Activision's double preview feature of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen showcased two approaches to movie-game making that we ought to see more of.
The first, used for Wolverine, is the "if you can't beat ‘em, rip ‘em off" method of movie-game making. The second, seen in Transformers, is "if you need to have Shia LaBeouf in your game, add multiplayer." With any luck, this is a sign that movie games are finally getting the hang of not sucking.
Revenge of the Fallen picks up where the first movie left off and is tied to the film's plot, courtesy of the film's director. Michael Bay swore developer Luxoflux to secrecy about the plot – so journalists only got the vaguest look at a couple of levels.
What I got looked pretty enticing, though. They've scrapped the linear mode of storytelling from the first game and put in a central hub where players can choose which missions to play, which faction to be (Decepticon or Autobot) and lastly, which Transformer they want to step into the car-sized shoes of.
All missions take place in environments that appear to be way more open world than the last Transformer game. You can
actually still climb up the sides of buildings now and step over those pesky freeway medians instead of meekly going where the game points you*. But having all that freedom of movement comes with a price: all missions are timed and you can only unlock more (and upgrades for Transformers) by getting certain medal rankings.
The first mission I saw – set in a city at nighttime – seemed to have a basic "find and kill this other Transformer" objective. The demo master showed off a new Deception called Sideways that takes the form of an Audi R8 when he's not a sniper robot. In one smooth motion, Sideways sped down a street in car-mode, transformed, shot down a helicopter, vaulted part of a building, and then popped back into car-mode to drive off down a different street two blocks over.
This is what the developer calls the "Ironhide transformation," gleaned from the first film – a one-button transformation that looks and feels smooth as well as being practical (at least as practical as giant robots get). The ease of transforming makes combat quicker; which could mean that melee fighting will feel more rewarding than it did in the last game. At the very least, it does a better job of satisfying my childhood fantasy of being a Transformer.
To complement this new melee-friendly combat style, the developer has also given each Transformer a special ability that they can activate while transformed. For example, Sideways has a sniper rifle, another Transformer can deploy anti-air turrets and Jazz could play elevator music – if they hadn't killed him off in the first film.
Another cool melee component is the transformation-kick-flip. This is a powerful attack that you can pull off by driving straight at a target, mashing on the transform button and probably a second button to kick (they weren't showing off the controls yet). It looks very powerful, very hard to pull off and totally wicked when the demo master popped back into Audi mode when he landed on the street to drive away as the flaming wreckage of the other Transformer fell from the sky.
The second mission we got to see involved Starscream's special ability. Everyone's – well, my – favorite Decepticon was set to destroy an entire fleet of battleships out in the middle of an undisclosed ocean. The demo master showed us how Starscream could hover between boats, blasting at planes and anti-air turrets. Of course, he could do the mission by flying around in jet form, landing, transforming, shooting and then going back into jet mode to reach another boat. But the hover ability will definitely be the key to a gold medal on this mission.
It's worth mentioning at this point that not all missions in the game will be playable by all Transformers. (How's Optimus Prime supposed to sink battleships in the middle of the ocean?) However, the developer said that most missions in the game would be playable by "a variety" of Transformers from both factions. Let's just hope we're not forced to play too many of these Transformer-specific story missions to unlock all the good levels.
After the Starscream level, I was almost sold on the game. Story missions aside, can you imagine performing giant robot air-to-ground melee combat in four versus four online multiplayer? It could be awesome enough to make me forget that it's a movie game and that the first movie kind of sucked.
But then they showed us a Shia mission and I died a little inside. Bumblebee had to drive/carry Shia to some building where he could go inside to talk to some dude to do… something that somehow had to do with the plot of the film. While he was in the building, the mission went back to being about what a giant robot game should be about: wrecking buildings, flipping cars and shooting the shit out of other robots (while preventing them from destroying the building Shia was in). But then he came back outside and the mission went back to being about chauffeuring Shia.
This "babysit the human" affair represents to me what is and always has been wrong with movie franchise games: plot limitations. Sure, in the movie I can suspend disbelief that a puny human would "own" a giant robot for two hours. But in a game where I get to feel like I am the robot, I just can't stomach it so well. I mean, I'm a giant robot – I don't need a human's help; I just need him to stay out of the way while I get in awesome fist fights with other giant robots.
That, ultimately, will be what makes Revenge of the Fallen a success or failure as a game. It won't be the game's fidelity to the movie. It won't be the large-scale boss fights (although the scarab-shaped boss in Cairo looks amazing). It'll be the game's ability to satisfy the Transformer fan dream of feeling like you're a Transformer. That's where the promised multiplayer comes in. What better way to make you feel like a Transformer than letting you mess up other Transformers played by other fans with the same dream?
Check out screens for the PS3/360/PC version, plus a first look at the Wii and DS versions:
*My mistake. Thank you angry people on the Internet :)