Wot I Think – Transformers: Devastation

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.

38 Comments

  1. The Sombrero Kid says:

    Ahh, this is a week of disappointments, i was really looking forward to this :(

  2. subedii says:

    Still waiting on another Transformers game from High Moon. In the meantime, a Platinum take on the franchise sounds like the next best thing I could have asked for.

    Also:

    It’s dumb as a box of Dinobots of course

    Cartoon or comic?

    • Jay Load says:

      No no no no, a thousand times no. Those High Moon games were barely adequate, tedious, clunky, brain-pap. Like eating Ryvita when you really want a Salted Caramel Cheesecake.

  3. Prolar Bear says:

    The screenies remind me of Metal Gear Rising Revengecengenfenceance quite a bit. Same devs, of course, but still.

    • JaguarWong says:

      Same dev and same director.

      Platinum aren’t shy of reusing engines and assets either so I wouldn’t be surprised of there was more than little MGR:R under the hood.

      Not even close to being a bad thing on my book.

      • cafeoh says:

        I think I’d buy a dozen reskins of Platinum games before even starting to get tired of it.

        Just finished the game a minute ago and I think this review sums it up perfectly. The fast-paced combat requires you to get in that specific animalistic twitch reflex state of mind where every button press has to be carefully planned and timed. I mean it’s classic Platinum, rewarding good placement, risk taking, style and rhythm, and I love it.

        The Transformers theme isn’t intrusive or bothering: you’re the good robots and you have to kill bad robots in order to advance and kill even more, and you keep at it until you’ve killed enough bad robots of different sizes and shapes for the conflict to ultimately resolves itself.
        I don’t care much for it at all and the scenario is pretty bare bones, so it’s not gonna be as memorable to me as previous Platinum games, but it’s colorful and cheery, so I’m fine with it.

        If you’ve never played a platinum game, go get Metal Gear Rising: Revenge (or any of the Bayonettas if you’ve got a Wii or Wii U). If/Once you have, unless you have a deep-seated hatred for the Transformers’ universe, this is more of the same, and it’s great.

  4. Det. Bullock says:

    Okay, I thought I got over the franchise when I was still a snotty eight years old know-it-all, but the graphics alone tempt me, I just love cel shaded 3D, I wish there were more games with that look.

  5. Bobsy says:

    So fighting genericons again? Disappointing.

    As a kid, one of the things that hooked me about Transformers was that the cast was so HUGE. I was very much into the old Marvel comics which outlasted the cartoon by several years and was contractually obliged to promote whatever new toy was out at the time. As such by the end the Autobot and Decepticon armies were massive, and there was never any need to have hordes of generic clone-o-bots to fill out the ranks.

    Which is a long-winded way for me to say: I want this game to have Thunderwing, Hot Rod, Scorponok, Thunderwing, Nightbeat, Needlenose, Spinister, Thunderwing and Thunderwing.

    • ExPostNinja says:

      Fighting a few genericons along the way, yes, but the game gets around that issue on a regular basis in a few ways – for one, the ground-based generics do look every part Runabout/Runamuck save color scheme. For another, the game makes use of the fact that swarms of Seekers are always a staple. Add in the Insecticons and numerous boss-ish fights that pit you against known foes, and it all comes together nicely.

    • Jac says:

      Not sure I can resist this but share your disappointment about the cast. Hopefully if this does well they can do a game that has every single original transformer in. Unless it’s a MOBA then i’d be sad. Although I’m actually surprised someone hasn’t announced one of those yet given how rich transformers is for characters.

      • WiggumEsquilax says:

        There actually was a Transformers MOBA, Transformers Universe. It existed only briefly, having never moved past Beta.

        link to rockpapershotgun.com

        No real reason was given for it’s cancellation. My guess is Hasbro lost faith in the idea of jumping into an already overflowing MOBA pool.

    • Jac says:

      P.S. you forgot unicron. And now I need to watch the transformers movie.

  6. Bobsy says:

    Also, the colouring on the bots in those screenshots reminds me less of the old Sunbow cartoon, more of the Dreamwave comics of last decade. So that’s a thing.

    • Jay Load says:

      I think the less said about the Dreamwave era of TF comics, the better, before we inadvertently summon the Demon Lee.

  7. GWOP says:

    Alright Platinum, now do Macross.

    • Assirra says:

      Platinum doing an actual mech game.
      Now that would be something amazing to behold. Think of zone of the enders times 10.

    • SomeDuder says:

      Yes, but original Macross please, none of that “SINGING AND DANCING CURES FOREVERWAR” bullcrap of the sequels.

      • Assirra says:

        Personally i find frontier the best of the bunch because it is not generic mech fights and actually does something different with the whole idol thing. Screw Macross 7 tough. Same song sung 3 times/episode.

  8. thekelvingreen says:

    By the golden spires of Iacon, I wanted this to be terrible so I would have an excuse not to buy it. Now I have no choice.

  9. Spacewalk says:

    So the combat isn’t just standing still, firing and missing all of your shots?

  10. crazyd says:

    I totally want a Platinum game where I sing cheesy J-Pop at baddies.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    In the trailer, a Deception says “I’m gonna beat you with your own Spark, Autobot!”

    SPARKS WERE NOT CANON IN ANY GENERATION 1 CONTINUITY AND WERE NOT CONCEIVED UNTIL THE 1996 BEAST WARS SERIES. WORST TRANSFORMERS GAME EVER.

    (This would probably be more convincing if I’d recognized the Decepticon in question. He’s the, uh…grey one?)

  12. Xzi says:

    I’ll consider buying it when it’s down to $20 or less. Bayonetta-like fighting mechanics coupled with nostalgia and cartoon-styled graphics sounds pretty fun, but there’s no way its worth release price if all thought of it is gone in a month.

  13. Premium User Badge

    -jj- says:

    All the great / fun / silly things mentioned in the review remind me so much of what I loved about Vanquish. Skilful but not overly tricky controls that felt better and better the more adept you became. Ridiculous story all part of the fun. A true guilty pleasure.

    Would be great to see that game on PC.

    Great review Alec.

  14. Dominic Tarason says:

    It’s worth noting that while the game is fairly short for a single playthrough, this is a Platinum game, and built to be replayed. Once you’ve beaten the game once you unlock a NG+ variant of the campaign with new fights and tougher enemy AI, and a special fifth difficulty above that which I don’t even know what it does. There’s 50 standalone challenge missions, some of which are very tough.

    If you’re aiming for S or SS rankings on everything? You’re going to be playing this a lot. If you consider a game done when the end credits roll, then it may seem stingy, but if you want to see everything you’re looking at three full playthroughs bare minimum.

    Also, once you’ve completed a chapter once, you can play through it all as any character you’ve unlocked. Want to be Grimlock the entire campaign? You can be, and he even has special dialogue for fights that he wouldn’t normally be at.

  15. SimianJim says:

    This review seems to tally up with the initial impressions I formed after following all the build-up. Amazing-looking game, and a huge draw for nostalgia, but I was concerned about it being a bit short and repetitive.

    I’m very excited to play it but £30 is a bit much and I’ll probably wait for a sale before I grab it.

  16. Kilometrik says:

    This review sucks. THey shouldn’t have put up a guy who doesn’t play a technical PLATINUM GAMES brawler up to the task. I left understanding nothing of the combat system except that it’s easy to pick up and play. That there are upgrades and that it exists. Wohooo.

    • Dominic Tarason says:

      It’s essentially a huge mash-up of Platinum’s previous combat engines. It feels like Metal Gear Rising at its core, and has the parries from it (as a purchasable move), but the main defensive technique is Bayonetta-esque Focus Time given for precise dodging. The ranged combat and vehicle movement mode also feels a lot like Vanquish, and the character powers/levelling up/equipment slotting stuff feels like Wonderful 101.

      Platinum only steal from the best, and by best, I mean themselves.

  17. jrusselld says:

    Just finished watching the trailer after reading the review and I’m still giddy.

    Am I the only one rooting for the Decepticons?
    Also, can you play as the baddies?