Transformers: Dark of the Moon Hands-On Preview

UPDATE: This article incorrectly identified one of the game mechanics relating to weapons players get to use in Dark of the Moon. We said that secondary weapons get charged up by defeating enemies, but really, it’s secondary special abilities that need to be recharged after use through combat.

Transformers: War for Cybertron was a bit of a breath of fresh air.

High Moon Studios found a way to build on the film-based Transformers framework being constructed in Michael Bay’s films, while maintaining service to Transformers fans, creating an original story and putting together a solid third-person shooter experience. Regardless of how you feel about the films, hopes have been high that High Moon’s treatment of the third Transformers movie would be as solid as its first effort in the franchise, while adding some improvements.

I got a chance to play through the first two levels of Transformers: Dark of the Moon at an Activision E3 preview event this week, and I’m happy to say that it seems High Moon has gotten it right once again. Players who enjoyed War for Cybertron can expect more of the same, but players who weren’t really into War for Cybertron are also getting more of the same.

From a story standpoint, Dark of the Moon doesn’t follow the plot of the upcoming film; instead, it plays prequel to the movie, giving back story to the events of the film and filling in part of the two-year gap between Dark of the Moon and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. High Moon Senior Artist Damon Wilson-Hart told me the studio looked maintain “the same ethos” as what was found in War for Cybertron, and so the controls are similar, along with the graphical style and gameplay setup. However, gone are the dual campaigns of Autobots and Decepticons; instead, players will switch between the two factions during the course of the story as the script dictates, but without a choice in which Transformer they control or when. Wilson-Hart also said High Moon had worked with vehicle manufacturers to license the images of the cars the Transformers emulate when they change, giving the game a little more of a “true to the franchise” vibe.

The first stage takes place in South America, immediately introducing the players to Autobot mainstay Bumblebee and his Camero vehicle form. The level plays fairly straightforward, consisting of numerous corridors that lead through a canyon to a small town, with Decepticons popping up along the way to get gunned down. Unlike War for Cybertron, you’re locked into playing with Bumblebee in this first stage, and in fact there won’t be character choices along the way; as Wilson-Hart explained it, each stage is built around the capabilities and abilities of the character it involves.

Each of the Transformer characters carries a standard weapon, generally a primary machine gun. Depending on the character, the shoulder buttons can access alternate weapons or abilities; on Bumblebee, the left shoulder access a high-powered melee move, and on the right, he can ping the immediate area to bring up all the locations of enemy troops.

The guns and abilities you have at the start are your complement for the duration of the stage, though — unlike War for Cybertron, the Earth setting of Dark of the Moon leaves the Transformers without items and weapons they’ll find as pickups along the way. Ammo for guns recharges over time for defeating enemies. It’s infinite in your primary weapon (although divided into clips requiring a reload, so you can’t fire away with impunity). Special abilities, unique to each Transformer, get charged up as you defeat enemies and gather Energon shards from their disintegrating corpses. Once they’re used up, they require more Energon shards to recharge. You also get a stack of grenades that can be chucked using one of the face buttons, and a melee attack tied to R3.

Switching to the vehicle form is just as easy as it was in Cybertron, with the default button for switching being L3. Transformers in their robot forms move slowly but are generally better fighters, but getting around and covering distances is better handled in vehicle form. Players also get access to a pair of weapons in vehicle mode, and a weapons-lock function that makes targeting easier. Switching to vehicle form automatically replenishes ammo; health regenerates when you can spend enough time free of enemy fire.

Bumblebee is built for speed, so much of the South American level was about quickly closing the gap on enemies or dodging their fire, while getting in close to melee them into scrap. Still, there wasn’t a lot of cover, and getting pummeled by incoming Decepticon fire made moving through the level a little bit tough. Holding back and shooting enemies from afar was sometimes the only effective way to avoid getting scrapped.

The rest of the level was more of the same: blast Decepticons, move forward. Eventually, Bumblebee found himself in the town square, having to disable a Decepticon transmitter by clearing the way to it and interacting with it. Not long after that, he was joined by Optimus Prime to fight through the last of the stage.

In the second level, set in a ruined Detroit where Autobots and Decepticons were in open conflict, the player took on the role of Autobot Ironhide. More of a heavy weapons expert and built for battle rather than speed like Bumblebee, and as such carried a secondary weapon called Heavy Iron that fired stronger ammunition. In place of Bumblebee’s enemy pinging ability, Ironhide gets a “grenade bloom” ability that sends heat-seeking explosives out to chase down Decepticons.

Destroyed Detroit was cool to see, but the first two levels didn’t offer much in the way of features that would waylay the concerns and criticisms players had with War for Cybertron. What I saw of Dark of the Moon still has a tendency to plod along and confine players to corridors filled with enemies, moving from battle to battle. Those enemies get changed up occasionally — a big one will come storming through a wall, firing missiles your way, or small ones will charge you and require some melee stomps to take out — but for the most part, the AI handles in much the same way it did before; strafe sideways or stand still and unload on the player until one of the two dies.

War for Cybertron really shined in its boss fights, however, and I didn’t get a chance to see any of those in the time I spent with the game. While the early stages did seem a little run-of-the-mill, I have to emphasize that they were early, and mostly tutorial-laden. It’s possible the first two levels really aren’t indicative of the rest of the game. Wilson-Hart wouldn’t talk about multiplayer for the game during the event, except to say that there would be some kind of multiplayer mode. All of the levels included some kind of scoring system in which points were awarded from kills, but just what those points relate to (I was told they were part of the single-player game but not carried over to leaderboards) wasn’t very clear — they might just be for the player’s own satisfaction and for earning Achievements and Trophies.

Dark of the Moon looks great and maintains a lot of the strengths of the previous incarnation. It’s still a very solid, competent third-person shooter and a strong entry into the Transformers franchise, from what I’ve seen so far. But from what I’ve seen so far, it still doesn’t carry the “wow” factor to set it apart from others in the genre. Good, not great; hopefully seeing more of the game will change that opinion, though.

Want to be the best a robot can be (i.e., pretty awesome)? Check out our Transformers: Dark of the Moon Walkthrough!

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2 Comments on Transformers: Dark of the Moon Hands-On Preview

VodkaChill

On May 19, 2011 at 7:54 am

Im releived to hear good news. They had the control on the time frame of War for Cybertron, so they had time to polish it well. I tought that the studio was given the impossible job to do a movie tie-in with very short dead-line. I’m happy that the result seems above average tie-in movies.

High Moon’s team able to deliver under these circumstances. Kudos to them.

Carroll Golie

On December 4, 2011 at 2:52 am

Not all states have helmet laws. In my state, I never see people ride without a helmet. I’m sure my bike is above the noise pollution laws. But now people don’t run me off the road because they can actually hear me. Why not complain about the sport bikes who rider between cars at 150mph?