Being a game about transformers, the mechanic of transforming is obviously involved, but to what success? The transformation process itself is quite simple: you press a button– whether on the ground or in midair– and you transform. The vehicles can be broken down into 2 main types of transformations: land vehicles & airplanes, both of which control almost identically, with the latter obviously being capable of flight. Land vehicles vary in size, shape, and weaponry, like Bumblebee’s small, fast car form equipped with a machine gun or Megatron’s large, slow tank form, equipped with a tank cannon, but the controls remain the same despite being quite different vehicles. When you first transform into your vehicle mode you hover; easily moving and turning. This was an initially odd, but needed concession to make the car forms compatible with the gameplay of a third person shooter. The alternative suggests that you would have to awkwardly turn like a normal car, which is painful just to think of. Pressing L1/LB causes you to boost forward as if you were putting the pedal to the metal. Pressing R2/RT allows you to perform a special maneuver, like dodging, about facing, or ramming.
Unfortunately transforming is not good enough to shine as a core mechanic. There are two main problems: 1) The vehicles don’t feel like… well, vehicles; 2) The game does not utilize or encourage the use of the mechanic enough.
Concerning the feel, I want to separate the planes and land vehicles, because it is not fair to lump them together. When you are a land vehicle– car for short– there is no physicality. Moving feels floaty, not grounded. When you boost, you accelerate to max speed quite fast, you lose no speed by turning, and you have no ability to brake, so you continue to move even once you’ve stopped boosting. Turning with the camera (right analog stick) akin to Halo just feels bad. The controls don’t feel like they are representative of the vehicle you control. The whole feel is off. My first experience with this game represents this.
As I encounter my first group of enemies I learn how to transform & boost. I immediately hurl my body at my foes with reckless abandon, certain this will fling their bodies around like the mechanical ragdolls they are. Except they didn’t, instead I bounced off of them. I thought I was doing it wrong for several more battles until I finally submitted and accepted that this game really does not allow you to ram into foes. (Certain cars do have a special ram ability that flings foes if you activate it when you’re moving fast enough, but this– along with the other aforementioned special maneuvers— feels like a fundamental action every car should be able to perform.)
I’ve heard it said that if the first thing the player tries to do with your game is not a valid input, then you are not properly communicating to the player how your game works. In this context, however, there is no truly satisfying way to inform the player that you can not actually ram foes with a car because that is a natural affordance of cars. So the natural solution seems to dictate that since you must have cars in your game and that there is no way to communicate that they are inept when it comes to running over foes, that you must actually give in and allow cars to run over foes.
This is where things get sticky because this would probably work in the campaign mode, and even in the escalation mode, wherein you are outnumbered by AI foes. In these modes, it would not be a lot different than meleeing your foe, since there would still be plenty more enemies around you. But in the competitive mode, this creates problems, because if you can run over people easily in a 5 v 5 match, then why ever not do that? And I think this is where gamers get angry with publishers because a tacked on competitive multiplayer mode feels like it holds back the mechanics of the game for competitive balance when competition was not really the major draw of the game in the first place.
This is not to say that there are not ways to preserve ramming foes and competitive balance. For instance, both making cars harder to turn and requiring you to go fast to do lethal damage would help ensure that you are not overpowered. Part of the balance would be handled similarly to a game like Halo, which just allows you to jump, dodge, and maneuver around the vehicles to avoid being damaged.
So what are you left with? Basically, your car form just acts as a fast way to move, which means that a normal shooter’s sprint is functionally replaced by turning into a vehicle. While this presents a larger delay than the more instant run of most games, it can also potentially be much faster depending upon your transformer of choice. Honestly, this is the largest, unique mechanical use for your vehicle form.
The game really struggles to find a good use for its core mechanic, especially for larger characters, whose transformations don’t even move all that fast. This causes it to feel like a gimmick. During the campaign the maps are rarely big, or open enough to utilize the mobility afforded to transform into a vehicle; you’re just as often forced into small rooms or tight corridors, as areas that afford the use of your vehicle form. Even worse are large, long open corridors which they allow you to boost down, but which are almost always absent any real challenge.
Other mechanics conspire with poor level design to make turning into a vehicle a negative thing. For instance, there are rocket launchers that only lock onto you while you are in your vehicle form. Or heavy weapons, which you can only pick up while in your robot form. Tradeoffs are not a bad thing– and these above tradeoffs are not bad in and of themselves– but when they only flow one way, in this case against the vehicle form, then they make being a vehicle a continually less attractive option. Especially when being a vehicle already lacks any impressive gains.
The Saving Grace
The Act of Transforming
One of the biggest successes with this mechanic is the act of transforming itself. Transforming is both fluid & fast, allowing you to change while on the move or in the air. The animation really captures your imagination making you ask,”How’s it done?” and is also accompanied by a satisfying whirring noise. This whole mechanic could completely be ruined just by requiring the player to stop while they transform, or by having the transformation’s animation take too long.
The planes are also really fun. The same generic control scheme applied to cars actually works really well with the planes. And since planes allow you to move on the y-axis, there is not a lot that needs to be done to diversify this form and make it useful and unique for the players. The sad part is that the developers apparently didn’t get the memo about this being the best part of their game, as only 2 of the 10 campaign missions actually feature flying transformers. The extra verticality afforded to these areas feels great and refreshingly unique amongst other 3rd person shooters of 2010. And the act of transforming and flying around really just makes you marvel a little bit.
My one gripe here is that changing the altitude is mitigated to X/A & O/B, which is awkward to press & hold while also trying to aim.
To wrap up there are 2 major needs for something like this. Firstly, it has to feel purposeful and unique. Part of making it feel purposeful and unique is found in making the transformations actually feel like what you transformed into. This does not mean that you need simulation controls for your vehicle form, but rather serviceable controls, that adequately represent and differentiate the experience of controlling your vehicle form and your humanoid form– as well as diversifying various vehicles from one another– all while preserving a fast, fluid gameplay style that is consistent with the controls set up in the other phases of the game.
Secondly, it needs to be seamless. Meaning that the act of transforming must be fluid, which it is, and that once you are in your new form, it can not feel like there are unwarranted tradeoffs associated with that form. This includes things such as: not being able to pick up certain items, not being able to look as far down, having controls that feel less polished for one form, etc.
As is, transforming largely feels like a gimmick put in place because Transformers literally have to be able to transform, instead of a mechanic which truly shines and separates it from a crowd of similar 3rd person shooters. These are just my ideas about how to ensure that transforming is not a gimmick, but rather a true core mechanic that really shines.