It must be incredibly hard to take an established, much-loved franchise and translate it into a video game that not only resonates with existing fans of the source, but also pulls in new interest from the outside. It must be hard, because so few developers get it right. An obvious example is Rocksteady, who did wonders with Batman, but a less-thought-of example is High Moon Studios, whose Transformers games (War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron) did a great job of bringing the universe to life without having to rely on Michael Bay’s movie adaptations.
Unfortunately, Rise of the Dark Spark – the third game in the series and the first by developers Edge of Reality – feels like a step too far. Attempting to link High Moon’s universe with Age of Extinction produces complications in a convoluted and barely coherent plot, and Edge of Reality haven’t really brought anything new of their own to the franchise.
It begins on Earth, where Optimus, Bumblebee and a handful of mid-tier Autobots are engaged in conflict with the Decepticons over the titular Dark Spark, the antithesis to the Matrix of Leadership. The story flits between different timelines as Optimus fights against both Megatron and Lockdown in his attempt to destroy the Spark. As in previous games, you’re forced into the treads of whichever Transformer is currently relevant to the story, so you’ll play as a wide variety of characters – none of which are particularly compelling until you finally get to run around burning everything as Dinobot Grimlock.
All things considered equal, the storyline is at least fit for purpose, but sadly the game suffers elsewhere. Guns lack impact, despite the variety on offer, and although we’ve all watched Transformers take a serious pummelling in the movies, here it takes a frustratingly small amount of direct damage to reduce you to a pile of rivets and cogs. As a result, the combat leaves you feeling cold – which is a major issue as there is so much of it. Inconsistent checkpointing is a hitch, too, as you can often find yourself overwhelmed by hordes of infinitely-spawning grunts while you try to complete some menial objective or another.
When the primary positive in a shooter campaign is that it’s quite short, you know you’ve got problems, but for most of Rise of the Dark Spark I found myself gritting my teeth and ploughing on despite the fact that I simply wasn’t enjoying it. At times, it’s simply lifeless – and a whole section a few hours in where you’re trying to shoot flying and leaping Insecticons that you can barely keep up with is rage-inducing. The writing is also cheesy, and above-par voice acting can’t prevent the occasional cringe when characters drop irritating one-liners or the same looped dialogue over and over again.
Graphically it’s a mess. The environments are bland and featureless, and the animations don’t seem to have moved on at all since Fall of Cybertron, while the cutscenes have a horrible, washed-out grainy quality that reminded me of the PS2 days. Visual glitches like enemies that fall through the floor and occasional slowdown are just unacceptable in a shooter that, frankly, shouldn’t be taxing the PlayStation 4 in the slightest.
If there’s a saving grace it’s the multiplayer. Escalation mode returns, which is basically Horde Mode renamed. You and three others defend against increasingly hard waves of enemies, using turrets and barricades to set up tactical chokepoints around the map. Although the appeal starts to wear thin after a while, the huge number of unlockable characters (over forty across the two factions), guns, and perks offer a decent amount of variety. Running around as a Dinobot feels different to tearing up the skies as Starscream, for example, and the hacks (difficulty modifiers you apply either pre-match or at weapon lockers) allow you to add an extra layer of challenge in both Escalation and the campaign should you need it.
Similarly to Mass Effect 3, levelling up (or completing passive challenges) rewards you with gear boxes, which contain random items, characters, hacks, and abilities. You never know what you’re going to get when you open one, and there’s always a moment of excitement when you spring a new character or weapon upgrade.
In fact, it’s a shame that Rise of the Dark Spark doesn’t make a bigger deal of its upgrade and Gear Box system, as the option to improve each weapon (available across any of your unlocked characters) and the difference made by special abilities and hacks add a great deal to an otherwise very vanilla experience. Sadly, most of the cool stuff is hidden away in menus and you’re never really talked through it or taught how to maximise efficiency and, as a result, you could easily play for hours before you even realise you can improve yourself.
VERDICT: Rise of the Dark Spark is a step back from Fall of Cybertron, and that’s an utter travesty. High Moon did wonders with the last game, and this feels almost like a tacked-on expansion rather than a decent game in its own right. Bland visuals, uninspiring combat and a messy story can’t be saved by an enjoyable multiplayer mode or a set of underused sub-systems that even Edge of Reality seem to have forgotten about. Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark isn’t an awful game, but it’s a long way short of the bar set by High Moon.
AVERAGE. The epitome of a 50/50 game, this title will be unspectacular but inoffensive, charmless but amiable. We aren’t condemning a game by scoring it a 5, but we certainly aren’t championing it, either.
Review code provided by publisher.