How are they robots in disguise with that paint scheme?
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Publisher: Outright Games Ltd.
Release date: 23 Oct, 2020
There are few toy lines that seem to have an appeal as lasting as that of Transformers. First launched in 1984, Transformers was a line of toys consisting of robots that could transform into different vehicles, objects or creatures, with most of the toys being directly based on toys from a few different Japanese toy lines (the main one in turn having been originally being based on G.I. Joe). Going along with the release of the original toys were a cartoon and comic books, both produced by different parts of Marvel. Somehow these toys got so popular that they stuck around, and to this day new toys, cartoons and comics are still being produced.
Transformers: Battlegrounds is a turnbased tactics game based on one of the more recent iterations of Transformers, seeing the brave Autobots fight the villainous Decepticons. It is a game aimed at a younger audience, and not the old school die-hard fans of Transformers past.
Just to get any biases out of the way, I grew up with the original Generation 1 transformers, but I know hardly anything about what direction Transformers took after the end of the Generation 1 Marvel Comic books. Beyond watching the first two Michael Bay movies (they were awful), my only major exposure to Transformers on this side of 1995 were the High Moon Studios games and Transformers Devastation, which are sadly no longer for sale, but they were pretty good.
Story & Setting
The evil Decepticons are at it again. Megatron, the tyrannical leader of the Decepticons has a plan to get the AllSpark from Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots. If he gets it he’ll be able to create an army of new Decepticons that will be able to take over Earth and Cybertron (the home world of the Transformers). Only a small band of Autobots, and their new human friend, can stop him.
That new human friend is of course you. If you’re groaning about the thought of an audience self-insert character, then that’s understandable, particularly if you’ve played some of the more recent Fire Emblem games, but it’s handled far better here than in those games. There’s not a lot of dialogue that involves your character, and the Transformers are content with mostly talking among each other, with the self-insert character only being brought up on a few key plot moments, beyond the tutorial.
Along the way new characters will join you and help you in your fight against the Decepticons, and these are series mainstays, like Grimlock, Arcee and Wheeljack, characters that were around from the early days of Transformers, the only new(?) one is Windblade. And you’ll run into familiar Decepticons that will try and prevent you from reaching your goals, like Starscream, Shockwave and Soundwave.
The story in Transformers: Battlegrounds is nothing special. It’s really just an excuse to have the two sides, Autobots and Decepticons, fight across earth and beyond (but at least they’re not going back to medieval times and gather bird poop while meeting Merlin). The writing fares a little bit better, but it’s not going to win any Oscars. But at least it’s more consistent than it used to be back in the 80’s. Without being familiar with the current crop of Transformers it’s hard to tell how faithful to the source material it is.
Bright and cartoony would be a good way of describing the looks of Transformers: Battlegrounds. Most things use bright and bold colours, including a good chunk of the characters, be it heroes of villains, as well as the levels themselves. Everything has stylized look to it, with exaggerated features and this even extends to most buildings and other objects.
This is a mid-budget game, and that shows. Character models are not overly detailed, and some of their animations are a bit clunky looking. You’ve also got some unnatural-looking movement, particularly with the ground-bound transformers who turn into vehicles. Lighting is also mostly flat. So this is not an amazing looking game, though it’s not terrible looking either. Most of the character designs look distinct and pretty inspired though, but that’s something you should thank the toy designers over at Hasbro for, and not Coatsink or Outright Games.
All the dialogue is voiced, and it’s voiced by voice actors who clearly knew what they were doing. They inject a lot of personality in to the characters and do a good job livening up the script. The voice actor who does Grimlock (the Autobot who turns into a dinosaur) is particularly entertaining to listen to, and it sounds like he had a lot of fun portraying the character. Beyond the voice acting the sound design in Transformers: Battelgrounds is fine, the soundtrack works, and most of the sound effect fit in pretty well, even if nothing really stands out as exceptional.
In most missions you won’t get to bring all your characters along, and the in-mission dialogue takes this into account, so depending on who you bring you’ll get different (though often very similar) lines of dialogue spoken by different characters. It does not change the overall story, but it’s some nice attention to details.
Ever played X-com? Now imagine simplifying this a great deal. That’s Transformers: Battlegrounds. Well, maybe not quite, this game does its own things, though the moment to moment tactical gameplay bears some similarities to that found in the more recent entries in the X-com franchise.
In Transformers: Battlegrounds you take control of the brave Autobots who need to fight their way through the armies of the Decepticons. The main campaign in the game is linear, and new characters and upgrades (or rather sidegrades) for existing characters will be introduced along the way.
Missions are split into two parts, with a checkpoint in the middle, and the first part usually sees you either try to reach a specific location while new enemies keep spawning in or defeat all the Decepticons that stand in your way, and the second part acts as more of a boss battle, where you have to defeat a famous named Decepticon who often has their own unique powers, as well as their bodyguard. It’s a simple mission structure and the mid-level checkpoint makes the game rather forgiving, as neither part tends to be particularly long on their own.
There’s not a huge amount of mission variety, though the game does not have time to get stale, and the map design is varied, even if the objectives are not. The difficulty curve is pretty flat though, the early levels are not significantly easier than the late game ones. Late game you’ll face a few more enemies and the stage gimmicks get a little bit more complex, but even so the game remains pretty easy.
Before rolling out on a mission you need to decide who to bring along. You’ll usually get to pick three characters, out of a roster of six, split into three classes, brawlers (big tough robots), scouts (faster more nimble characters) and support (healers). Every character gets to bring three skills along, one generic for their class, one that’s character specific and then an ultimate (that’s also character specific). And it’s thanks to the varied skills of the characters that the game ends up working surprisingly well. Many of the skills will push or pull characters (friend or foe) around the field or apply different debuffs or buffs, and some allow you to interact with certain stage features. Pushing an enemy into a building, into someone else, or throwing an explosive crate at them will deal bonus damage to them, and it can also help you set up other attacks. Grouping all the enemies together with Windblade and then using Grimlocks area of effect Firebreath to finish them off requires some setting up but means that you can wipe out a large group of basic enemies in one go.
Every character, friend or foe, has three action points per turn. The basic generic attack always costs one, their character specific attack can be powered up and you can spend up to three action points on it, and the ultimate costs no action points. Moving also costs action points, depending on how far you move. The ultimate is really what makes all of this come together. You’ll build ultimate by just using action points, any character that does anything will add to the teams “ultimate meter”, and once it’s half full you can unleash a half-powered attack, or wait until it’s entirely full to use an even more powerful one. The ultimate often has a movement component, and that can be used to set up some really powerful combos with other abilities. Sadly the character balance seems to be a bit off. Optimus Prime and Grimlock are both brawlers, but Optimus just has abilities that are easier to use effectively, and the two support characters are always useful to bring along.
Beyond the campaign there are also challenge missions, that can be played in either single or multiplayer. These are varied, you’ve got capture the flag where you need to steal a flag from the enemy base and bring it to your own, while preventing the enemy from doing the same to you, last stand where you need to fend off hordes of Decepticons and even a mode where you get to take control of the Decepticon forces and use those to fight Autobots.
As someone who grew up with Transformers and has a bit of nostalgia for the franchise, I thought it was fun to re-visit my old childhood favourite, even if it’s not exactly based on the things I watched and read as a kid. That said, without my nostalgia, I would not really have enjoyed this game. Not because it’s bad, but because I’m really not part of the target audience. This is a game for children, ages around 10-15. And as a game for children from that age range, it’s not at all bad, in fact it’s quite good. There’s some tactical depth here and you have to mix up your strategy a bit depending on the level, not much but still some. But if you’re old enough to remember when Optimus Prime got a human engine block because the atmosphere was toxic this game is probably not for you. If you still want to play it, and you are old enough to vote, set the difficulty to hard, unless you’re a complete newcomer to tactics games.
If there’s one criticism I have of the game it’s the fact that it does not do much with the main gimmick of the Transformers franchise, the fact that the robots transform. Some of the ultimates sees the Transformers transform, and characters that can turn into planes will use that to get over terrain, plus if a character moves a long distance they’ll usually turn into a vehicle, but the transformations themselves are not baked into the gameplay in any meaningful way, and that’s a missed opportunity.