Transformers universes collide in Rise of the Dark Spark, a movie tie-in game that isn’t.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is kind of an oddity. On the one hand, it’s built around more or less the same game engine that High Moon Studios has used to such great effect in the first two Transformers: Cybertron games (two favorites of mine). It also uses many of the same characters, complete with the same looks for those characters and excellent voice work, and even throws in a few new bots to play as. On the other hand, it’s got scenes starring the Michael Bay-ified Transformers from the films. Yep.
So here’s where I get in trouble with this one; I love the Cybertron games. They’re fantastically well made, carefully detailed love letters to everything that is great about the brand and the deep (yes really- read the Marvel and now IDW comics) fiction that surrounds it. New developer Edge of Reality has thankfully stayed true to that vision, which is a great thing, but unfortunately the parts with the movie universe characters bring the whole experience down. Well, a bit anyway. But you might be asking just how it is that two very different variations on the same theme could even be paired together in the same game. Well…
Things start out on Earth in RotDS, within the movie universe. Something called the Dark Spark comes crashing down to the blue planet, right in the middle of a big human city. With all the humans evacuated… somehow (it would have been really interesting if they weren’t), the Autobots move in to investigate and find that a Cybertronian bounty hunter named Lockdown (from the new film) has traced the arcane item and is attempting to steal it. The Dark Spark is like an anti-Matrix of Leadership and can influence space-time and bend the will of others to do the owners bidding. Nasty little thing.
Without blowing how things go there (I hate spoilers), cue the Cybertron universe. We rejoin Prime and the Autobots (you know, the ones that you actually like) in the midst of the civil war on their home world. This section thankfully makes up the bulk of the game and takes place before Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, meaning that the war still rages and the Autobots have not evacuated their world yet. Quite frankly, it’s a ton of fun.
The truth is that the Cybertron parts of this game are almost as much fun as the High Moon titles. No, the settings aren’t quite as imaginative as in those games, but the characters are just as great as ever and the story is surprisingly solid. Megatron and the Decepticons have discovered the Dark Spark deep within the planet and are working to take it from its vault. It’s almost completely unclear whether this is supposed to be taking place in the past of the movie universe, or in another reality, but I’m leaning towards the latter. There’s some super-cool little nods to Transformers fiction here as well, with mentions of Unicron and Galvatron, which I thought was interesting. You’ll also get to play as an Insecticon at one point, which was neat too.
Speaking of; play control for both eras is on the mark and will be instantly familiar for anyone who’s played either of the Cybertron games. You have a mess of different weapons to choose from, all of which are unlocked through play and accessible via in-mission storage lockers. Once again, you’ll recognize all of them as being from the Cybertron series. You’ll also gain access to modifiers that have different effects like the ever-popular exploding headshots, and power-ups that can change the game by making enemies cough up more health, give you more ammo, etc…
Graphically, RotDS is a mixed bag in the truest sense of the word. The Cybertron sections, while feeling very familiar and looking decidedly last-gen (which isn’t that bad to be honest), are well put together for the most part. All the characters look great too and will instantly bring you back to whatever Generation 1 Transformers you remember best, whether it’s the original cartoon, the aforementioned comics, or the game series. No, this isn’t cutting edge, new generation stuff, but it’s decent enough and hey- it’s fun.
The movie Transformers sections on the other hand… well, not so much. The city and rural areas that you’ll play through are all fairly boring and uninspired and the enemies are dull as can be. Also, in an oddball twist, although the weapons stay the same as in the Cybertronian sections, the rest of the tech is decidedly cruder. Case in point- when Cliffjumper uses his grapple on Cybertron, it’s a tractor beam. When Bumblebee (the same make of Autobot) uses the same technique on Earth, it’s a cable and hook. It doesn’t affect gameplay at all, it’s just odd and one of those inconsistencies that you could only get by mish-mashing two differing lore’s.
The voice acting and scripting is very good to great on Cybertron too, with bickering Decepticons and Autobots talking about the end of the world (meaning Cybertron), but on Earth it’s not nearly as good. Not counting the still horrible choice of having Bumblebee sound like a washing machine full of marbles, most of the voices are still solid (especially the inimitable Peter Cullen as Prime), but everyone else falls flat, including newcomer Drift. And the constant repeating of the same lines over and over (and over) again by the Cybertronian mercs will make you want to shut off the audio ASAP (Let’s see what we’ve got!!).
Other than the main game(s), there’s also an Escalation mode, which tasks players with working together to repeal waves of baddies and boss characters. You’ll start out having only the Prime body-type to play as here and accumulate more ‘bots as you play through the game and rise in rank.It’s nothing groundbreaking, but is a cool little extra that adds a good deal of replayability, just don’t expect anything ground-breaking.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is really two different games in one and that’s a shame. The movie-based Transformers parts are almost completely forgettable and could easily have been left out. But with the movie releasing in theaters, a movie tie-in was obviously in the cards, so they were tacked onto what’s otherwise a decent game.
I’m honestly not even sure if the two time periods are meant to be taking place in the same universe. As I said above, the tech levels are off and the characters look completely different, which makes no sense at all in the case of characters that haven’t been in the movies (or on Earth) prior, like Lockdown and his men. There’s another scene at the end that kind of lends thought to the fact that this is meant to be taking place in different parts of a multiverse though, so that might just be the case. You’ll see what I mean, and when you do you’ll want to play that game immediately.
In the end, the graphics aren’t next-gen by any stretch and there are some annoyances throughout, but if you can take the Earth-based missions (of which there are a merciful few), you’ll definitely find more than a bit of fun in Rise of the Dark Spark’s Cybertron segments.