If you know me – or have read my articles for a while – you’ll know that I’m a huge Transformers fan. I’ve been a fan ever since they first blew my seven year old mind back in 1984 (and then destroyed me in 1986). They’ve been undergoing quite the renaissance recently, what with the terrible Michael Bay movies finally being rebooted with the excellent, 80s-set Bumblebee and some fantastic animated series under their Energon-laced belts too. Not only that, but IDW Publishing have been responsible for publishing quite possibly the finest long-form Transformers stories in existence, with their two now-completed comic book series (Robots in Disguise and More Than Meets The Eye) bringing unexpected layers of social and political commentary to our warring shape-changers. That’s without even mentioning the brilliant High Moon video games, with the best of the three they developed – Fall of Cybertron – being one of my favourite third person shooter games ever.
Yet most of the above – animated shows and perhaps the Bumblebee movie aside – are aimed at mature audiences. There’s not been much for younger fans to sink their teeth into, until now. Transformers: Battlegrounds – published by Outright Games, who have a good reputation for releasing decent, family friendly licensed games – is definitely a game that can be enjoyed just as easily by kids as well as adults.
Though the vast majority of Transformers games have been third person action/shooting games, Battlegrounds instead takes an approach I haven’t seen for the Robots in Disguise: turn-based strategy. It’s along similar lines to the excellent Firaxis X-Com titles, although – as you’d expect – vastly simplified.
Story-wise, it’s pretty straightforward – and told entirely in-engine, with some decent voice acting and a fun script, which has some nice nods to classic Transformers lines that long-term fans will appreciate. The Autobots must stop Megatron from using the Allspark to create an unquestioningly obedient, unlimited army of Decepticon drones. The battle takes them across a few different locations on Earth before heading back to their homeworld of Cybertron in the final act. There’s a good cast of characters on both sides, though during the campaign you’re limited to a smaller selection of characters that’ll be available on each mission (at least until the final few missions, where you’ll be in charge of everyone – which is very satisfying indeed).
Each character has a different set of attacks and abilities, with some acting as Support (able to heal others and themselves), with others in more aggressively focused roles. Characters have three action points per turn – only one attack can be used per turn, but these can vary in strength and outcome, often dependent on spending more action points to increase their effectiveness. Action points are also used to move; the further you move, the more action points you use. You can move before or after you attack, or not at all if you use all three action points to move. Generally, missions have a straightforward objective such as reaching a certain zone on the stage or defeating all Decepticons in the level. Once a stage is complete, you’ll have earned Energon points that you can spend on customising your Autobots with new attacks and abilities, with lots of them unlocking as your progress. An Energon meter fills up during turns too, which allows special abilities to be used by each character – these utilise powerful effects such as throwing enemies or dropping grenades that’ll hit multiple targets. It’s very satisfying in practice.
It’s all very easy to pick up, helped along by a tutorial that eases you into the simple controls and concepts. It’s quite a decent length too, with each act of four containing 4-6 stages, with a total of 20 overall to play through. Though the Easy and Medium difficulty levels are a little too easy for strategy game veterans in my opinion, they’re pitched perfectly for younger players. Hard mode is where it’s at for adults – and it does put up a decent challenge (though at times, it borders on unfair – with levels in which you’re tasked with destroying all Decepticons often having new, untarnished enemy units dropped in repeatedly while you have to continually battle against them with dwindling health and usually just a few characters of your own).
There’s a few niggles: battles can be long, drawn out affairs and there’s no manual save option; likewise, you can reach checkpoints in battles, but you’ll only be able to use these if you lose outright – leave the game and you’ll be back to the start of the mission you were on, which can be a bit of an annoyance. To add to this, though you can fast forward Decepticon turns to reduce the time waiting for your team to be able to act, there’s no such option for your turns; it definitely would have been useful to include this, as some animations and movements can take longer than is necessary.
Despite collecting a good squad of characters as you make your way through the game, you’re stuck using just a few of them at a time for most of the duration – and there’s no real story reason for the characters to be split up most of the time. Though that’s the case, you can at least choose which characters you want and additionally customise their loadout to suit your playstyle (it’s a good idea to go in with at least one support character though, particularly on Hard difficulty – you’ll definitely need to be able to heal!).
The story is fairly engaging, especially towards the end – and some of the biggest characters don’t make an appearance until around halfway in, though they do make welcome, dramatic entrances. There’s a really diverse cast for the Decepticons in particular and plenty of little-seen characters get to make an appearance. The visuals are bold, colourful and nicely cartoony, taking cues from the recent Cyberverse animated show. They’re well animated and the sound effects are excellent too.
Aside from the main campaign, there’s an arcade mode with five different ways to play – including Capture the Flag. These can also be enjoyed by two players, adding further longevity if the turn based battles are up your street. There’s a sixth arcade mode – Cube – in which players must rack up points by keeping possession of a Cube, but this is bizarrely only available if you purchase the Digital Deluxe Edition; if you buy the Standard Edition, there’s no way of purchasing this extra mode at any point – which seems like a bit of a misstep to me. Other DLC included in the Digital Deluxe Edition include some excellent skins for your Autobots (I love the Light Balance-esque Neon skins), but these are purely cosmetic and can be purchased separately.
Despite the baffling decision to omit an arcade game type from the cheaper edition – as well as the few niggles I have with the fast forwarding and slightly unfair mission design at the highest difficulty – I had a huge amount of fun with Transformers: Battlegrounds. The core gameplay loop is really addictive and it’s a game that can be enjoyed by players of all ages. It’s not perfect, then, but it’s an awful lot of fun and definitely one that Transformers fans – young or old – should glean a good amount of enjoyment from, even when the campaign is exhausted, you can take on Decepticons in more focused, smaller scale battles in the Arcade Mode. Though perhaps a tad too simplistic for those gamers used to the tactical depth and nuance of games such as X-Com (who may miss the ‘percentage chance to hit’ style that is entirely missing here – hits are automatic if in range), the highest difficulty still requires a decent amount of strategic awareness and restraint. It’s definitely a pleasant surprise – and another decent licensed game for Outright Games to add to their oeuvre.
Outright Games provided me with a code for Transformers: Battlegrounds for review purposes.
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