You probably won't find it on any best of 2015 lists, but one of my favorite gaming experiences of this year was the unashamed nostalgia fest of Transformers: Devastation. After years of waiting for a modern video game that matched exacting action with the old-school shape-shifting robots that were such a massive part of my childhood—and I know I wasn't alone in quietly hungering for such a release—PlatinumGames, via publisher Activision, finally delivered the goods.
And Devastation wasn't just fan-service game-making to generate a few quick bucks for its publisher courtesy of eager old-timers who want Optimus Prime to look like Optimus Prime—it's a more than competent brawler employing melee mechanics not unlike those found in Platinum's rightly lauded witches-punching-angels work of 2009, Bayonetta (albeit with excellently incorporated alternate-mode attacks). The Osaka-based studio has carried over that game's timed combos and motion-slowing dodges—"witch time"—to Devastation, and matched this tried-and-tested formula to art (and a bunch of original voice actors) that really does sit the player right back in front of mid-1980s Saturday morning TV.
"PlatinumGames weren't just interested—they were champing at the bit," Activision producer Robert Conkey tells me, when I ask him about how the monolithic publisher came to work with the celebrated team behind not just Bayonetta and its sequel, but also the breathlessly kinetic Vanquish, The Wonderful 101, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. (They're currently working on the next Star Fox game for Nintendo, and new exclusives for both Xbox One and PlayStation 4. To say the studio is in demand is an understatement.)
"PlatinumGames is one of the best action developers out there," Conkey continues, "and have some really cool cel-shading tech, that they demonstrated in (the Activision-published) The Legend of Korra, so we asked them if they'd be interested in working on Transformers, making use of that style of visuals."
Activision has been producing Transformers-related video games for years, with War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron, both by San Diego studio High Moon, the standout titles. "For several years we'd done games that were tied to movies or the War for Cybertron series," says Conkey, "and they had a gritty, realistic art style. But we wanted to see if we could take the Transformers video games in a different direction, to try something that we'd never done before."
Platinum's enthusiasm for the project was there from day one. "Kenji Saito, the director of Metal Gear Rising, has been a huge fan of Transformers since he was a kid, and much of the studio's staff was the same way," Conkey explains. "Several were the hardest of hardcore fans, who would go as far as to import Botcon-exclusive figures and other limited editions just to ensure they had every existing iteration of every figure. They dived into the concept process with gusto, and said they wanted to go classic for the Transformers' looks, which sounded pretty cool to us.
"We spoke with (Transformers IP holders) Hasbro and everyone was on the same page: we were looking at making a Generations-based game that pays homage to the rich history of the Transformers brand and also had Platinum's unique spectacle action and flair. How could anyone pass that up?"
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I know I couldn't—but while Devastation is fantastic fun, it's all over pretty quickly. The characters on both sides of the battle, the five playable Autobots and army of Decepticons, look incredible, but the environments are bland and repetitive. Replay value is fairly thin, then, unless you're the kind of super Transformers fan who wants to complete the game with all five characters—Prime, Sideswipe, Wheeljack, Bumblebee, and Grimlock (although not all are useable from the very beginning). Review scores were strong, but not in the high 80s that all publishers look for, and I have no idea on units shifted but it's certainly not amongst 2015's very best sellers. Which leaves the question of follow-up content for Devastation rather up in the air.
"Unfortunately, I'm unable to discuss future plans at this point," is all Conkey will give me on what comes next for Devastation. But he is pleased with how the game's gone down with the Transformers faithful.
"People loved the classic look, the over-the-top action, and the feel of revisiting characters they hadn't seen in action—at least like this—for many years. The Transformers fanbase is one of the most passionate I've seen, and it's no small task to make a game that will gain their acceptance and approval. And while the game was by no means flawless, it certainly seems to have struck the right chord with the fanbase, which, I can tell you, warms the developers' hearts.
"Platinum's passion for the game is there to see on the screen—every bit of art, from city signs to idle animations, was created with painstaking reverence for the classic Transformers. The majority of signs in the city are little lore references. Relatively esoteric Easter eggs, like Kremzeeks, abound. Each character's transformation is a recreation of how the toys actually transform. The characters' attitudes and idle animations will make fans of the show smile, the visuals for how the robots shine and move were iterated on religiously. All of the weapons in the game are based on actual Transformers lore. I could go on. It was truly a game for fans, by fans, and I think the fanbase really understood that.
"As for what we're doing on Transformers games, going forward, we know that while Devastation succeeded in a lot of aspects, it certainly wasn't perfect and there are a lot of areas where we received valuable feedback for improvement. It's never possible to make everyone happy, but we do take that feedback very seriously when planning for future titles."
I'd love to see Activision announce significant DLC for Devastation, rather than mere reskins, perhaps allowing players to control some key Decepticons—Megatron, Soundwave, and Shockwave are all here, so why not let us play with them? The War for Cybertron games allowed control of both factions, and it'd be sweet to see the same here. The difference is that the current, vanilla game's structure is exclusively Autobot in perspective—I won't go into the plot, as it's both wafer thin and every bit as cheesy as a Generation 1 episode—so perhaps Platinum would need to be on board to build 'Con stages from the ground up, which given their schedule is something I can't imagine happening.
Future plans, then, should be kept on the backburner—but if you're a child of the 1980s, be that in body or mind, Devastation is an afternoon's entertainment that evokes the spirit of the original Transformers like no video game before it. Also, it's cheaper than a round at the bar, so if you get some Amazon vouchers from your aunt this Christmas, it's a better bet than most other licensed games of late.
Transformers: Devastation is out now for a variety of platforms.
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