Transformers: Devastation [official site] is a third-persion brawler’n’shooter from Platinum Games, they of Bayonetta fame, and concerns itself with Optimus Prime and a few Autobot chums kicking seven bells out of Megatron and his cronies. Heavily styled after the 80s cartoon and toys, is this empty nostalgia or a deft blend of past and present?
The little boy in me is overjoyed. The somewhat grown-up, discerning games-player in me is not unhappy either.
It’s hard to do Transformers well, isn’t it? We’re talking about something originally created to flog toys (great, great toys), and for some three decades has been yer actual transmedia property: games, films, comics, movies, party hats. Very little of this is really down to the simple act of big robots repeatedly hitting each other, but the problem is that’s what a game fundamentally needs to do. The joy of mastering a complicated toy transformation can’t be in there, while oodles of involved fiction is only going to terrify the casual nostalgic or robo-punching enthusiast. So, here it is: stripped back to the primary-coloured core, all the look and none of the lore, all the punching and none of the ponderousness. Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons. No more, no less.
Devastation looks lovely, very much living up to those trailers. The 80s animation aesthetic translates near-seamlessly to delightfully blocky 3D models, and even manages to mask what would otherwise be spartan and repetitive environments. It absolutely looks the part of the old Sunbow cartoon, only hyper-speed, more fluid, better animations, bigger explosions. Unfortunately some of the faces look a little off, like odd papercraft, and it’s too obvious when it switches out from real-time rendering to pre-rendered yet still in-engine cutscene, but these are passing irritations. It looks as good as Generation 1 gonks could possibly desire and I think pretty much as good as someone who just wants a pretty, stylised action game would want too. (I should note, however, that it’s resolution support is a bit limited – I couldn’t set it to my screen’s native 1440p, for instance, but 4K was an option, oddly).
It’s ridiculously fast too, happening at such breakneck speed that you simply wouldn’t have the chance to pore over it for visual dissatisfactions even if you wanted to. I’m the last person the framerate police would ever hire, but by God this is a game to be played at 60 fps or more – all those slices and thumps and blasts and wheel revs and hordes of Insecticons need the speed in order to attain the requisite jaw-grinding intensity and visual overload.
It’s fast in pace as well as technology. There are a few token attempts to inject plot, and these are split between aping the Really Big Thing Is Trying to Blow Up The Planet phoned-in stories of the Michael Bay movies and overt fan service, but they are the briefest of interruptions and never amount to more than Go There > Beat Up Deceptions. Yeah, part of this old nerd wants a proper Transformers story game, but I found War For/Fall Of Cybertron games too po-faced for their own good: I’d rather get on with the business of killing bad guys, and as such the killing of bad guys needs to be polished to a chrome sheen. Devastation is a rush, as dumb as the most superficial hair metal and all the more thrilling for it.
My great fear going into Devastation was that it would be beyond me, too deep down the Devil May Cry rabbit hole of crazily long combinations and picosecond-precise counterattacks. Yeah, that’s there if you want to max out difficulty, but playing on normal was a happy sweet spot of frenzied bashing and weaving in a few combos and special moves. It’s intense, but it’s not as overwhelming as the trailers might have suggested: most of the ridiculous attacks, like Bumblebee pulling mid-air donuts on Megatron’s prone form, essentially happen with a single button-press at the right time (and after the right other buttons are pressed) rather than require exhausting long strings.
Part of this is because there’s a way around learning all the combos. As you play, you pick up new weapons and credits, and if you’re willing to put the time into it there’s a basic, Diablo-esque crafting system whereby you can upgrade anything, as well as go shopping for new weapons and items. All that stat comparing and massaging is somewhat at odds with the pace of the game, and even a weapon upgraded multiple times over is no substitute for skill and practice, so I think some players will all but bypass it in favour of simply playing attentively and occasionally equipping the best new drop. Some will pursue both avenues of course, but I don’t think that’s necessary, apart from possibly at the highest difficulties. The point is that it’s flexible, and without simply chaining it to difficulty.
There’s a smattering of fan-iconic weapons in there, but you can also get Optimus Prime wielding an electronic hammer or Bumblebee lugging a sniper rifle around. It’s playful. Whatever you go for, it’s simple and quick to use, but you’ve got to pick up the rhythm, know when to dodge and learn how to fold Transformation into it. That too is effectively instant, and the game sets specific purposes for it rather than, as did the Cybertron game, simply throw large spaces at you sometimes. Some enemies have shields which can only be brought down with a full-speed ramming manoveuvre, and good luck dodging all of massive, six-become-one gestalt Devastator’s attacks if you remain on foot all the while. There’s a fair bit to learn, but it escalates sensibly and becomes second-nature surprisingly easily.
Devastation is a game that wants you to have a good time, you see. It rarely keeps you from action for long, and it’s not afraid to pit you against the Decepticons’ heaviest-hitters almost right from the start. Identikit drones – primarily blue and yellow versions of Runabout and Runamuck and an Insecticon clone army – do abound, but it’s rarely long before you’re up against a name villain, each with their own signature attack. Yes, Devastation is fan-service through and through, but it’s action fan-service, everything writ large, rather than meaningless cameos or dry exposition.
All that said, Devastation starts to feel oddly small fairly soon in. The environments repeat, the bosses reoccur, and, well, it feels exactly the same throughout. (The sole exception to that are some perhaps ill-advised, insta-fail jumping puzzles around the middle stretch of the game, but they don’t last long and it’s not stingy with the checkpoints.) Despite making all the right ‘we must stop Megatron from whatever his master plan is this time’ noises, there isn’t a huge sense that it’s going anywhere: you fight a few rooms full of drones, you fight a boss, you fight a few rooms full of drones, boss, drones, boss, drones, and then it’s over. There’s a price to be paid for the otherwise successful just-get-on-with-it ethos, I suppose.
To hesitantly get into that nebulous concept of ‘value’, I could sympathise with anyone who felt a bit short-changed by this as a full-price game. It’s the spirit of the thing that makes it, more or less making up for the short-ish length, relatively small cast and limited locales. It totally sucks that you don’t get to play as any of the Deceptions though, and the Autobot cast isn’t hugely inspiring either. Optimus Prime and Grimlock the Dinobot are a good time, but Sideswipe, Wheeljack and Bumblebee are fairly indistinguishable. I won’t be surprised if we get a legion of DLC carbots further down the line, but that won’t give Devastation the variety it needs for a long life.
Devastation’s too throwaway to be a game many of us will still be talking about beyond this month, but it’s a blast, and not simply on a guilty pleasure basis. As well as being the most unabashed Transformers fan-service games have given us yet, it’s also a slick, exciting, hyper-fast punchy-shooty game in its own right. It’s dumb as a box of Dinobots of course, but it’s not even trying to be otherwise – and that’s why its simple, colourful enthusiasm for robot-bashing is so infectious.
Transformers: Devastation is out now.