If you want to know what it’s like to play Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark, imagine being charged fifty dollars to sit in a poorly-constructed tent where you’re forced to press the same button over and over while endless bags of garbage get dumped out on you. Strap in, kids, because this review’s gonna get ugly.
Don’t let the different name fool you: Rise of the Dark Spark is most definitely a movie tie-in with the new Bayformers flick, and it is every bit the kind of movie game gamers have come to expect. In Dark Spark, the movie Transformers universe crosses over with the War for/Fall of Cybertron Transformers universe… in theory, anyway. In actuality you spend very little time on the empty, ugly, Earth, and instead mostly hang out on Cybertron, as it cost the developers almost nothing to just reuse graphics from previous games.
Rise of the Dark Spark takes the same core framework of the Cybertron games and runs it through some kind of horrifying, fun-destroying, budget-slashing machine until it comes out even more soulless than the Bayformer flicks themselves. You’ll be playing almost exclusively as Transformers featured in previous games, using abilities you’ve probably already used, and the same Cybertronian guns that weren’t all that interesting two games ago. Enemies do little to nothing, sometimes just giving up and standing completely still until you put them out of their misery. New abilities, like Drift’s Blade Dash, are twitchy and ugly, often not working properly.
The Insecticons aren’t the only bugs to be found in Dark Spark. For example, at one point we encountered a cutscene that didn’t load for over a minute, leaving us standing, awkwardly, in an empty room while struggling to figure out if we’d missed something we were supposed to do. Other times checkpoints would load us way behind (or ahead) of where we were in the actual game. And even when things work properly they’ll bore you until Energon leaks from your ocular sockets. Campaign mode has you walking from room to room, fighting seemingly-endless waves of moronic enemies while breaking things up with the occasional repetitive event, like making you activate a half-dozen switches or pumps, or spending far more time as the brutish Grimlock than is fun, as a way of stretching every single cent spent.
There’s almost no multiplayer to speak of, either, other than the incredibly boring Escalation mode which pits you against seemingly-endless waves of enemies without anything to break up the tedium. There’s also not really any character customization— no longer can you make your own transformers or level up different classes. You do “level up”, but in doing so you acquire random boxes of “loot” consisting of character unlocks for Escalation, weapon unlocks, and terrible temporary buffs, all of which end up feeling very pointless and unrewarding. If you have a favorite Transformer character you’re dying to play as, or weapon you like to use, you’d better pray to Zeta Prime it gets unlocked randomly.
Since this is a Transformers game, you can bounce back and forth between robot and vehicle forms. While the Cybertron series gave you wide open areas to make full use of these abilities, here the terrible level design and sluggish vehicles transform what was once fun into awfulness.
To find graphics as bad as what you’ll find in most of Dark Spark you would have to go back to 2006 and check out some of the low-budget Xbox 360 launch titles. While the sections set on Cybertron are decent enough to look at (mostly because the art assets are all recycled from the Cybertron games), the sections set on Earth are just horrendous. And all throughout the game visuals often stutter, or load slowly, so if you turn the camera too quickly it feels like you catch the game unaware and it has to quickly stamp out its cigarette and get back to its job. On the plus side, the voice cast is excellent, with many of the classic Transformer voice actors, such as Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, returning to reprise the roles they began nearly thirty years ago, and modern greats like Steve Blum doing the best they can with mostly-awful dialogue.
When Transformers: The War for Cybertron and The Fall of Cybertron both hit shelves, most gamers were surprised with how good they were, with their attention to detail, fast-paced action, and obvious respect for the beloved children’s franchise. Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark holds no love. As described at the beginning of this review, it’s a slipshod, crappy mess of a game that will bore you to the brink of madness. Do yourself a favor and send this scrap heap to the junkyard.
This review is based on a purchased retail copy of Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark for the Xbox 360.