The key to making a great Transformers game, more than designing impressive transformation sequences, a coherent storyline, or customizable bots, is creating the proper physical scale and motion. In a digital world, what sets the Hasbro toy-inspired mechs apart from a generic shooter are not plasma cannons, aliens, or a clandestine army, any or all of which can be found in a majority of action shooters. Rather, it’s the robots’ sheer enormity and presence in a world that was built for humans a twentieth their size that makes the idea captivating. But like most features in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the simple scale and physics of the surroundings are hopelessly misguided.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is supposed to be about humanoid aliens who can change from robot to vehicle in the blink of an eye and have some serious Bruce Wayne/you-killed-my-parents issues going on. Unfortunately, the game plays more like a generic space marine shooter. In each level, you play as a different Autobot—the ostensible good guys to the Decepticons’ villainy—which functions only as a cheap ploy to keep you interested in otherwise monotonous gameplay. Each mech has different weapons, can transform into a different shape, and boasts Street Fighter-like attributes (small, fast, and weak versus big, slow, and strong, etc).
And yet despite those cheap design tricks, it’s the Transformers’ collective inability to confidently hurdle a city bus, for example, that makes the game so mundane. One of the game’s early levels places you in a ravaged “Detroit”, or rather a generic warzone cityscape which is Detroit in name only. As you plod through the city, buses and cars are strewn about, and act both as shelter from a barrage of plasma bullets and as waist-high hindrances. Your character may as well be a thick-necked wartime lieutenant crouching behind an ammo crate to avoid gunfire. And when you open fire on the cars, be it with bullets, grenades, or any other weapon that you’re outfitted with, they simply slide along the ground a few feet or occasionally flip on their side.
The walls of each level are similarly reminiscent of human-sized gaming. What the game skins as skyscrapers or European villas are little more than corridors to run through. When you reach checkpoints in each level, there’s typically a drop off that, were you to turn around and try to retrace your steps, is just too high for you to scale.
Where the presentation fails, the gameplay can hardly support. There isn’t much tact to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and reasonably so—you’re not going to easily sneak around in a 30-foot tall robot—but with unlimited ammo, fights become tedious spray and pray. The game’s biggest addition, the so-called “Stealth” mode—a hybrid of the robot and vehicle forms that allows you to use weapons as a vehicle while simultaneously offering unlimited ammo and lightened damage—is an ironic misnomer that gives the player the ability to strafe as a car and hold down the trigger until the enemy is dead.
When not being obstructed by bus stops or essentially hovering as a car, vehicle mode offers little or no gameplay value. You move faster, but frankly, there’s no need to ever change into vehicle mode outside of the predetermined sections of each level in which you’re supposed to get somewhere fast and have a long stretch of winding, enemy-less road to traverse. The biggest issue with vehicle mode, however, is that most of the vehicles handle like something out of Cruis’n USA, which is to say twitchy arcade-style.
If these various playing styles sound like a lot to digest and make for a divergent experience, it’s because they are and they do. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a collection of ideas from good games mashed into one experience. Boss battles are nearly identical to Zelda games: run in a circle until the boss is vulnerable or attack from a shaded area with a new tool you just picked up in the preceding level. Even the game’s multiplayer deathmatch, which should be ideal, feels like a UFC fight with 10 too many people in the ring: not enough room and no cohesion to the battle itself.
Ultimately, Transformers: Dark of the Moon achieves nothing new and what it does do, it does poorly. You’re better off opening up your old toy chest, dusting off Optimus Prime and Megatron, and playing out your own battles with them than trying to sludge through the shoddy level design and gameplay of Dark of the Moon.