Sod the modern fixation with irony. Back in the 80s the Transformers were the most exciting toy in the universe. With only the homoerotic stylings of He Man for company, nothing - nothing - seemed more alluring to young minds than a 20 foot (well, eight inch) robot that could fire pseudo-nuclear missiles and transform into a Lamborghini. It was brilliant. Until, er... you actually started playing and everything fell to shit. Most bots (well, Megatron) took ten minutes to transform, the rockets wouldn't fire and after ten minutes of making "pzhew, pzhew, pzheeew!" laser noises even the most confident child would be riddled with crippling self-doubt. Worse, if you'd accidentally bought robot-cum-microscope Perceptor, every battle became an elaborate justification for examining soil samples. The toys were clumsy, fragile and waaay less fun than they looked - in other words, the exact opposite of Transformers on PS2.
Don't get us wrong, Atari's game looks beau-di-ful, with sprawling vistas, gushing river spray and rock-solid draw distances. The too-good-to-be-true first screenshots don't lie - the environments are truly lush, almost evocative of Halo on - yes - Xbox. You can zoom in at any time to admire the texture detail on a passing drop ship and fly, drive or trundle to any visible landmark on the horizon.
Controls? Like Medal of Honor in the third-person. The right stick aims, and the left chucks around your metal schizophrenic. The 'weight' of the characters is spot on, with Optimus Prime handling like, well, an articulated lorry and lighter characters Red Alert and Hot Shot moving like sprightly ten tonne automatons. The heroes fall into the universal categories of strong but slow (Prime), fast but weak (Hot Shot) and the all-rounder (Red Alert). Prime's advantage is that he can run over foes in his truck form, while Hot Shot can leap bigger gaps and evade missiles. Red Alert's main strength is that he looks a bit... erm gay, like an SUV version of C3PO.
For fans of the comic - even those who bought the Head Masters plot, where little men underwent surgery and became the Transfomers' heads - the story's slightly contrived. Due to restrictions imposed by toy makers Hasbro, neither the Autobots or Decepticons can be destroyed, leading to an invention of an entirely new species - the Decepticlones. With no purpose other than mobile cannon fodder, the clones bumble around waiting to kiss your lasers and excreting - this gets worse - Energon crystals. These can be used to power your Mini-Cons. Ah, yes...
The Mini-Cons are little bolt-on bots that act as power ups (more on that later). A spaceship full of 'em landed on Earth, ooh... ages ago and now the Autobots and Decepticons are scrapping over them to gain superiority. Basically, it's an excuse for boss battles with faves such as Starscream, Megatron and - check this - Unicron, the planet devouring, near-omnipotent, giant ball bearing from the movie (voiced by Citizen Kane Director Orson Wells, stat buffs).
While combat is essentially basic - lock-on, strafe and shoot - a patient approach is invaluable. Make no mistake, this game's tough. We waded into a four Decepticlone ambush with all-guns-blazing and left with our metal ass handed back on a missile. You've really got to duck and weave, taking care not to overheat your primary blaster and using the element of surprise. Stealth isn't the right word - an articulated lorry lacks the fidelity of Solid Snake - but you can scope your foes from distant outcrops before charging in.
Strategy derives from in your employment of Mini-cons. Each teeny bot - over 40 of them - offers a different ability, from armour to glider wings. You can only equip four Mini-Cons at any one time, with the ability to reconfigure mid-level at the save point warp gates. The problem is that different combos of Mini-cons drain your Energon supply too quickly, so you need to create a balance to avoid overheating.
Highlights? Turning Optimus Prime into a truck, then scattering the Decepticlones like skittles. You can even ram into someone and transform in mid-air while targeting another foe directly behind. Or use the glider to sail between outcrops while popping off shots with the grenade launcher.
You could curse the absence of a multiplayer mode, the choice of only three Autobots (why Red Alert, not Sideswipe?) and the relatively simple arcade mechanics. But that's not the point. Far from a cynical marketing exercise, or another worthless piece of ironic merchandising, Transformers is meant to be played - and that's a whole lot more than you can say for the toys.
Transformers will be released on PS2 in May