when the first combiner goes down. It was intensely frustrating.
I also don't like that the game plays for keeps with your power-ups. If you use, say, a damage up power-up but still die, when you re-load from a checkpoint the power-up is still gone. That means a few deaths can end up making the game much, much harder as one runs out of power-ups and is forced to rely purely on skill (or luck).
The story is very well fitted to an episode of the cartoon. By which I mean it's pretty shallow and stupid; certainly not up to the standard of the writing in War for Cybertron or Fall of Cybertron, or the Marvel comics of the 80's (which were waaay better than the cartoon and I won't hear anyone say otherwise!).
I've heard people say that this is a super-short game at about four hours, but playing it on Commander difficulty meant it took me WAY longer than that to complete it. I don't like re-playing games, so that worked out well for me. You might prefer to play at a more sane difficulty and then re-play the game to get more life out of it, but honestly I'm not sure how well it would hold up to repeated play-throughs.
The game encourages you to play through the game multiple times by giving you an achievement for completing the game with each Autobot. The different 'bots do feel quite different, but I'm not sure there's enough variation there to make this a winning proposition for anyone but the most patient of Transformers fans. Grimlock is the most different, as he lumbers around in T-Rex mode rather than having a car or truck form, and he can execute grappling attacks in his alt-form rather than just driving around crashing into things.
In the final analysis, I did enjoy this game overall. I just think it could have been so much more if they'd had more of a budget for set design and better writers, and spend a bit more time designing some of the boss fight arenas to be fun rather than frustrating.
Buy this if:
You're a massive Transformers nerd
You like challenging stylish fighting games and aren't too fussed about variation and novelty
You mainly play games for the gameplay and challenge
You enjoy replaying games over and over again to score S ranks on every mission.
Don't buy this if:
You can take or leave Transformers
You're not a fan of stylish action fighters
You mainly play games for the story, exploration, or characterization.