Quick little caveat before we start: I’m not that big a Transformers fan as people around my age seem to be. Oh sure, I can recognise a lot of the major players in Transformers: Battlegrounds, I’m not that bad. But if you asked me to list off the Gen 1 Transformers from the toy line then I will probably struggle.
I’m also not the biggest fan of turn-based, XCOM-like strategy games. I used to be, with Front Mission 3 being one of my favourite PlayStation games back in the day. But as of late, I haven’t got the patience for them. Saying that, it was XCOM: Enemy Unknown that put me off of them, but that game was notorious for being difficult.
Thankfully, Transformers: Battlegrounds is nowhere near as hard as XCOM. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, more a My First Turn-Based Tactical game for a younger crowd. Well, why else would it look like its Cartoon Network counterpart, rather than its original aesthetic…? It would certainly explain why it looks like a game built for tablets, at least.
The real question, though, is whether it’s actually any good, or just insulting to the nostalgic audience whilst being a lacklustre game in general? Let’s do what that Optical Prime says frequently and roll them out…
Once Upon a Toy Line…
If I know anything about Transformers, it’s that its storyline and generic as the production line that the toys roll off of. The Autobots are the good robots, led by Optimus Prime, and they guard the Allspark. The Decepticons, the naughty bad robots led by the better named Megatron, want the Allspark. This magical macguffin has been coveted by the Decepticons for like, ever, and the Autobots are the protectors of it. That’s… pretty much it, as far as overarching plot goes.
That they’re on Earth at all is just out of convenience to drive the human element of the game. You, the unnamed token human, are inadvertently caught up in a skirmish between Bumblebee and some Decepticons. Rather than have you as collateral damage, Bumblebee has mobile annoyance unit Teletraan X hoist you away from danger. This framing device lets you, the hero, guide the battles from a top-down perspective.
It’s quite a neat little touch as it gives you , the player, the sense that you’re the one literally controlling the Autobots and where they need to go. From this vantage point, you’re free to oversee each fight and how to plan ahead. From a basic point of view (no pun intended) it serves as a functional, turn-based strategy game.
Is It My Turn Yet?
If you’re unsure as to how turn-based strategy games work then… well, it’s pretty self-explanatory, really. You have your movement and attack phase, then the enemy forces have theirs. How long yours takes depends on how many Autobots you have for battle, as is the same for the Decepticons.
Each turn grants you an allowance of Action Points (AP), in which you can move and perform attacks or special moves with. How far you move will deduct from your AP count accordingly: a short hop will be one point, a sprint down a street will cost two or three. Basic attacks, like blaster shots, usually cost one AP, whilst special attacks can cost anywhere between one to three. Windblade’s special at the higher cost will do more damage and cover more of the grid, for example.
You can only attack once per character phase, but move as much as your point bank allows. So, theoretically, you can move into range for a blaster shot, pick a target and do damage, and then high-tail it away to cover. The neat thing about Transformers: Battlegrounds is that it’s actually behind cover. So if, say, you dash away to a tile around the corner of a building, you’ll be in cover and out of the enemy’s line of sight.
Point, Click, Quip
That’s the main gameplay tenet covered, but what about the characters that inhabit it? Well, they’re about as do-good, substituting-curse-words-for-robot-terminology and all-round charming as you’d expect. The Autobots have Optimus Prime, Bumblebee (with a regular voice, no sound bite nonsense), Windblade, Wheeljack and Grimlock, to name a few. Also, I didn’t realise Grimlock spoke rather eloquently when not in Dinobot form. Certainly made me laugh.
The Decepticons, meanwhile, have leader Megatron, Shockwave, Starscream and Shadowstriker to play around with. You only play as the Autobots in the Story campaign, but the Arcade mode lets you have fun with either side, including a Decepticon Grudge Match against the Autobots. If you’re feeling like testing skills out on a friend, you can have a second player join in the fun too. You can have them aid you or stand in your way, but remember, it’s only local multiplayer. So no massive, Command & Conquer style skirmishes online.
Whilst I’m sure fans of the franchise will know exactly what’s going on, newcomers (like me) are going to be a bit lost. Hell, I didn’t even know there was a Cyberverse cartoon in recent years, let alone this game being modeled on it. Certainly explains the Cartoon Network vibe with the art style, at least.
Which is why starting Story Mode wasn’t as simple as you’d think it would be…
Establishing Story? Is That A Human Concept?
Normally, you start the Story Mode of a game and you’d at least expect some kind of introduction. A text crawl, an establishing cutscene, anything. Something just to set the scene, your motive, why the hell these giant robots are on Earth at all.
Nope. Transformers: Battlegrounds starts with “Mission Select”. Not “Start Campaign/Story” or anything that might seem helpful, just the mission selection option. So, you naturally pick the first one available, and you’re introduced to Bumblebee, Teletraan X and you, the human battle overseer. That’s it, then you’re slowly introduced to each gameplay mechanic for the next several missions. After a fashion, the game does allow you to work out battles by yourself, but it wants to make sure you know every single option available. Which, honestly, I find kind of annoying.
It’s nice to be told how to play a game, obviously. But the tutorial approach should be more like stabilisers than hand-holding: here’s how to do it, go and find out the [potentially] hard way. Not this constant nannying about every single thing. Half the fun of a game is finding out things for yourself. When a game tells you exactly what to do and what effect it’ll have, it takes the fun out of discovery.
Mobile Ports In Disguise
If you had no background of how turn-based games, but you know your Unicrons from your Omega Supremes, then Tranformers: Battlegrounds isn’t a terrible place to start. There’s three difficulty settings that can go from easing you in to actual meaty challenge, as well as the relevant trophies/achievements.
Likewise, if you’re a fan of the Cyberverse iteration of the show and the look and sound of its aesthetic and voice actors, you’ll enjoy this. It has that pseudo cel-shaded look that over cartoon games transition to 3D with, like Samurai Jack. It’s not terrible, it’s just odd seeing normally 2D cartoons brought into the third dimension.
However, if you”re one of those more “serious” gamers who want a bit more depth to your games, this may surprise you. For all its colour and constant talking (usually between turn phases), Battlegrounds looks and feels every part like a badly ported mobile game. Unlike XCOM, the world around you feels so flat and static that it just looks like any basic shovelware game that you see countless adverts pop up for.
What I mean is, I can see kids sat down and playing this on iPads more than I can adults playing this on home consoles. I know graphics don’t make a game but everything about this feels basic and lacklustre. I keep expecting pop ups telling me to invest in more Action Points or that I can buy more characters for Arcade mode or something.
Roll Out For The Fans
Now, I understand that a review is my personal opinion of a game, and it may not reflect yours. Personally, I did not enjoy Transformers: Battlegrounds. It wasn’t borne out of bias for not enjoying turn-based tactical games, because I never said I didn’t like them. It’s just XCOM really is bloody difficult.
It’s just that this feels insultingly light, or turn-based-lite, to be a console game. The basic looking world around you would be perfectly serviceable on a tablet screen, but it looks void of any life on a console. The constant interruptions and hand-holding for a surprisingly large part of the campaign just hang that air of intrusive pop-ups at any minute.
It’s not a terrible game, and as an introduction to the genre to say, a younger audience, it’s fine. But for adults, even long-term fans of the show, it’s just not an engaging experience that I feel I want to see to completion. If you are a Transformers fan, you’ll know the story already. Whereas going in blind, you’re not going to get all the nods, references and cameo appearances from “fan favourites”. If it’s just a companion piece for the Cyberverse show, then it alienates anyone that’s never seen it, like me.
Transformers: Battlegrounds is essentially a game run on fan service, but only a niche fan base that have seen the particular cartoon iteration. For everyone else, it’s a barely engaging, bland looking turn-based tactical game without any life to it… and I don’t just mean the robots.
Unless you’re a lifelong fan, Transformers: Battlegrounds will offer little in the way of depth to the “casuals”. As a game, it feels like a badly ported mobile game barely fleshed out for the console players.
Transformers: Battlegrounds is available now on Xbox One (reviewed on), PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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