Not going to lie – when Transformers: Battlegrounds was announced my immediate impressions based off the name alone was that it was going to be a battle royale game. Thoughts flooded into my head of a massive open world, where all manner of robots in disguise would clash in all manner of giant mechanical melees.
Imagine my surprise when I came to realise it was an XCOM-lite strategy game, with the brightly coloured dudes (and dudettes) from the Cyberverse cartoon taking potshots at each other from behind cars and buildings. I guess the battle royale genre just isn’t ready for Optimus Prime? Their loss.
Either way, the game is somewhat of an odd duck to measure. It’s a unique direction for a Transformers title – the franchise lends itself a little more towards the ACTION and EXPLOSIONS side of gaming, with a slew of third-person shooty titles in the past and even the odd fighting game. Taking the time to stop and think about your next action is a welcome change of robotic pace that I was quite intrigued to immerse myself in.
Meet me out the back of Burger King, Decepticon PUNK
And immerse myself I did… over the course of a story that clocks in at around five or so hours of playtime, maybe less if you minus the one level I discovered had a no-win scenario within it.
Battlegrounds seems to fit in that category of game that I would have been delighted to discover on the Xbox 360 ‘arcade’ back in the ye olde days, where ten or so dollars would net you a neat indie title with a fun gameplay loop that will distract you for a few hours. Instead, Battlegrounds finds itself sitting on the shelf alongside AAA priced titles, with a cost that is not too dissimilar. With a $70 dollar price tag at EB games, and a smattering of $5 cosmetic DLC offerings, it left a bad taste in my mouth, at least from a monetary aspect. Anyway, enough griping… is the game actually fun to play?
Big time strategy going on here as I plan my next Optimus YEET
Battlegrounds actually manages to nail the idea of a back-to-basics, turn-based strategy game. Simple grid-based movement and attacks play off a simple action economy that has no surprises. Everyone gets three action points – everyone. Bumblebee, the scrappy scout with low health and abilities to stun the enemy? Three action points. Optimus Prime, heroic leader of the Autobots, packing a huge gun and a mighty ability to literally YEET a Decepticon vast distances for a near guaranteed KO? Three action points my dude. It means every action you take can be easily measured, as you count the few coins in your hand and see what the best value for money might be at the lolly counter. The fewer action points spent on moving, the more you can leverage harder hitting abilities. Take one step, and fire a massive laser shot into that baddy that has wandered into your range? Or maybe it would be better to use more action points, and position yourself to create a deadzone to herd the enemies towards someone who does not move at all, and instead readies a huge attack that will go off on the enemies’ turn. The strategic nature of the turn-by-turn combat can be exceptionally fun when things start to align.
However, this is routinely hampered by repetitive level objectives, and downright questionable enemy AI. The game leans far too heavily on the mechanic of ‘get to the objective area to complete the level’, with these experiences easily being the lion’s share of the game. Each time you will find yourself placed on one side of a landscape, with a field of chokepoints and goons standing in the way of a purple area that serves as your exit point. As you defeat enemies, more will spawn on the next enemy turn to ensure you will always be encountering resistance. Even when you get a bit of a rhythm going and decide to take your time on these maps and enjoy the strategic combat – a message will eventually display explaining that YOU CAN’T DEFEAT ALL OF THEM, GET TO THE EXIT – effectively shaming you for not keeping your eye on the ‘prize’. At one point a level even incorporated a creeping wall of death, to make sure I was trudging ever forward. My only fond memory of that level was having Optimus Prime yeet a Deceptigoon into the wall of death, unlocking an achievement for my trouble. I then entirely forgot about it until just now.
This is actually fantastic writing
Finally, there is the enemy AI. Even when you up the game’s difficulty, the singleplayer enemies still make baffling decisions. The game incorporates no ‘fog of war’ mechanic, so I assume that enemies are aware of you at all times – heck, the way they attack at times makes it feel like this is the case. Hit and run tactics abound, and clever positioning can make some bad guys downright difficult to displace. However, other generic robot thugs will wander into firing lines and get annihilated on your first round of combat. Flying enemies will move into areas that I can’t possibly access, and then waste their next turn flying back out of them. It all came to a head when I was finally fighting the mighty Megatron, commander of the Decepticon army – despoiler of worlds and herald of so much doom – and the dude used a movement ability to plop himself directly next to my three hardest hitters. At first, I thought he might channel some devastating ‘Ultimate Ability’ (a unique attack that can be performed regardless of remaining action points) but instead he just… ended his turn. I sat for a moment, processing what I just witnessed, before queueing up the most crushing abilities I could on him, where I defeated him in two rounds of combat.
It was an experience.
I find myself questioning if instead the game suffers from a lack of ambition
Visually, the clean aesthetics lend themselves well to capturing the simplistic visuals of the cartoon, and the voice acting is every bit as enjoyable as the cartoon – with each voice actor present and accounted for. Even the spread of characters is reasonably generous, with some smaller role characters getting a decent chop of time in the game. I am also quite impressed with how the characters all seem to talk to each other based on your pre-mission selection, with dialogue that refers to both the level and the enemies within it. It is a nice touch that should be commended.
Mechanically though, the game does have some strange issues. On my PS4, I would routinely get framerate drops at times that I would hardly call taxing. Using the ‘Fast-Forward’ feature to quickly move through an enemies turn was so choppy and unstable that I actually stopped using it for fear that the game might freeze or crash – it was just so buggy and unsettling to use. Then there are minor details, like feminine characters speaking with a masculine voice during a cutscene, to then suddenly speak with a female voice once the gameplay started. Couple this with oddities like playing ‘guess what foreground element will entirely hide your character when you walk behind it’ and ‘you can choose a target enemy for this attack, but you can’t choose the angle of how it will affect them’ and you end up feeling a little soured.
Big bot got a big bang
Even now I am not wholly convinced the game was not initially birthed as a mobile platform game – hell it does nothing to convince me otherwise. And I do not simply mean phones and tablets – I am talking about dedicated gaming handhelds also. There is an odd feeling of reservedness across many of the game’s systems, like it was being very deliberately created for a platform that is quite narrow in scope. A layer of simplicity that seems far too well curated to be attributed to developer inability. However, browsing the library of games developed by COATSINK, they are an eclectic developer – not a ‘mobile’ one.
So instead, I find myself questioning if instead the game suffers from a lack of ambition. The entire experience feels all too safe, and while I know it might be the ramblings of a 30-something-year-old Transformers fan looking for treasure in a thrift store – I just can’t help but feel that the brief for ‘simplistic strategy game starring big cartoon robots’ was met with little resistance, and the title just got packaged and shipped without any real wonder or daring being applied.
You could arguably swap out the Transformers IP with any other suitable cartoon entity, and you’d have an identical experience with different active players – it feels that safe, it’s almost a template.
What comes next is good ol’ fashioned violence
Transformers: Battlegrounds is a mess. But, stay with me on this one – it’s not an unsightly mess. The game manages to capture an enjoyable gameplay loop when many of its errant factors align, and its narrative is a fun little cartoon romp… but the enjoyable moments are fighting to rise above a mire of mediocrity that threatens to swallow the entire title up.
When the game is fun – it’s a hoot, when it isn’t fun – it’s tedious… and when it isn’t tedious, it’s downright boring. Somewhat worth a play, but measure your price accordingly to ensure you get the right return on investment.
Reviewed on PS4 // Review code supplied by publisher