Rise Of The Dark Spark is the third in the Transformers game trilogy that began with War For Cybertron and Fall Of Cybertron (although a mission inside of the wreck of Tryptikon and a reference to the Ark not yet being complete localize it as an interquel between War and Fall), and never has there been a more unintentionally-accurate title: this game’s spark, that glimmer of inspiration, just seems to glow dimmer than the games that came before it. Maybe it’s the shift in developers (High Moon didn’t make this one), but there’s just a wave of – I’m sorry, I need to say it – mediocrity and “average-ness” to this one. It’s not particularly offensive like the minstrel-show robots in Revenge Of The Fallen, but for you Trans-fans, it’s a far cry from The Touch as well.

So here’s the score: the Dark Spark is a mythical artifact that acts like the dark version of the Matrix of Leadership, and allows the user to bend other minds to their will. In the Cybertron universe and in the Michael Bay universe, the Autobots must keep it from falling into the hands of the Decepticons/Lockdown.

Despite being developed by a different company, this game is clearly intended to be the third in the trilogy and accepted as such: the controls, weapons, assets, style of play and just about everything carry over, but don’t let that trick you. It’s the little details that sink it.

For example, Fall Of Cybertron started off with a ‘tutorial level’ on board the Ark, a brilliant and action-packed way to get the player invested and energized right from the jump. Dark Spark, meanwhile, starts off with a tutorial level in a bland, generic city on Earth, where nothing really happens except some minor firefights with enemies for whom the developers really didn’t record enough battle-banter for. You’ll get sick of hearing “Let’s see what we got!” by the end of the first mission.

Speaking of voices, most of them are acceptable, although the guy they got for Drift doesn’t even come close to Ken Watanabe. Peter Cullen is back as Optimus Prime, and does a fine enough job with the material provided. Cullen really is the voice of Optimus, voicing him in everything from the films to the games to a death metal song about the Transformers.

Always knew Optimus was, as they say, metal as hell.
Always knew Optimus was, as they say, metal as hell.

And after that first mission? And then, we go over to the Cybertron universe, where you then spend two missions in the sewers killing insecticons that swarm all over. I realize Fall had insecticon swarms too, but it was much better at pacing them.

By that point, I was still hoping this game would get better – a lot better. Then, in that third mission, after ascending an elevator shaft as Cliffjumper and killing hordes of annoying insecticons along the way, the game soft-locked (doesn’t freeze, but makes you unable to continue) when I tried to pull Ironhide up for the final time. Had to restart from the checkpoint and kill the damn bugs all over again.

And then, at the end of the mission, there’s a “hold your ground and wait for the train” segment with more swarmers to kill, that goes on for…I swear, minutes. Did they think we’d find this fun after spending two missions killing these things?

And that’s how the game starts. Inspiring, I know.

You and Soundwave alike will get sick of these guys right quick.
You and Soundwave alike will get sick of these guys right quick.

Speaking of glitches, that wouldn’t be the last time that I had to restart from a checkpoint because the game randomly decided to soft-lock. There’s a part where, as Optimus, you have to protect Jazz as he works at a computer, but one time he got caught up on a waist-high wall while running to the computer and refused to move no matter what, so I had to restart the checkpoint.

I used to love reading about and finding glitches in games. Heck, if said glitches help you find new ways to play, as in the Metroid games, they can even be an unintended treat. But for me, a glitch is bad when it negatively affects the player’s ability to enjoy the game, and being forced to restart checkpoints because the game was asleep at the switch definitely counts.

On that note, Dark Spark just, above all else, doesn’t feel as well put-together as the High Moon titles, in terms of programming and level design alike. I suppose the sad truth is that it’s just not as ambitious and not as fun as the games that came before it, even when you put aside the enjoyment-hampering glitches and other nagging issues.

Truth be told, though, there’s not much going on with the Michael Bay portion of this game: that canon appears in the first mission and then in the climax missions, with the entire meat of the game taken up by the Cybertron canon. I guess I should be thankful, as I bought this game for the Cybertron parts, but it begs the question – were the developers simply pressured into shoehorning in the Michael Bay stuff as a promotion for Age Of Extinction?

After all, it’s not like the interdimensional aspect of the story (which is one of the things that drew me to it to begin with) actually goes anywhere beyond a cute little stable time loop in the ending. If you’re expecting the different versions of the Transformers to play differently like in Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions…well, go get Shattered Dimensions, I guess. The idea of the Dark Spark has plenty of potential for an epic, high-stakes storyline, but I just didn’t feel the urgency most of the time. Compared to the vibrant, epic tragedy of Fall Of Cybertron, everything just feels…muted, here.

Speaking of muted, don’t expect this to be a title that can in any way be called “next-gen”. I don’t even know why it’s on PS4 and Xbox One, because graphically it’s no better than the Cybertron games, and actually worse at some points – when Lockdown mind-controls the Titan to attack you, look at the Titan’s face. Look at those N64-era textures. I am not joking. The idea that they thought this was acceptable on PS4 is insane. For shame. Remember when I said that the character models, assets, et cetera were lifted from the Cybertron games? Well, they didn’t even try to measurably improve on them, far as I can tell. To put this on PS4 and Xbox One is, at best, deceptive advertising.

Perhaps the most damning thing about Dark Spark is the fact that the things I liked most about it, don’t actually belong to it specifically: Cybertron’s beautiful art design was laid down by High Moon’s art team for the previous two games, and not much is done to really add to what they’ve already done; the Grimlock-smash-all-the-things segments towards the climax are certainly fun, but they’re lifted wholesale from the Grimlock-smash segments towards the climax of Fall Of Cybertron. It would be a very different story if the design team had inherited these things and done really cool and interesting things with them, but instead…

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Now, that’s intensely cool and satisfying – until you realize Fall Of Cybertron did it in the previous installment, with more interesting environment design:

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And compared to those beautiful Cybertron vistas, the Earth segments just don’t hold up. Compare this shot from Dark Spark:

With this shot from Fall Of Cybertron:

Which one of those would you rather spend your money on? It’s like asking someone if they’d prefer porridge or steak. The Earth part of the game is short, as I mentioned, but you know what War and Fall Of Cybertron don’t have? Bland-looking Earth segments that were probably only forced on the developers as a cheap movie tie-in!

It feels like the most fun the developers had was with the names of the achievements/trophies. (Grapple-stomp an Insecticon? Get the “Cybertron History X” trophy!) And while it’s nice to see such enthusiasm put into such a tertiary detail…it’s just not enough to stem the tide of meh. It almost feels like the trophy names were the developers’ way of amusing themselves while being forced to develop a game that both was and wasn’t a movie tie-in.

And…you know what? That’s a little sleazy, isn’t it? If I’m right, and somebody up-top made them shoehorn in the bare minimum of Age Of Extinction content to promote the movie, then the interdimensional aspect is essentially piggybacking off of the quality of War/Fall to trick fans of those very good games into buying a movie tie-in. Which would have actually been perfectly forgivable had the game been really good, and yet here we are.

And, just – licensed games had so much going for them nowadays. Batman has worked his way back into the gaming public’s good graces with the stellar Arkham Asylum/City (which I would argue did for Batman in games what Nolan’s trilogy did for Batman in film), Spider-Man is doing well so long as you stick with the original games instead of the movie-licensed titles, and Transformers itself has helped lead the charge with War and Fall. So it’s just a shame to see this game sliding back into the same cash-grab, low-effort codswallop that gave licensed games that stigma in the first place.

I guess to sum up, previous installment Fall Of Cybertron’s apocalyptic grandeur is the thing that someone can see and get inspired by; they’ll take it in and they’ll carry it with them, and maybe one day they’ll even grow up to become a creator themselves. And the blandness of Rise Of The Dark Spark is the kind of thing that just churns out bitter, disappointed, cynical gamers, and lord knows we don’t need more of those. If I was to rate it EGM-style, I’d give it a 4.5 out of 10: on the low side of average. You could do a lot worse, but when “you could do worse” is the most shining praise I can heap upon a product, you still won’t want it.

In other words –

Autobots, transform and just roll on by.

Coming up in the foreseeable future: a combined review of War and Fall Of Cybertron. I started with the disappointing one, and now we get to the good stuff. Allons’y!

Transformers: Rise Of The Dark Spark review

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