Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark Review
Might make you yearn for the days of Cybertron
As long as Activision has held the video game rights to the Transformers franchise, it has attempted to walk a thin line between the movie tie-in games and High Moon Studio’s Cybertron series, which told the story of the Transformers before they came to Earth. The movie tie-in games were, well, they were what one would expect, but the Cybertron series was one of the better adaptations for the franchise. For this latest entry, Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark, the studio tapped for the project was Edge of Reality, known more for their work on ports rather than their own titles. It was an unenviable task to follow in the footsteps of High Moon - while they work on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare ports - and continue Activision’s tight-rope act.
Edge of Reality attempts to placate fans of the Cybertron series (War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron) with a familiar control scheme and similar third-person cinematic gameplay. The game still hinges on shooting, transforming, and switching between characters, but while it is nice of the new developer to try and give players something akin to what made the Cybertron games so good, Edge of Reality comes up short more often than not.
Where the game really whiffs is in the technical department. Rise of the Dark Spark looks like a rushed product, filled with rough looking cutscenes and unpolished graphics. Even if you can get over the dated look of the game - it really feels like assets were re-used from the Cybertron games - the glitches will really get to you. A handful of times the game would freeze or objectives would disappear making you restart from the previous checkpoint. Frame rate drops occurred at multiple sections of the game, both in single and multiplayer. Dozens of times, in the middle of combat, the game will freeze for a quick five second load, which is painfully annoying. There are plenty of shortcomings in Rise of the Dark Spark, but these technical flaws are the icing on the cake.
Going beyond the technical missteps and looking into the gameplay, one can clearly see the influence of the Cybertron series. The game is made up of fourteen missions which switch between different Autobots and Decepticons. Each Transformer has their own weapon they start out with and special ability which is activated with the right-bumper. For instance Optimus Prime has a shield he can use to deflect attacks, Cliffjumper has a grapple to reach places you couldn’t jump to, and so on. The characters can also interact with the environment in different ways. Larger Transformers can pry open large doors, some can jump higher for more mobility. The variation between the Transformers isn’t vast, but it is appreciated. There are enough similarities to keep the gameplay familiar with a touch of change to keep you on your toes. The one problem with switching characters is that all player preferences are discarded mission to mission. If you have a gun you like or power-up equipped in one level for Optimus Prime, when you begin the next mission as Bumblebee all of your preferences will be reset.
The missions consist of traversing a setting and killing all of the enemies in your path. This is usually a mix of corridor shooting and open-area combat, but occasionally the game gives you flying missions featuring jet-based transformers like Starscream, which are the highlight of the level design. The best of this mix is a getaway mission, as you chart an escape flight through a facility about to explode. It is an exciting moment in the game, but fleeting. Usually you are simply shooting enemies and collecting the ammo and health they drop.
At its best, the missions of Dark Spark remind you a bit of the Cybertron games, but at its worst it is frustrating. Edge of Reality shoves odd difficulty spikes in the game, and while none of it is all that hard, any challenge presented feels artificial. This usually consists of throwing more enemies at the player than normal or forcing you to use the game’s inaccurate melee system. Almost all of the challenge can be averted by simply remaining in vehicle mode where you seem to be harder to hit and can deal more damage.
During missions, Rise of the Dark Spark will assign special challenges to you, usually relating to the specific skills of your current character. Destroying enemies and completing challenges can earn you experience. Through earning experience and leveling up, players earn gearboxes. Separated into iron, bronze, silver, and gold, these gearboxes give you new guns, characters for the multiplayer, and other bonuses. Unfortunately, the process of opening these gearboxes is lengthy and annoying. Pressing the same button over and over again to wade through a bunch of upgrades which are unexplained is a boring chore which feels like a commercial break, rather than a reward.
Through gearboxes you earn hacks, which can alter the difficulty of the game, change the drops you receive from fallen enemies, or make enemies explode. There are also tech upgrades which allow you to deploy shields, use combat drones, and recharge your health. Lastly there are weapon upgrades which modify your gun of choice. It is poorly explained - I didn’t notice the weapon upgrades until halfway through the game - and forces you to spend a lot of time in slow-moving menus. While it’s nice to see the game wants to offer a progression system, it gets in the way more often than it adds to the experience.
As one would imagine, there isn’t a lot of meat to the game’s narrative. Optimus spouts out cliché lines about freedom and bravery, the bad guys laugh maniacally, and I could never figure out what was going on. The story is a mash-up of the Cybertron games and the Michael Bay movies, as the power of the Dark Spark blends the two worlds. Part of it takes place as a prequel to War for Cybertron and the other part is a prequel for the new movie Age of Extinction. At least, I think that’s what was happening. Having played both games to completion and having seen all three movies, I was still never entirely sure where I was going and why I was going there. The game begins with the mercenary Lockdown getting the Dark Spark, then the narrative warps back in time to when the Decepticons met the Insecticons. It rarely makes sense, but Transformers has never been known for its great storytelling.
Rise of the Dark Spark continues to cannibalize the Cybertron series with its art style. Again, blending the movies and the games, the robots themselves are a mix between the classic look and Bay’s take on the franchise. Furthermore, the prequel section set on Cybertron pulls a lot of its influence from the High Moon games. Again, it's nice to see the previous games getting a nod from this new direction, but it is only an imitation, offering nothing new or interesting. Eventually the game shifts to Earth, which is being torn apart by the war for the Dark Spark, but it feels completely lifeless. You might not even recognize it as Earth at first because there aren’t any humans. The destruction of cities and fleeing populations might have made for an interesting setting, but instead Earth feels even more barren and lifeless than Cybertron. The setting isn’t the only lifeless part of the game. The enemy dialogue is repeated ad nauseum, making it unbearable halfway through the game, and the score consists of a couple tracks on a loop.
To top it all off, the multiplayer mode is tacked on and uninteresting. Named Escalation, the multiplayer component is horde mode with Transformers. Players fight off waves of enemies, which earns them currency to build and upgrade defenses around the map. Bonuses, weapons, and characters earned from single-player gearboxes can be used in multiplayer, but sorting through gearboxes takes a while and the limited selection of upgrades doesn’t make improving your character much fun.
Escalation offers a decent challenge, as the difficulty really ramps up between waves five and six. There’s not a lot of damage one can take and having enemies get the drop on you spells certain doom. You can revive your teammates, but it is almost impossible as you die so quickly while needing a long 15 seconds of ceasefire to complete the task. If your entire team is wiped out three times, it’s game over. All of this adds up to painfully long matches which average out to a half-hour. If someone gets bored - which they usually do - and drops from the match, it will take a few minutes to reset and will usually bump you back to the beginning of the last wave you completed. The lost progression and the lengthy sessions, are only made worse when the technical issues, like frame rate drops and latency, rear their ugly heads. Like the single player portion of the game, when Escalation is at its best, its dull, at its worst, it’s a technical mess.
There’s a laundry list of problems with Rise of the Dark Spark, and it is very hard to recommend this game to most players based on my experience with it. For those who have a strong affinity toward the Cybertron games, there is enough ripped from those titles to make this something you might enjoy. For everyone else, I would advise you to keep your distance from Rise of the Dark Spark. There’s really nothing interesting and creative to redeem its missteps, which might make you yearn for the days of Cybertron.