Extinguishing the spark

Back in 2010, High Moon Studios did the unthinkable: They delivered an awesome Transformers videogame. Many thought it couldn’t be done, and yet High Moon not only delivered a great game in War for Cybertron but also a solid sequel with Fall of Cybertron. They even developed some decent standalone movie titles in between.

When Activision tapped Edge of Reality to work on the next Transformers game instead, to say there was a little trepidation among fans of the Robots in Disguise would be an understatement. Unfortunately, those fears were justified.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark tries to marry the original storyline created by High Moon Studios with the abominable canon that Michael Bay’s movies have provided, producing a horrendous patchwork plot. Half the game takes place in a flashback between War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron to provide the origin of the Dark Spark, a relic of unfathomable power that Megatron wants so he can turn the Autobots permanently into rust. The Autobots catch wind of this, however, so they take a break from building the Ark, the ship that will eventually take them to Earth, to put a stop to the Decepticons’ plans.

Moving back to the present day, as with everything that comes off Cybertron, the Dark Spark finds its way to Earth (no spoilers!). Lockdown, a Cybertronian mercenary who plays an integral role in the Age of Extinction movie, arrives hot on its trail and will fight Optimus Prime and company to own its power for himself.

As soon as the game gets to Earth, everything takes a sour turn. The quality of the levels there pale in comparison to those that take place on Cybertron. While repetitive design plagues most of the game’s chapters, it becomes far more evident in the Earth levels when you run around through the same bland-looking open urban environments over and over again—as opposed to the visually interesting segments you play through on Cybertron, such as Megatron’s main base, Kaon, with crumbling bridges on its approach and the prison in its underbelly, or the ancient Cybertronian ruins surrounded by a lava lake and the red desert you need to work your way across upon your exit.

The story also jumps over a cliff once you hit Earth. Lockdown’s motivations make no sense for the character, whether you’re familiar with him from his G1 story, or if you’ve been unfortunate enough to watch Age of Extinction and you’re using the game as it was intended—to learn why Lockdown came to Earth—since these provide direct contradictions to each other. Grimlock also shows up, for no rhyme or reason, and the worst part is he has the design from Age of Extinction, which makes him look more like Dinobot from Beast Wars and not the colorful tribute to the action figures and cartoons High Moon crafted in Fall of Cybertron.

If Rise of the Dark Spark had just been an interquel between High Moon’s two original games and the Earth levels and forced tie-ins to Age of Extinction weren’t included, this could’ve been a salvageable project. That’s because a few of Edge of Reality’s design decisions do have some potential. For example, they simply took the core mechanics from High Moon’s games and copied them over. From a third-person-shooter standpoint, the gameplay feels like it’s been lifted straight from Fall of Cybertron. Transforming from robot to vehicle is just as smooth as in the previous games, meaning that veterans of the more recent Transformers games will feel right at home.

On top of this, the game features a new leveling system where you earn XP from kills or completing challenges. By finishing each challenge or reaching a new XP perch, you can earn Gearboxes, which can then be opened up for characters to use in Escalation or items to be used in the campaign.

Besides the shoddy level design and weak plot, Rise of the Dark Spark also includes technical shortcomings galore. Glitches see your characters get stuck in walls or enemies melt through floors at least once per level. Mid-stage loading screens take place in the middle of a firefight countless times, decimating the game’s pacing. Of course, your friendly AI is also completely useless, which causes you to restart several sections. One particularly frustrating instance came as I was playing Drift and had Bumblebee by my side as an AI. We had to race away from a pursuing Titan mercenary and instead, Bumblebee drove toward the indestructible foe, instantly dying, and causing me to restart from the last checkpoint.

Speaking of the robots that join you on missions, the most mind-boggling decisions about Rise of the Dark Spark come from the lack of choice the game gives you. If there are multiple Transformers on each level, why not bring back the ability to choose which Transformer you play, like War for Cybertron did, or at least give us campaign co-op?

Instead of campaign co-op, though, all we get back is Escalation. This is the returning Transformers take on Horde mode, with 15 levels of enemies coming after you and three friends. While it’s still a solid take on the mode, I wish there had been a local option, and I miss Fall of Cybertron’s ability to customize my own Autobots and Decepticons. Along with this, all of competitive multiplayer has been sent to the scrap heap, too.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark feels like half of a good game. At times, the magic from High Moon’s efforts is captured here by Edge of Reality, but these moments are few and far between. You can’t help but feel that the forced bridge between High Moon’s series and Michael Bay’s movies rushed the project, leading to the obvious design mistakes. When you consider how many features have been cut on top of all that, Rise of the Dark Spark is nothing short of a throwback to when Transformers games were awful. In the end, this fails to deliver the type of game that fans have come to expect.

Developer: Edge of Reality • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 06.24.14
Some solid action can’t cover up the fact that Rise of the Dark Spark feels horribly rushed, with massive splotches of shoddy design and a poor plot evident from the opening cinematic to the end credits.
The Good Action feels as good as it did in High Moon’s games; new leveling-up system.
The Bad Lazy, incoherent storytelling; boring level design; no competitive multiplayer.
The Ugly Grimlock’s movie design being used instead of High Moon’s.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review.