Review: Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark (Wii U)

Less than meets the eye

Whether it's Batman, Gears of War or Zelda, it's always a gamble when a beloved series leaves the developer that created it in favour of a new one. In many of these cases it's because the publisher wants to churn out annual or semi-annual instalments in a profitable franchise, and one studio is not enough to carry this multimillion-dollar load alone. Whenever this happens the series risks losing its identity, as you have a whole new set of people trying to build on someone else's vision. Sometimes it works out beautifully (see: Metroid Prime), but other times it doesn't.

Be it Deus Ex, Splinter Cell, or Assassin's Creed, it's also a gamble to produce multiplatform titles for Nintendo home consoles in the modern era. Arguably since the split of the N64 and Sony PlayStation in the mid-'90s, Nintendo platforms have largely been the redheaded stepchildren of multiplatform gaming for third-party publishers (some would even say it dates back to SNES/Sega Genesis days). It's partially Nintendo's own fault, with a business philosophy that has historically been hostile towards third-party development, but that doesn't completely excuse the ocean of half-hearted, lazy ports we've seen on Nintendo consoles over the years.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark on Wii U is a victim of both the new-developer quandary and the multiplatform conundrum. Publisher Activision has handed off the surprisingly well-received Transformers series from its creator — San Diego's High Moon Studios — to Edge of Reality, an Austin-based developer mostly known for porting popular PC games to consoles. Released on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 and PC as well as Wii U and 3DS, Edge of Reality had a monstrous act to follow on a plethora of platforms; the 3DS version was handled by WayForward Technologies, but Edge of Reality was responsible for every other iteration.

On one hand, it's nice to see the Wii U version is enough of a priority that it's made by the primary developer of the game – as we've seen with AAA releases in the past, the Wii U iteration often gets relegated and outsourced. On the other hand, Transformers on Wii U still seems to have received the same second-class treatment we've become accustomed to, as many of the new features we reported on when the game was announced back in April are absent here. And as has become par for the third-party blockbuster course, Activision is misleading consumers by neglecting to mention the removed features in any of its marketing. The PlayStation and Xbox iterations are clearly the flagship entries, and Wii U is left at the foot of the table begging for scraps.

The most exciting features of recent Transformers games have been the engaging online multiplayer and the survival-style "Escalation" mode — neither of which are present on Wii U in any capacity. All you get here is the standard single-player campaign mode and the unlockable "Primus Mode" which gives you a bunch of extra weapons. Rise of the Dark Spark is not a tie-in to the new Transformers: Age of Extinction film, but rather a bridge between High Moon's video game universe and Michael Bay's movies. This has the potential to transcend standard licensed game fodder, but the concept totally falls apart.

With all the unique features of other console versions stripped away, Transformers on Wii U is essentially a straightforward, linear single-player third-person shooter split into 14 chapters. The story is a cliché end-of-the-world plot full of magical MacGuffins that you'll find in any big-budget sci-fi movie or video game, so the Rise of the Dark Spark experience rests squarely on the shoulders of the gameplay. After finishing them for the first time, you can go back and play any chapter whenever you want, the closest Rise of the Dark Spark ever comes to any sort of non-linearity. Once you're in a mission, you're forced to use the Transformer the game wants you to use. Choosing a Transformer before each mission could've been an easy way to extend the replayability of the chapters, but you'll have to settle for the three difficulty levels (which, to Rise of the Dark Spark's credit, can be changed any time you die) if you want to see anything different in your second playthrough.

If you've played any third-person shooter, you'll pick up Rise of the Dark Spark's controls easily enough: dual analogue movement, left trigger to aim more accurately, right trigger to fire, face buttons for jumping, reloading, and switching between your two weapons. You can flip which arm your character holds their weapon with using the A button, which doesn't really modify gameplay but it's a nice little touch. The same gameplay is always displayed on both the GamePad and TV screen, which is a missed opportunity, but is to be expected from a port like this.

Since this is Transformers, you can morph between your robot and vehicle forms with a click of the left stick; unfortunately, you'll find yourself spending about 80 percent of the campaign in your robot mode, which defeats the novelty of transformation. Transforming into a jet is a thrill that changes up the gameplay as the battlefield becomes more open and vertical, but for all the characters who turn into cars and trucks, they're just a slightly-faster, less mobile version of their robot form — so you'll want to switch back into a robot as soon as possible. It's a missed opportunity; there could've been fast-paced car chases or escape sequences that took advantage of the vehicle forms, but for the most part the cars are a non-factor. So much of a non-factor, in fact, that there are certain segments of levels where you'll try to transform and the game will inform you that you're not allowed to, because the scripted story sequence requires you to be in one form or the other. Needless to say, it's frustrating to play a game titled "Transformers" that won't actually let you transform at certain points.

Rise of the Dark Spark's depth comes from customising your weapon loadout – Edge of Reality clearly put tons of effort into creating dozens of guns, all with unique play styles and upgradeable features. There are also "T.E.C.H." powers you can equip that give you various bonuses, and most interestingly, "hacks" that change up the gameplay with tradeoffs. One hack gives enemies more health but when they die, they explode and damage other enemies; another makes fallen foes drop less ammunition but more health powerups. This all sounds like it would make online multiplayer a blast, if only the Wii U version actually had any multiplayer at all.

Instead, this wealth of weaponry is wasted on shooting wave after wave of mindless AI enemies, and for the most part, it's the same cloned enemy over and over again, with little variety from level to level. You won't be battling many recognisable opponents from the Transformers TV show or films; for the whole first chunk of the campaign you won't even be fighting Autobots or Decepticons, but forgettable "Cybertronian mercenaries" and Insecticons. Perhaps we're spoiled by the colossal boss fights in Dark Souls, but the bosses in Rise of the Dark Spark are also small and unremarkable for the vast majority of the campaign.

Like its predecessors, Rise of the Dark Spark alternates missions between Autobots and Decepticons, and new to the series, it also switches between movie-based Earth levels and more exotic Cybertron stages. The Earth levels all sport the generic dystopian bombed-out city look that we've become accustomed to in modern mainstream gaming, and all the characters don their unfortunate "Bayformers" look so they're hard to tell apart from each other. The more sci-fi Cybertron missions are vastly superior, with more distinguishable character designs closer to the old cartoon show and slightly more creative level structures. The purple-hued space stations filled with Ancient Artifacts feel a bit like a poor man's Halo, but Cybertron is still much more immersive than the poor man's Call of Duty of the Earth missions.

We didn't expect Rise of the Dark Spark to look as shiny on Wii U as it does on PS4 and Xbox One, but the overall presentation is downright embarrassing. The robotic transformation animations are nicely detailed, but everything else is a mess; long load times, tiny draw distances, constant frame rate drops and pop-in textures can be found in abundance — it might sound like an exaggeration, but Rise of the Dark Spark on Wii U looks only marginally better than a Wii game. When your character dies, they don't explode or even fall down – you'll just get a bland menu that pops up unceremoniously the instant your health reaches zero and tells you you're "OFFLINE."

Being "offline" rather than "dead" makes sense since you're a robot, but when it's so jarringly displayed without the context of a death animation, the first few times we died we thought we had somehow dropped an arbitrary internet connection and frozen the game. It makes Rise of the Dark Spark feel low-budget, like the developers cut corners wherever they could. Death animations aren't a dealbreaker, but in a morbid way they're a huge part of gaming; think of all the hundreds or thousands of death animations you've witnessed over the course of your gaming career. As a result, when a game features death without animation, you can't help but feel unresolved and unfinished.

Following in the graphics' footsteps, the audio mix is all out of whack. Along with the generic "epic" film score, sound effects are far too loud and dialogue is far too quiet, even with the settings changed. This is a huge blow, as the voice acting is one of the game's only strong points. It's terribly cheesy, but if you enjoy the dialogue in Michael Bay's films, you'll appreciate the dialogue here; as a bonus, veteran Optimus Prime voice actor Peter Cullen reprises his role for the game.

You'd better enjoy the dialogue, because Rise of the Dark Spark is full of unskippable cutscenes, many of which are placed after level checkpoints so if you're stuck retrying a certain segment over and over, you'll have to sit through the cutscene every time. The cutscene animation is incredibly awkward – the Transformers move and gesture in conversation more like humans than robots, placing them one step closer to the Uncanny Valley. This isn't necessarily the game's fault, though, as Michael Bay's most recent film heads in the same direction, giving us the one thing we all really wanted: Optimus Prime with lips. For kissing?

Conclusion

The last few Transformers video games bucked the trend of subpar licensed products, instead giving us the Transformers games we always wanted as kids. Perhaps the PlayStation and Xbox versions of Rise of the Dark Spark are just as high-quality as their predecessors, but on Wii U, Rise of the Dark Spark is everything Nintendo fans have come to loathe about movie tie-ins and multiplatform gaming: a lazy port with missing features that treats Nintendo players like second-class citizens. The franchise licensing is so cynical that Activision presents us with "Press Y to View Licensing Agreement!" on the main menu. Sadly, it's all a vicious cycle: third-party publishers release terrible Nintendo ports, so fans don't buy them, so third-party publishers continue to release terrible Nintendo ports, and again fans don't buy them... on and on into infinity.

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