Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark just sort of showed up. Activision hasn’t been marketing it at all, and has seemingly released it as an all-encompassing game trying to capitalize on the upcoming film and the fans of High Moon’s beloved War for/Fall of Cybertron by including references and characters from both universes. It seems like an odd approach, as old-school Transformers fans and Michael Bay’s supporters clearly want two very different things from the brand. The source material is rich and intriguing, while the newer movies are just mindless action. To me, they’re not really compatible. I’m going to do my best to stay neutral on that subject going forward, but I definitely favor the Generation 1 stuff.
I first started watching Transformers (and getting the toys) around 1987. I’m not a crazed fan, but I hung onto Optimus Prime and bought the original cartoon (and Beast Wars) on DVD. It holds a special place in my heart, I’ll admit. Enough so that I’m willing to give anything related that comes my way a chance. Sadly, most of the video games that have been released were not good. There was an acceptable one on the PS2, and then the aforementioned Cybertron games a few years ago. I keep bringing those up because your enjoyment of Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark hinges on your opinion of them and your love for the overall franchise.
I’m reviewing the Xbox One version, and it looks like a last generation game. The character models are good for the most part, and Cybertron itself isn’t too bad to look at. The areas set on Earth… Not so much. Is it the worst looking game I’ve seen on Xbox One? Nope. Sadly, half the stuff on the new consoles looks like it came out a couple of years ago. It doesn’t look bad, aside from the rare environmental texture here and there, and the animations are decent. It’s just not what it should be, and the graphics as a whole are below average. Even cutscenes rendered with the in-game engine appear grainy at times. What gives?
A lot of what makes the graphics a let down is in the details. Textures repeating side-by-side on the cement road dividers, or lava being animated to just clip through everything rather than move as if it’s passing around an obstacle are noticeable. There’s also some strange reflection effects going on where characters can almost seem transparent, though it doesn’t happen often and it is mild. It’s extremely clear based on small failings like those that the developers at Edge of Reality were not given appropriate time or money, which comes as no surprise given the publisher’s track record of doing this.
In terms of actually playing Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark, there’s little to complain about beyond the load times. It was built on the very capable frame-work of Fall of Cybertron. It offers responsive shooting mechanics, smooth controls, and adequate vehicle handling. It’s your typical third-person action game, just running around and blowing stuff up, but as Transformers! The level design received some needed variety over the High Moon games, being set on both Earth and Cybertron. The mix of organic and synthetic keeps things from getting stale. There are some very epic set-pieces here too. There’s one in particular I want to spoil (but won’t) because just the thought of it is exciting.
The campaign is composed of 14 chapters, where you play as multiple preset Autobots or Decepticons. It’s a linear game, so you just blast your way from point A to point B with various activities and story snippets along the way. It’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s fun and never gets boring. There are challenges to accomplish, many of which are quite difficult and stage-specific, while some just accumulate across every level and mode. One example is only being able to kill using melee attacks for the duration of the first level. This adds a ton of replay value if you’re interested.
Aside from challenges, hidden audio logs also add more value to single-player, but the section that will keep you coming back for more is the Escalation mode. You fight through fifteen waves of enemies while adding, upgrading, and repairing defenses and trying to keep each other alive. They generously provide three chances to retry if everyone dies before it’s game over. You can customize your load-out and pick your preferred Autobot or Decepticon, as well as tack on any acquired abilities or tech bonuses (like summoning a drone for repairs or ammo, an experience multiplier, etc). Hacks also exist, in the form of altering the game slightly and giving an increased experience boost (IE: enemies take less damage but have strong attacks). It supports 4 players, and you fight whichever faction your team is not, for added enemy variety. There are also tons of Transformers to be here, so take your pick.
There is no competitive online mode, but let’s face it, it would’ve been dead in a month anyways. The developers didn’t have the resources to do everything, and Escalation was the safer choice for longevity. The servers generally ran fine during my time online, but one of the maps seemed to stutter. The option for either regional or worldwide match-making exists to help streamline things. An extra touch I appreciate is having the last three enemies of a wave highlighted. Lastly, it would have been nice if people were matched to your game to fill any empty spots left by quitters, but I can understand why they didn’t do this.
Your profile within the game earns experience, which in turn unlocks “gear boxes.” There are a few different types, but they all give you a similar assortment. This is the way you acquire almost everything in the game, including new Transformers for the Escalation mode. You’ll soon get lots of doubles. Anything you only need one of will be converted into usable bonus items to take online, while the extra weapons will give you upgrade tokens to improve them. Due to the random nature of what you get, it can feel like it’s taking a long time to get something you specifically want, but Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is generous in doling them out.
The sound effects are the typical sort you’d expect to hear, minus regular use of the distinctive transformation noise from the original cartoon series (though it is present whenever the Throwback Blaster is equipped). Explosions, weapons fire, metal footsteps, vehicle noises… It all works well. The voice acting ranges from good to a little hammy. Given the nature of the product though, that’s actually more fitting than not. Fans of the old stuff will appreciate it, ironically. The music fits with whatever mood is being conveyed on screen, though it doesn’t steal the show. I love that while characters are talking all the other sounds become slightly muffled so you can understand what they’re saying. The sound leaves little room for improvement. I didn’t notice a single glitch, and it has Peter Cullen reprising his role of Optimus Prime. Good times.
The story, surprisingly, isn’t terrible. I’m sure most people (myself included) groaned when they learned this wasn’t a sequel to Fall of Cybertron, but an interquel tying in that world with Michael Bay’s. While there aren’t a ton of cutscenes, lots of discussion occurs between the various Transformers as the game progresses. It revolves around the mysterious Dark Spark, which gives its wielder immense power that is far too dangerous to possess. It’s your basic struggle between the Decipticons being jerks and the Autobots valiantly struggling to stop them. It’s okay. Each of the characters does have their appropriate personality traits, and the whole thing feels entrenched in the lore as you progress through Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark.
Aside from not tying this into the movie universe, the only other optional improvement I would like to see is the inclusion of an encyclopedia. I always appreciate that kind of thing. It brings everybody up to speed, regardless of the extent of their familiarity. There are a lot of characters and countless events worth educating people about so they can immerse themselves further. It doesn’t need to go nuts, just a paragraph or two per Transformer and maybe a few pages about what happened leading up to this game. If their budget was indeed small, a bunch of text like that goes a long way to building a fuller product without much effort.
This is a real rock and a hard place review for me. From a basic enjoyment perspective, I absolutely love Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark. I think it plays great, offers a lot of fun on and offline, and manages to capture the magic of the franchise fairly well. If you’re a fan, don’t dismiss it right away. Expect something similar in quality to War for Cybertron. For anybody that just wants a new action game and has no attachment to Transformers, you’re probably better off not buying it. That’s sort of its Achilles heel, aside from the production values. It simply is not a game everyone will appreciate, as it requires you to love Transformers enough to forgive any shortcomings. I was able to enjoy myself, but that’s not to say it offers mass appeal.
Note: A completely different version of the game is also available on 3DS.
Can not get enough of all things Transformer? Check out our Transformers Retrospect as GHT looks back at past games and the TV and movies that inspired them.