Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark - Review

http://invisiblekidreviews.blogspot.de/2014/07/transformers-rise-of-dark-spark-review.html

High Moon Studios set the foundation of today's Transformers games by releasing the two successful games War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron, which were mostly oriented on the beloved original 80s cartoon series.
Now, with Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark, developer Edge of Reality takes on the franchise by combining the two universes of the cartoon series with the Michael Bay universe. Although quite interesting in theory, Rise of the Dark Spark might as well just be another title for a movie licensed Transformers 4 video game...and we know how movie licensed games usually turn out.
Nevertheless, if this mix of the old and new Transformers universes takes advantage of its potential, Rise of the Dark Spark might just top what High Moon Studios started...


Story

The plot:
The game begins in the film continuity with a mysterious purple meteor crashing into Earth. The Autobots reach the crash site and Optimus sees an ancient Cybertronian relic called the Dark Spark, the antithesis to the Matrix of Leadership. Whereas the Matrix grants wisdom, the Dark Spark gives the user the power to bend the universe and its inhabitants to their own will. The Autobots clear out the mercenaries defending the relic, but fail to stop the bounty hunter Lockdown from escaping with the relic. The perspective changes to Cybertron, where Megatron and Optimus give explanations to their factions' current state: the Autobots face their darkest hour, but its the opposite for the Decepticons.
(source: Wikipedia)


Dark Spark's story is set somewhere between the events of War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron, connecting the two previous High Moon Studios games. Despite this, Dark Spark's story pulls obvious inspirations from both the High Moon Studios games as well as the Transformers from the Michael Bay universe. Therefore, right from the start, it gets clear that the movie wants to combine both universes in its storyline, which unfortunately only works in a very limited extent.

Dark Spark's story unsurprisingly completely revolves around the alien artifact "Dark Spark". Granting its owner great power that might cause worlds to fall apart through war, its critical for the Autobots to get the Dark Spark back when Lockdown and/or Megatron come into its possession.
With that said, Dark Sparks story mainly takes place in two different worlds: Earth and the alien worlds surrounding Cybertron. Whereas missions taking place on Earth obviously represent the Michael Bay universe and mostly center around the Transformers and storylines from the new Transformers 4 movie, missions taking place on the alien worlds boast mostly the same old-school Transformers look from the High Moon Studios games.
Dark Spark's story is told through various perspectives and times. Accordingly, in some missions you are controlling Autobots whereas in others you control the Decepticons. And while this does positively affect the variety in terms of gameplay and experiencing the story, the storytelling itself is extremely roughly handeled.

Bad guy takes stone - Take it back.

Very often during the already extremely straight-forward and very simple story, it becomes hard for the player to follow the game's narrative, which does a poor job in actually connecting the happenings of the past (alien world missions) with the future (Earth missions). Players will frequently get confused about why an Earth mission unexplicably and suddenly shifts from one location to another.
The simple "stop the bad guy"-story or stories therefore don't combine very well, making the Earth missions and the Cybertron missions feel like two different games or at least two different stories being told simultaneously. They end up rather co-existing in one game than actually blending together. The intention of said combination gets obvious but it's just too poorly executed to make the entire experience feel like one big story.
What sadly makes it even worse is the fact that the sudden shifts in the story from one location or one perspective to another tend to get so confusing, that the player is often tempted to simply skip the cutscenes to go right to the mission to make sense of the (already simple) story later.

Additionally, Dark Spark lacks a distinct certain theme except for the hunt for the Dark Spark. Gone is the feel of upcoming doom and apocalypse like in War for Cybertron or Fall of Cybertron. It only emphasizes that the game's probable main intention was to make a Transformers game in time for the release Michael Bay's fourth Transformers movie.

"Oh boy, what a mess."


Gameplay
 

Core Gameplay & Campaign - "Drive-thru"

Just like in the previous High Moon Studios games, Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is all about straight-forward third-person-shooting. Not really anything more.
Despite this limitation regarding its gameplay, it only emphasizes how important good level design and an exciting atmosphere and story are for a Transformers game. Sadly though, Dark Spark doesn't hold up well in either category.

Dark Spark's shooting mechancis are straight-forward and simple. Though there is no regenerating health, which makes health packs a necessity and gives the game a nice old-school edge, the dull level design of Dark Spark's missions sadly very obviously stick out and make pretty much each and every mission of the game feel like a long and monotone shooting gallery.
Short platforming sections taking advantage of some Transformers' grappling hooks don't help much either. Every encounter with enemies, who vary from smaller to larger ones, at a certain point feel very much like a boring grind throughout the course of the campaign.
Even boss battles with iconic Transformers like Ironhide or Megatron fall criminally flat. Their battle strategies turn out incredibly uninspired and redundant making the player most probably easily beat every boss at the first try. What's truely sad is that not only are the boss battles themselves uninspired and redundant shoot-outs, but they are just so badly built up to, that they feel incredibly anti-climactic. Especially when Optimus Prime is about to face off against his arch-nemesis Megatron, it's a battle which lasts no longer than maybe 2 or 3 minutes.

How did robot blasting become so boring so quickly?
  
In addition to the game's pretty poor enemy A.I., the tedious grind through the game is not really a grind because of the game's difficulty but rather through the boredom that one has to endure through the game's endless waves of enemies.
What reduces the game's already low difficulty to almost zero is the fact that cars or vehicles in the game (meaning Transformers in their vehicle form) are ridiculously overpowered. Almost every vehicle in the game owns a very effective rocket launcher with a very high ammo rate, which kills as good as every enemy in one hit. Some of the vehicles additionally even have a target lock-on, making it even easier!
Switching between your robot form and your vehicle form in Transformers is an aspect that is absolutely essential for the gameplay and should be fun to use. Yet in Dark Spark, the vehicle form's weapons turn out to be so superior compared to your standard robot form weapons that driving through Cybertron facility corridors as a large truck pretty much became the norm in Dark Spark. Of course the developers most probably didn't intend the player to play almost the entire game in vehicle form, but players will quickly get to the thought that "if the vehicle form is that much more powerful than my robot form...why should I make the game intentionally harder for myself?".
A good balance between the powers of the robot form and vehicle form is not given in Dark Spark. Vehicle-form-weapons ridiculously outperform robot-form-weapons and resultingly render the robot form only necessary when you are forced to jump from one platform to another (...only to later transform back into the vehicle form again).
Lastly, why all of the cars in Dark Spark control very clunky and noticably lack enough speed to make driving actually fun, remains a mystery.

While the campaign's missions on the alien worlds around Cybertron are definitely the more visually appealing missions at first, the quality of the Cybertron levels quickly tends to go downhill when the game frequently starts to put you into seemingly endless and very similar looking metal corridors and halls underlining the monotony.
Earth missions are fairly few and as already mentioned focus on the Bay Transformers (most notably the ones from the new movie). Despite boasting a resultingly more updated look than the old-school universe from the Cybertron missions, gameplay-wise there are pretty much no changes in the formula.

Why be a robot with an assault rifle, when you can be a tank with missiles?


Weapons, Upgrades and Hacks - "What's in the booox?!"

Following the foundations laid out by the High Moon Studios Transformers games, Dark Spark also has a weapon upgrade feature, which is accompanied by the ability to use hacks.

Dark Spark has a big respectable variety of weapons to find and equip. Seperated into primary and secondary weapons. Though every one of the several futuristic weapons has its use and represents categories like the shotgun, the assault rifle, the rocket launcher, etc. it's a bit hard to distinguish the weapons from one another simply from their looks. Luckily their name's mostly indicate their use like "Photon Burst Rifle".
All of the weapons also can be upgraded regarding their stats. Though the upgrade possibilities of the weapons are very limited (a maximum of 5 upgrades per weapon), you'll find plenty of upgrades frequently throughout the game.
Another customization option comes in the form of hacks. Hacks are nothing to fancy and come down to being simply another form of perks that can be selected for your Transformer loadout. While some hacks include an activatable health regeneration or bonus XP points, others function on a "give-and-take"-basis (for example: your weapons do more damage, but enemies have more health).

Upgrades, new weapons and hacks are unlocked throughout the campaign by accomplishing specific challenges an therefore earning "gear boxes". The challenges in Dark Spark turn out to be so plentyful that earning gear boxes (of different values) becomes an afterthought (just as upgrading itself). Gear boxes as a means for earned upgrades function fairly well though with the biggest award by far being the unlocked Transformers to use. Through earning gear boxes the player can unlock several of the 40+ Transformers to use in the game's multiplayer component called Escalation.
For all of Dark Spark's downsides, its great roster of over 40 different Transformers to unlock and play as in the multiplayer, is a big plus.
 
Hacked and loaded.


Multiplayer
 

Dark Spark's online multiplayer component, much like its core gameplay is very straight-forward and called Escalation.
Escalation resembles pretty much the widely known Horde Mode. Also playable in Co-Op, in Escalation the players pick their factions, Autobots or Decepticons, and can choose from any of their unlocked Transformers characters to use. The players accordingly have to defend against waves of enemies and achieve new gear and upgrades.
Escalation is without any doubt the best part of Dark Spark. Not only because you are now playing with real human players but also because all of the unlocked gear and characters only now come to use. From Optimus over Lockdown to Grimlock, there are several great and iconic Transformers to use in Escalation, with some of them even being present as the Bay-Movie-version as well as their original 80s Cartoon look.
Escalation is very straight-forward and simple yet also offers quite some fun time in its own right.
Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that there is only one Dinobot and one Insecticon to select.
What remains to be said is that Escalation is for some reason not available on the Wii U and 3DS versions of the game.

Escalation - one of the few bright spots.


Graphics
 

Despite also being available on the PS4 and Xbox One, Dark Spark is far away from looking like it's truely next-gen.
Character models of the Bay versions as well as the classic versions of the Transformers look nice and metal surfaces on Cybertron look futuristic and shiny, yet the environments, explosions, animations and effects are anything but great. Trees, civilian cars and buildings mostly look very copy-and-paste and further emphasize the monotone pace of the campaign. Though the alien worlds offer some hints of variety by occasionally putting you into a huge junk yard or canyon environment, those are rarities in comparison to the overwhelmingly present missions inside metal halls and corridors of Cybertron.
Additionally, the Earth levels taking place in human cities feel nothing like Earth at all. At best, Earth levels feel like they are taking place after a great apocalypse that eradicated every human being. There are no human civilians running around anywhere and there are simply no hints at human life at all. One really has to scratch his head when Optimus Prime starts mentioning the protection of humans in the game's end credits when you didn't even see a single one anywhere.

Dark Spark's visuals are not entirely horrible but remain almost entirely in the realm of what was considered the minimum standard during the last-gen of consoles. Therefore, both the last-gen as well as next-gen versions of Dark Spark largely look identical. 


Sound
 

Soundwise, Dark Spark's sound design offers nothing to amazing but the standard fare. Weapon sounds, though not amazing, serve their purpose well and voice acting is solidly done throughout the campaign.
While some character's voices are oriented on the Bay-movie-versions, others, mostly the one's present in the Cybertron missions, are given fittingly cheesy lines here and there with the appropriate performances like in the 80s cartoons.
Nothing too special but also nothing too much to complain about here.     

Character models look very nice. Everything else...not so much.


The Verdict

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark presents itself as a hybrid that wants to combine the Transformers universe set up by the previous High Moon Studios games with the Michael Bay movie universe. Yet through the obvious lack of sheer quality, it gets extremely obvious that Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is not a standalone Transformers game but rather a movie licensed Transformers game in disguise.
Though the core shooting mechanics of Dark Spark mostly function just like the High Moon Studios games, everything else quickly shows to be quite something of a mess.
Dark Spark's two storylines set on Earth and Cybertron only badly blend together into one consistent narrative, making the story hard to follow for the player and the story's shifts between perspectives and locations hard to understand.
Furthermore, making the already pretty monotone and very easy campaign even more of a breeze-through, is the fact that the Transformers' vehicle forms are greatly overpowered. This pretty much breaks the balance between the robot- and vehicle forms, which makes transforming itself mostly useless. A crime in a game called TRANSFORMERS!
All the negatives aside, the Escalation multiplayer mode serves as the undoubtedly best part of the entire game. Though the mode itself is fairly barebones, it's the huge selection of over 40 unlockable and playable different Transformers that elevates Dark Spark's multiplayer above anything else the game has to offer.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is a movie licensed game in disguise that shows that it probably had to be rushed out in time for Michael Bay's Transformer's 4 movie release, resulting in its overall poor quality. Despite the game's monotone campaign, hardcore Transformers fans might get enough of a kick out of Dark Spark's multiplayer. Yet even then, Transformers fans are far better off playing the much better previous two High Moon Studios games, War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron.

          
  
 Final Verdict: 4 out of 10 

Status: Poor




Big thanks goes out to Activision and BiteGlobal for providing us with a review copy of the game.

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