Transformers: Devastation (Xbox One)

Closest thing to actually being in the 80s cartoon series

The Transformers have come in and out of fashion since they first debuted in the early 80s, but while the Michael Bay movies have certainly raked in the the most cash for the media franchise, no one will deny that the real Transformers are those of “Generation 1”. Perhaps more than any other “half-hour toy commercial” marketing machine of the era, The Transformers (produced between 1984 and 1987, but in syndication for much longer) stood out for its absurd, yet brilliant premise (from an “entertaining young boys” perspective) and its memorable and surprisingly well-developed characters.

If you grew up with the Transformers, then Transformers: Devastation is the game you could only have dreamed of, especially since you probably thought the Sega Genesis was the height of console gaming. Devastation follows the continuity of the Transformers: Generations toy line and takes cues from the recent IDW comic book series, but in its visual style, music, characterization, and overall feel it is 100% the original animated series. I re-watched 1987’s The Transformers: The Movie before playing, just to set the right tone, and let me tell you – PlatinumGames has nailed it with this one.


“It’s over, Megatron”

At the beginning of Transformers: Devastation, five Autobots – Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Sideswipe, Wheeljack, and Grimlock – arrive on the scene in Manhattan, where a swarm of Insecticons and other terrors have emerged, wreaking havoc on the city. To no one’s surprise, the Decepticons are behind the attack, but when the Autobots fight their way through to Megatron himself, he escapes below ground.

It doesn’t take long for the Autobots to discover what Megatron is up to – he’s discovered a ship called Proudstar, an ancient Autobot vessel that had set out to find uninhabited planets and “Cyberform” them (basically the Cybertronian version of terraforming), making them suitable for Cybertronian life. Megatron plans to use this lost technology to Cyberform the earth, a process which would destroy all organic life. Optimus and his bunch are not about to allow this to happen, and what ensues is a wild chase through seven different chapters, to Cybertron and back, culminating in an epic battle between Optimus Prime and Megatron in orbit around the earth.

The story is nothing that’s going to win any awards, but is entirely in line with the melodrama of the TV series as well as the 1987 film. Where Devastation really shines, however, is in its authentic characterization. While many of the original toys were merely swapped-palette versions of each other, the way they were portrayed in the TV show and the Marvel Comics series was diverse and often complex. Devastation is a relatively short game, and only the five Autobots and a few Decepticons receive much screen time, but it’s still enough to get more than a whiff of Shockwave’s cold moral calculus, Thundercracker’s conflicted conscience, and of course, Starscream’s apparently successful effort at being the living embodiment of hubris. And that’s to say nothing of the main characters: Prime is too good-natured even for his own good, always trying to reason with Decepticons, Bumblebee is the plucky little hero who makes up in courage what he lacks in size, Wheeljack the absent-minded scientist, and Sideswipe the brash and sometime reckless hothead.

The dialogue is also totally in line with the TV series, combining over-the-top drama (Megatron to Sideswipe: “Less talk, Autobot, more dying”), self-promoting boasts (“No one gets past the Constructicons!”), impenetrable pseudoscientific phrases, and the characteristic Transformers sense of humor, complete with deliberately cringe-worthy puns that will take fans of the original series way back. You’ve got the “Decepti-creeps” and the “Auto-jerks”, Sideswipe using “bot, oh bot” (instead of “boy, oh boy”), and the obvious euphemisms like Megatron telling Optimus “You never had the manifolds to do what needed to be done” or Blitzwing telling Bumblebee he’s going to “feed him [his] own spark”. And of course, Grimlock sounds like a total moron, and Optimus gives a grandfatherly lecture about protecting the earth at the end.

“Autobots, roll out!”

Transformers: Devastation is a hack-and-slash action game, much in the spirit of PlatinumGames’ other titles, which include the Bayonetta series. At the beginning of the game, there are three playable Autobots to choose from (Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Sideswipe), though you can unlock Wheeljack and Grimlock as the story progresses. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be very many other Autobots in the game, even as NPCs.

Each of the five characters has a unique play style, though they all share a few things in common. All five of them have four slots to equip weapons, both melee and ranged. Weapons are acquired throughout the missions and as rewards for successfully completing missions and challenges. You can also purchase them from Wheeljack aboard the Ark, or “synthesize” them to create new, more powerful ones. Each character can also be outfitted with “T.E.C.H.”, basically special microchips created by Wheeljack that provide the character with specific perks in combat. It is possible for all five of the Autobots to transition between vehicle mode and robot mode, and doing so at the right time is an important part of the gameplay. Finally, they can all level up in various attributes, such as Speed, Strength, Intelligence, Charisma, etc. This either happens as a natural result of gaining experience, or you can pick up or purchase certain power-ups that can level up a particular attribute for a character of your choice.

There are also several differences, and this becomes especially obvious in the course of gameplay. All five of the playable characters have specific strengths and weaknesses – Bumblebee is fast and agile, but relatively weak; Grimlock is incredibly powerful, but also slower than his wheeled comrades, and limited by his dinosaur form in some ways. Essentially, while the basic principles of combat are similar for each, the gameplay experience is actually quite different, which adds to the variety. The only problem I see with this is that especially when I ran up against more powerful enemies, or at higher difficulties, I seemed to always have to switch to Prime or Grimlock, as the others couldn’t take much damage, or equip the kinds of devastating melee weapons these two could. Or, if I did manage to take out, say Devastator, with Bumblebee or Sideswipe, it took forever to do so.

Each character also has two specific special moves. The first is activated using the LB (on the Xbox), has an “Ability Gauge” with a cooldown time, and varies tremendously from character to character – Prime’s is an attack where he violently spins his trailer around, Bumblebee’s is a slick maneuver where he slides between an enemy’s legs and can attack them from behind, Wheeljack can activate a defensive shield in robot mode, etc. “Ultimate Attacks” are devastating moves that rain down destruction on the heads of all Decepticons in the area, and are only available when you’ve defeated enough enemies to fill the Ultimate Gauge.

There are two main game modes – Story Mode and Challenge Mode. In Story Mode, each chapter is divided into several missions, smoothly linked together by brief cut scenes that hide the load time. When you complete a mission in Story Mode, you receive a grade: D, C, B, A, S, or SS, depending on how well you did. The higher your grade, the more reward you receive at the end of the chapter. Once you’ve played a chapter, you can go back and replay the individual segments in order to achieve a higher grade. Missions are in themselves extremely brief, though you might have to play some of them over and over again before you beat them, trying out different strategies or even different characters. There’s no way to save your game between missions, though the game autosaves every time you finish one. While the first chapter – which doubles as a sort of tutorial – forces you to play as certain characters, later on you can go back to the Ark and switch characters, buy power-ups like Repair Kits (+HP), or equip different weapons.

Story Mode is somewhat short, and it shouldn’t take players long to complete the game at lower difficulty levels. But the difficulty levels themselves provide an additional challenge, and the increase in difficulty is really steep. There are three levels to start with, and two more you can unlock after beating the game on the lower levels. Missions themselves typically consist of wiping out a set number of Decepticons or defeating named, boss characters. This means that the game features a lot more Decepticons than Autobots, which is somewhat unfortunate. Still, it’s cool to encounter all your favorite bad guys on the battlefield, and fighting the combiners Devastator and Menasor at the same time is as suspenseful as it gets. There are also several “gimmick missions”, as I think of them, that actually add a lot of variety to the gameplay. One mission has you fighting from a top-down perspective à la Grand Theft Auto 2, in another you’re shooting down waves of Insecticons who come at you in patterns reminiscent of Space Invaders, and another mission is a high-speed platformer in 2½-D.

Challenge Mode features 50 individual missions that can mostly be unlocked by completing Story Mode chapters at various difficulty levels. The gameplay is like story mode, but more limited in scope, obviously. Most of them are standard combat missions, but some can be top-down, side-scrolling, etc. as well. Challenge Mode is great for quickly ducking in and ducking out of the game for a few minutes at a time, and it’s also an indispensable source of  power-ups and Credits, which you might need to get past certain Story Mode missions.

With very few caveats, I’d have say the combat in Transformers: Devastation is phenomenal. It truly feels like you’re participating in the 80s cartoon. And not just the 80s cartoon as it is – looking back as an adult, the animation was really pretty low-quality, and the Transformers often just stood up firing blasters at each other – but like how the brain of an 11-year-old kid imagines it. That is to say, it moves at fluid, breakneck speed, with characters transforming in the middle of attacks and back again to deliver the coup de grâce. You can jump on enemies, transforming mid-air and grinding them under your wheels, or quickly transform into vehicle mode to evade a more slow-moving enemy. Much of the gameplay involves reaching top speed in vehicle mode and then launching “rush attacks”, which can break down energy barriers or cut right through enemy defenses. Ranged weapons can be fired in either mode, and you haven’t lived until you’ve played as Sideswipe in Lamborghini form using a sniper rifle to pick off Decepticons mid-air. Dodges and counterattacks are also extremely important, as are timed attacks and combos. To assist you, the game lets you know when you can press which button to launch an attack.


More than meets the eye

The graphics in Transformers: Devastation are deliberately meant to evoke the original cartoon series. It absolutely excels at doing this, except that the incredibly smooth animations are actually way better than in the source material, and the character models are actually consistent. Of course, the game still manages to reproduce the series’ blatant disregard for the laws of physics, including its utter rejection of anything approaching a logical sense of scale; which is awesome, because who wants to fight Soundwave the size of an 80s cassette tape player, which while no doubt huge to the mp3 generation, is nevertheless nowhere near the size of a VW beetle, much less a cab-over truck. Little details like Wheeljack’s blinking “ears” when talking have been lovingly recreated, and the decision to use cell-shading manages to give this 3D game a 2D spirit.

Levels look great, though they probably could have done a bit more than the alternating choice of “futuristic New York” and “Cybertronian spaceship” as location types. The only real complaint I have is that, like in any fast-paced 3D action brawler, the camera angles can sometimes get really confusing. The camera moves independently and is freely rotatable, so you can imagine how it might end up facing the wrong way. This is especially annoying when fighting against certain flying bosses like Starscream, who flits back and forth dropping bombs and attempting to ram you. And don’t even get me started on the Space Bridge mission en route to Cybertron – which looks and plays like the Autobots dropped whatever passes for acid among their kind. I beat it by pretty much randomly mashing buttons.

“You over-confident fools!”

The sound design in Transformers: Devastation is as good as it could have been. The music was mostly composed by Vince DiCola, the musical mind who gave us the soundtrack for the 1987 feature-length movie, not to mention Rocky IV. It’s made up of driving, 80s guitar riffs with harmonics (could it have been anything else?), and completely evokes the right atmosphere. Sound effects, like the familiar “transforming” sound, blaster fire, and other noises are perfect, and sure to make you smile if you grew up hearing them.

The real gem is the voice acting, though. Several of the original voice actors reprise their role, and to great effect: Peter Cullen returns as Optimus Prime, Dan Gilvezan as Bumblebee, Gregg Berger as Grimlock, and Michael Bell as Sideswipe (he also voiced Duke in G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero), and Frank Welker, whose voice was everywhere in the 80s, comes back to do Megatron and Soundwave. Unfortunately, Chris Latta, who gave us the obnoxious, high-pitched voice of Starscream (and other characters), passed away in 1994, but his replacement, Scott Whyte, fills his shoes perfectly.


All in all, Transformers: Devastation is an extremely enjoyable game, and I certainly hope there's a sequel or an expansion in the works (a scene after the ending seems to indicate so). It's well worth the full digital download price of $29.99, but if you're on a budget, you can wait till it goes on sale. That is, unless you were a fan of the original series, in which case I'd say there's no excuse to not give this game a shot.

One caveat I'd give is that my glowingly positive judgment is of course colored by nostalgia. While I think the game is enjoyable enough to play on its own merits, younger fans who have no connection to the TV show or the comic books might nevertheless have a hard time caring about the characters or appreciating the finer details in characterization, dialogue, etc. Also, '80s electric guitar harmonics might not be your thing if it only speaks to your ears and not your ten-year-old heart. But still, this game is everything it sets out to be, and then some.
Closest thing to actually being in the 80s cartoon series

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Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation
Transformers: Devastation