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Transformers Prime (Wii U) review: Gateway gaming

Much like the TV series that it’s based on, Nowpro’s video game treatment of Transformers Prime is designed to appeal to a younger audience. That isn’t a bad thing at all, and there’s actually a (mostly) solid little brawler tucked away here,  but it’s best to set your expectations properly before diving in. If you’re the sort who spends countless hours with a gamepad or gaming mouse/keyboard beneath your fingers, this isn’t a game that will give you any trouble. It’s a “gateway game,” the sort of experience that will challenge a youngster, but not in an overpowering way. It’s Final Fight, it’s Golden Axe, it’s [insert nostalgia-fueled brawler of choice here] for a younger generation.

Exactly What Meets The Eye

I was chatting with Digital Trends contributor and fellow 30-something Anthony Agnello yesterday about my review assignment for Transformers Prime. “You and I both know that isn’t Optimus Prime,” he said in reference to the Peter Cullen-voiced character who leads the Autobots in the new series, just as he did back in the ’80s. That offhand comment says a lot, I think, about where this Transformers Prime game sits in the context of the larger industry.

It’s kids who are are watching the new TV series, for the most part. They’re busy forming connections with these new (or newly re-imagined) characters in the same way that Anthony and I did almost 30 years ago. These characters will stick with today’s youngsters for decades to come. They’ll be framed with the same sort of rose-tinted nostalgia that leads Anthony and I to agree now that Prime‘s Optimus is not the Optimus we know. And I have to say: viewed through that lens, this Transformers Prime game delivers pretty much exactly what those future nostalgia trips might look back to.

In adult gamer terms, Prime is a pretty straightforward brawler with a fun and engaging combat system that is built around a mixture of melee and ranged combo attacks. There’s more depth than just light punch and heavy punch, though not so much that a 10-year-old couldn’t grasp it. It seems to strike a good balance, offering up an expected assortment of close-up and ranged attackers that all require different strategies to take down. I say “seems to” because I’m more than two decades removed from my 10-year-old self, but if my 2-year-old niece can zip around an iPad with the ease that I’ve seen then I have to assume that a 10-year-old in 2012 can handle the limited depth of Transformers Prime. Especially if an adult gamer-type sits down as well to enjoy some local two-player co-op.

Nowpro’s efforts also score big for offering up a varied experience in other ways. You get to play as the series’ five “Team Prime” Autobot characters: Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Arcee, Ratchet, and Bulkhead. Each one brings a unique feel and flavor to the game both in their robot and vehicle forms, but each one is also ultimately driven by the same core mechanics. The story is a standard-issue Transformers outing, with the good-hearted alien robots pushing back against the latest plot from Megatron and his Decepticon forces, a world domination plot that position Earth as the many battleground.

Environments are simple, boxy battle arenas for the most part, colored over with limited detail and tailor-made for plenty of robot-on-robot punching. The tropes of arcade brawlers are leaned on heavily in the offering of breakable, pick-up-concealing boxes while console gaming get an investment-focused nod in the form of collectible Cybertronian Artifacts that unlock gallery content. Then there’s the unique Transformers flavor that washes over everything, with each playable character able to transform into a vehicle on the fly. This is helpful for zipping around the larger environments, but vehicle form is also useful in combat for strafe-shooting and the occasional rushing combo. As I mentioned previously, there’s a surprising level of depth here.

The only real stumble comes in the form of vehicle-focused mission sequences that locks a character in vehicle form as he or she races ever-forward for one reason or another. The sequences themselves offer a nice change of pace, but Nowpro bafflingly forces players to rely on tilt-based motion controls for steering (in the Wii/Wii U releases, at any rate). The tilt controls are, as you might expect, not the greatest. Your vehicles veer left and right all too slowly, which gives way to tilts that overcompensate and send you careening into an endless Pit O’ Death.  This is further complicated by driving sequences that add a timer to the mix as well, especially since the timer doesn’t reset to where it was if you fall off the path and have to respawn.

A nitpicker could also reasonably take issue with the game’s visual execution, at least in the Wii U release. The game just doesn’t match the visual flair of any of the other launch titles for Nintendo’s new console. Of course, the game was also designed first for the Wii, which means that the Wii U SKU is actually a port. The graphics are noticeably sharper on the new platform, but they’re still bound by the limited graphical bells and whistles that the Wii is locked to. The Wii U version also doesn’t do much with the new console’s second screen interface. You can use it to chart your mission and challenge progress as you play or you can instead simply play entirely from the second screen. That’s all though.

Conclusion

Transformers Prime earns a well-deserved place in the holiday 2012 calendar as a worthy, worthwhile gift for younger gamers. It’s entertaining enough as a Transformers romp, with a lot more depth than you’d typically expect to see in a kid-friendly brawler. Perhaps it won’t convince a 30-something like me to cast aside Call of Duty, but that’s also not at all what it’s trying to be. This is gateway gaming for a younger audience, the sort of accessible play that threatens to stick around long after it’s been outgrown by its intended audience.

Score: 7.5 out of 10 

(This game was reviewed on the Wii U, using a copy provided by the publisher)