It's weird to think that Michael Bay somehow managed to wring three movies out of the Transformers franchise. I'm actually suppressing a gag reflex whenever I admit that I'm mildly intrigued at how the third movie, Dark of the Moon, is going to turn out. What's even weirder is that the games coming out of this sudden "Transformers Renaissance" haven't been terrible -- in fact, a couple of the console titles have been pretty good.
And I'll give credit where credit's due. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen genuinely surprised me with its addictive multiplayer, while Transformers: War for Cybertron showed that the franchise could even produce an excellent game without a feature film backing it up. However, those two titles might be the high point of the current era in Transformers video games, as Dark of the Moon -- while fun -- doesn't measure up.
Sitting at just under 10 hours, Dark of the Moon takes place before the actual film, as the Decepticons try to regroup after the shellacking they took in Revenge of the Fallen. Throughout the main campaign, you'll play as both Autobots (the good guys) and the Decepticons (the bad guys), with each level focusing on a certain character. Each one plays differently enough to keep the run-and-gun missions from getting too repetitive, and the roster packs plenty of the core fan favourites: Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, of course), Bumblebee, Starscream, Megatron, Soundwave, Ironhide, and a few other robots that pop up in certain scenarios and boss battles.
Dark of the Moon does plenty right, and the team at High Moon Studios deserves credit for trying to make the actual "transforming" mechanic such an active part of the gameplay. In this game, each Transformer can enter a "Stealth Force" mode that's essentially a bridge between car and robot. Instead of completely sacrificing weapons for quick four-wheel drive speed, you now have the option to strafe enemies in a pseudo-vehicle mode while firing your secondary weaponry.
However, the only problem with Stealth Force is that it doesn't really control that well. Moving around in robot mode is painfully slow, so you'll often switch to vehicle mode to make up ground. Also, vehicle mode and Stealth Force give you a defensive boost, since your armoured plating is covering your robots vitals. But whenever I switch to Stealth Force mode, I usually can't manage driving in anything but a wide, strafing circle. In either vehicle form, there's barely any traction on my robot's wheels, to boot.
More often than not, the levels usually offer up narrow passageways without much running room, which makes the mode even less practical for heated battles against groups of enemies. In flight, it's a different story -- Starscream's missions are all about milking his jet fighter vehicle mode for all it's worth. But even the airborne battles suffer a bit due to awkward controls.
Control issues aside, Dark of the Moon still looks decent in the graphics department. Each Transformer has the right amount of detail in both design and animation, but the generic looking areas in many levels don't benefit as much. In multiplayer, the animation quality takes a noticeable dive, especially in full 5-on-5 games. Melee attacks become jilted and difficult to aim, and grenades will glitch-teleport to where you throw them, rather than animating an arc of trajectory.
It may seem like nitpicking, but it's definitely a noticeable quirk. Until you finish levelling up in the day or two it'll take to acquire all the upgrades, multiplayer is still enjoyable, even with the limited match types. It would have been nice to get a little more variety than deathmatch, team deathmatch, and a zone defence variant, plus the five maps will get tiresome quickly.
To me, Dark of the Moon just seems too much like a basic shooter — playing it actually makes me want to go back to multiplayer matches in Revenge of the Fallen, where I could climb buildings like a giant gun-toting robot monkey. But with this game, you're very much stuck in a grounded "Gears of War" perspective, and the freedom of movement in the open maps suffers noticeably for it.