When I was a kid, Optimus Prime seemed to me like everything a leader should be: intelligent, compassionate, and, of course, capable of turning into a truck. It's been frustrating in recent years to see the Transformers become defined in this generation not by the charm and personality of the original cartoon but by the cacophonous stupidity and visual chaos of the Michael Bay films. I always hope that video games might be the one area where the Transformers can be redeemed. Alas, Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is not the game that redeems them.
Though it's developed by Edge of Reality, Rise of the Dark Spark's action is closely modeled on developer High Moon's games War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron. Narratively, however, where this game falls is completely unclear. In some ways, it seems to exist in the same universe as the cartoons, but on the other hand, the robot designs sometimes resemble those from the films, and there are plot details that refer to Michael Bay's latest opus, Transformers: Age of Extinction. The result is an incoherent story that feels like it was cobbled together from the spare parts of other stories.
The gameplay doesn't fare much better. High Moon's Cybertron games were mostly enjoyable shooting galleries, and there are times when Rise of the Dark Spark seems like it might manage to be the same. Playing as a variety of Autobots and Decepticons over the course of the game, you unleash hot robot death on countless enemy grunts. At its best moments, Rise of the Dark Spark is fun in the generic and familiar way that so many blandly competent shooters are fun--a pleasant enough way to pass the time if you have nothing else to do. There are a good variety of weapons for you to use, and although you rarely have much incentive to transform, it's nice to have the freedom to drive or fly away from enemies when the action heats up.
Unfortunately, although you move around with a feeling of appropriate heft for a sentient being constructed of strong and heavy metals, when you get swarmed by enemies, you go down so fast that you might as well be made of aluminum cans. It drains all the joy from being Optimus Prime to see him crumple almost immediately in response to enemy fire, and these poorly designed combat encounters make victory not a matter of playing defensively and using smart tactics but of just trying again and again and hoping this time it works out for you. Some sections go on for much too long, keeping you stuck in one spot fighting off waves of identical enemies when all you want to do is advance, and the game's maddening checkpoints regularly require you to replay lengthy sections of frustrating action when you fall in battle.Nobody told Cliffjumper that he's supposed to fall over when his health meter runs out.
In fact, Rise of the Dark Spark's entire campaign goes on for too long. By the time you come to the end of its 14 chapters, you'll have had enough of shooting robots to last you at least until the next three Transformers movies have been released. It doesn't help that the game is so unpleasant to look at and to listen to. The urban environments on Earth are so drab and simple that they look like the miniature set of a low-budget monster movie rather than a real city, and the sound design may drive you insane. In one level, I heard the Decepticons shout the line "Let's see what we got!" so many times that I decided it had to be part of a psychological warfare campaign meant to undermine the Autobots' morale.
Your progress is also hindered by the occasional bug, and I don't mean those pesky Insecticons. During one boss battle, I fully depleted my foe's health bar, but nothing happened. I had to let him kill me and restart the fight to advance. During another boss fight, I became completely stuck on the geometry and was helpless to defend myself against my enemy's attacks.
There are a few merciful moments of reprieve from the standard action, like one sequence in which, as Jetfire, you must fly your way out of a structure before a weapon goes off, and another in which you play as the massive dinobot Grimlock, who can unleash a constant stream of flame from his robotic jaws. This power trip feels like a reward for slogging through so much tedious and frustrating action, but it's too little, too late.No game with robot dinosaurs in it can be all bad, but Rise of the Dark Spark comes close.
There's also Escalation, a cooperative multiplayer mode in which you and up to three other players fight off waves of invading enemies, but one wave feels very much like another. There isn't enough variety to it to keep it interesting for long. The game tries to keep you hooked by doling out a constant stream of rewards for your progress in the form of weapon upgrades, experience point boosts, and other doodads, but the action is too shallow to make any of these rewards meaningful. The Transformers are a great property, one that seems like it should lend itself to the creation of great games, but Rise of the Dark Spark is so sloppy and incoherent that it feels more like a cheap knockoff than a proper Transformers game. Optimus Prime deserves better, and so do you.