The Cybertron games in the Transformers series were quite a surprise for gamers. They were licensed titles that didn’t explicitly suck. Both War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron were developed by High Moon Studios, a studio Activision have now repurposed to work on the older versions of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. So with a new development team, the relatively unknown Edge of Reality, does Rise of the Dark Spark manage to hold up against the standards established by both the Cybertron games? In short, no, it doesn’t. And as you’d probably expect, it’s even worse on the Wii U too.
The storyline for Rise of the Dark Spark is a pretty convoluted one, and unnecessarily so. The game takes place across two realities. As usual, players take control of both the Autobots and the Decepticons. The Decepticons want to capture the Dark Spark, an ancient relic that give its user the power to bend the universe to their own will. As you’d expect, the Autobots want to stop the Decepticons from getting their hands on it. The Dark Spark itself is able to create interdimensional tears in the world, which means that the game takes place before the Ark is launched in Fall of Cybertron while also taking place during the events of the newest film, Age of Extinction and deals with the subsequent fallout of the events of that film too. So yes, unlike the previous Cybertron games, this is more or less a licensed tie-in to a film.
While it sounds somewhat manageable, the way the game approaches this storytelling is overly convoluted and poorly paced. There isn’t an even balance of Autobot and Decepticon geared storytelling – with the Decepticon’s story abruptly ending halfway through the game, and then just focusing on the Autobots for the remainder. To make matters worse, during a critical plot point, the Decepticons storyline is interrupted and switched to the Autobots one. It is a good idea that has proven to work well in previous non-Transformers games like this, but the execution of the concept here is done to the point where it affects the story’s own pacing and storytelling. It’s commendable to try and change things up from the previous formula where a Decepticon or Autobot path could be selected separately, but this just feels lazy.
Rise of the Dark Spark is more or less a third person shooter that does little to improve upon its predecessors. Players shoot through either lifeless Earth based levels or colourful lifeless levels based in space to achieve their objectives. The weapons themselves are the only saving grace here – there’s an interesting mix of normal weapons like shotguns all the way to electrical arc cannons and slime launchers. These weapons are great and fun to fire, but unfortunately the combat and set pieces are boring and uninspired. A fun enemy and a fun weapon will create a great encounter in an action game, but in Dark Spark, only the weapons are fun and many of the enemies are either too easy or just plain uninteresting. Unique abilities are also provided for each character, but some feel tacked on and useless and others just seem pointless to even bother activating them.
Level design and mission design is as equally uninspired too. Objectives really only come in two varieties throughout the entire game – make your way to a mission marker or shoot everything before making your way to a mission marker. There are other games in the genre that play similarly, but most of them make successful attempts to disguise this repetition and tedium. With Rise of the Dark Spark, it’s almost as if the developers thought fan service and the Transformers brand alone would create a well-paced and interesting adventure. Unfortunately it doesn’t.
Of course, being a transformer, it’s possible to change into a vehicle at any point in the game, but unfortunately most of the level design feels like it’s at odds with this mechanic, as most levels feel too claustrophobic to provide an environment where players can have fun with either their vehicles or battle mode vehicles. Such claustrophobic environments leads to a lack of feeling of speed as there’s never really an opportunity to gain enough momentum. Not to mention that the turning is incredibly stiff too. It’s worth mentioning that the flying transformer (Starscream) is particularly fun to play, however, though the lack of a radar makes it hard to navigate said moments properly. In short, one of the fundamental aspects of a Transformers game; transforming, is actually not fun at all which really limits Dark Spark’s appeal, even for fans.
Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, the Wii U version of the game is neutered. The multiplayer mode known as Escalation, a co-operative mode that is playable online, is completely absent from the Wii U version. Similarly, there is no extra GamePad functionality outside of Off-TV play and absolutely barebones Miiverse integration. Considering this title takes less than seven hours to complete on even the hardest difficulty, and costs the same as the other versions of the game with online multiplayer, it’s hard to recommend the Wii U version. Another caveat of removing the multiplayer from the Wii U version means that only one Dinobot and Insecticon are accessible in the Wii U version via the single player mode, with most of the others appearing exclusively in the multiplayer mode, which the Wii U version omits.
Visually speaking, Rise of the Dark Spark is clearly a rushed game. Environments are drab and empty, feel unrealistic and the action itself is plagued with framerate drops. Whether these are exclusive to the Wii U version could not be verified, but on the whole the game does not look particularly good, especially this late into the console’s lifespan. As the game is meant to tie-in with the release of Age of Extinction, the newest film, it also employs these designs for the characters which is not only disappointing but it’s also much less interesting than the more visually distinct original designs for the transformers.
The soundtrack is a little bit better, if not slightly by the numbers too. While I couldn’t verify who composed the score, the easiest way to describe it would be as a mix of the booming empowering orchestral score of films like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel with a cringe inducing dubstep tinge. It admittedly works quite well for a Transformers game, for some reason, and gives a bit of a boost to the games drab action. Voice work is a whole other beast, however, with Peter Cullen returning to voice Optimus Prime but everyone else phoning in their performances.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is almost an antithesis of what the original Cybertron games were. Fall and War for Cybertron were games designed to appeal to fans with a modicum of care, effort and thought put into them. Rise of the Dark Spark is the complete opposite – it’s boring, it’s uneventful, it’s needlessly convoluted and it’s clearly been pushed out to coincide with the release of yet another overlong Transformers film. I’m not even a Transformers fan, but I enjoyed Fall of Cybertron and War for Cybertron. With Rise of the Dark Spark, there’s simply no redeeming features here, and its am especially hard sell on the Wii U where the game lacks the feature parity of other versions. Tread carefully.