Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark review

  • XP and challenge-based rewards are a fun way to progress
  • Escalation mode is still hugely enjoyable
  • Smashing Decepticons as Grimlock is fun
  • Flat pacing
  • Frustratingly uneven difficulty
  • Very little gameplay variation

It was really only a matter of time before Activision mashed its dueling Transformers universes together. War for Cybertron and its sequel, Fall of Cybertron, are relative critical successes on their own merits, while the movie tie-in games have the instant cachet of being linked with summer blockbusters. It's easy to imagine that combining them would bring out the best in both franchises, or at the very least strike marketing gold. Instead, Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is a limp, plodding shooter that does little to elevate the movie universe, and drags the Cybertron series down in the process.

Establishing the Cybertron games as prequels to the movies, Dark Spark splits its 14 chapters between the film continuity--which sees Autobots Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Drift trying to wrest the titular macguffin away from new villain Lockdown--and the Cybertron timeline, where the perspective switches between Autobots and Decepticons as they battle over the Dark Spark in what amounts to an extended flashback. It's a potentially interesting approach, but the two pieces don't ever really feel like they connect. In fact, the modern levels are so ugly and generic that they feel like afterthoughts meant to prop up a shorter-than-normal Cybertron campaign.

Playing--in general terms--like Fall of Cybertron, Dark Spark devotes each chapter to a different character (or group of characters) with a special ability, some more useful than others. Sideswipe, for example, can climb around quickly with a versatile grappling hook, while Drift can instantly slash any enemies in view to pieces. Optimus has a shield, Soundwave can distract enemies with his avian sidekick Laserbeak, Sharpshot turns invisible, and so on. Apart from their abilities, however, everyone feels more or less the same; each robot transforms into either a gun-covered wheeled vehicle or a flying one (both with confusing controls), and everyone can carry two huge, impressively destructive firearms at a time, from an upgradable, unlockable stash of 20.

The similarities with Fall of Cybertron don't end with basic gameplay; in fact, Dark Spark feels like nothing so much as an uninspired expansion, as if scenes were scraped together from FoC's cutting-room floor and cobbled into a new game using the same assets. No matter what the setting, the action boils down to little more than tromping around and shooting the same largely indistinguishable robots--or worse, robot bugs--over and over again. And that might not be so bad, except that the story and pacing are so resolutely tepid that there's no real sense of purpose or urgency to pull you through firefight after repetitive firefight.

One hand behind your back

Want to earn more XP in a hurry? Rise of the Dark Spark's optional "hacks" can give you fat bonuses, but they come at a steep price. If you're confident in your aim, for example, you can turn off your HUD, including your targetting reticle and any button prompts. You can also toughen up your enemies, make it so your shield only recharges with kills, or make enemies explode when killed. These are great for challenge-seekers and dedicated players, but those simply aiming to slog through once may want to pass. 

Worse, the difficulty spikes suddenly and unexpectedly throughout the campaign. One second, you might be effortlessly mowing down waves of Decepticon thugs; the next, they'll suddenly swarm and reduce you to scrap in two hits. Dark Spark especially likes to spring these moments on you during long, hold-the-fort-against-waves-of-enemies sequences that you'll inevitably have to start over. And then start over again.

High Moon Studios, the series' usual developer, didn't work on Dark Spark, and it shows. The game exhibits signs of sloppiness, ranging from last-gen-looking graphics and sound that gets muffled when characters talk, to nagging crashes while upgrading weapons. More importantly, however, it feels soulless next to High Moon's work. 

Fall of Cybertron knows how to pace its levels, smartly building tension and releasing it in breakneck, thrill-ride moments. Dark Spark settles for nonchalantly dumping you into half-baked obstacle courses and enemy-filled arenas, and then tacks on optional challenge objectives or arbitrary timers by way of variety. Fall continually gives you reasons to transform and move quickly; Dark Spark will occasionally remember to design a level around flight. And where Fall has funny banter and memorable characters, Dark Spark manages the impressive feat of making a giant, transforming robot samurai insufferably dull by giving him nothing but whiny lines about honor.

As deeply flawed as it is, though, Dark Spark isn't an unremittingly terrible game. Building on the same basic mechanics that made its predecessors fun, it manages to be a bland but serviceable shooter, and it can be enjoyable when it isn't being randomly unfair. It even has a few standout moments, like getting to stomp around as robot T-Rex Grimlock or Decepticon giant Bruticus, although those don't happen very often.

More interestingly, Dark Spark also introduces a new upgrade system. Rather than letting you beef up your weaponry and consumable power-ups with currency, Dark Spark hands out reward packages based on experience points and challenges. Did you just hit level 12? You get a prize box! Did you kill 250 Decepticons, destroy six hidden billboards, or complete any of the other optional challenges the game throws your way? Prize boxes all around!

Each one is like a pack of cards, doling out a randomized assortment of multiplayer characters, weapon upgrades, and consumables. This doesn't always work in your favor--you might fully upgrade guns you never use, while your favorites never improve--and opening boxes gets laborious after a while, especially if they're full of items you've already unlocked. Still, it's a fun idea that creates a regular sense of reward, and in a game this drab, that counts for something.

Aside from its campaign, Rise of the Dark Spark also brings back its predecessors' Escalation mode (sadly not present in the Wii U version), which lets four players fight off waves of enemies while (ideally) protecting each other and upgrading their base with automated defenses. This is easily one of Dark Spark's most enjoyable aspects, especially if you've got a competent team together, although it's the only online mode you'll find here; the competitive multiplayer and co-op modes from previous Cybertron games are conspicuously absent.

In trying to be both a movie tie-in and an interquel to a fan-favorite series, Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark creates two different sets of expectations. Looking at it as a summer-movie game, it feels like a well-intentioned experiment gone awry. And really, given how movie-games so often turn out, it could have been a lot worse  As a Cybertron entry however, lackluster design and unremarkable action make Dark Spark a sad disappointment. I can only hope it's meant as a spin-off, and not an indicator of the series' future.

More Info

Release date: Jun 24 2014 - Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, PC, 3DS (US)
Available Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, PC, 3DS
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating:
Teen: Violence

While far from the worst Transformers game, Rise of the Dark Spark's interesting ideas are eclipsed by bland action and frustrating design.

Reviewed on PS4 

Mikel Reparaz

After graduating from college in 2000 with a BA in journalism, I worked for five years as a copy editor, page designer and videogame-review columnist at a couple of mid-sized newspapers you've never heard of. My column eventually got me a freelancing gig with GMR magazine, which folded a few months later. I was hired on full-time by GamesRadar in late 2005, and have since been paid actual money to write silly articles about lovable blobs.

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  • t_skwerl - July 2, 2014 5:07 p.m.

    I'm not surprised. They brought in the Bayformers and everything went to crap, for the most part. And it's just so they can have it coincide with the film's release. I wish they'd just let High Moon work on a proper sequel to Fall of Cybertron instead. Not buying this.
  • ShaneDMcDonie - July 2, 2014 10:31 a.m.

    Hell, I've played worse. I rented it from Red Box and I will probably buy it eventually when it goes to $20. It's not bad, and I say that because I really wanted another Cybertron game, some of it's cheap and there's a lot of "wow, that environment just detailed itself around my character then crapped out. At least it's not Sanctum of Slime. For my first time playing Escalation, it's a lot of fun. Except I've quick matched 4 teams, one guy carried myself and another member til we ran out of lives, I carried a team of 2 others who were kids, twice, and one guy popped in, was really good and we were competing with each other to get the most kills, without me mentioning that to him, until he left.
  • mothbanquet - July 2, 2014 2:52 a.m.

    Sad. Very sad. War and Fall were some of my favourite games in recent years, labours of love that paid a much-loved franchise its rightful dues. To see this...well, while I can't say I'm surprised, I can say a shining piece of the gaming world has fallen into the toilet.
  • Shigeruken - July 2, 2014 12:52 a.m.

    It's a shame the Activision's usual bureaucracy has seen one of the greatest video game franchises marred with a shockingly sub-par release. Hopefully High Moon will get to work on the next Cybertron game (instead of porting the current Call of Duty to last-gen) and forget this travesty ever happened.
  • BladedFalcon - July 1, 2014 10:28 a.m.

    What's this? Activision sneaking in a shitty licensed game without giving review builds to try and sucker in as many chumps as possibles to buy their game? NEVER SAW THAT COMING. Seriously, for all the shit people give EA, at least they don't pull shit like this as shamelessly as Activision does.
  • ObliqueZombie - July 1, 2014 10:44 a.m.

    Will new management, EA seems to be on the turnaround. Activision just hides behind Call of Duty--they make so many crap lincensed games it's embarrassing.
  • BladedFalcon - July 1, 2014 12:02 p.m.

    Pretty much, even the so-called "good" Spider man and transformer games are usually flawed or passable at best. So essentially anything that isn't a Blizzard game or CoD for them is of very dubious quality. Which is why I've never understood why EA gets so much hate compared to activision. Yes, EA tends to have very shitty/dubious tendencies in regards to making money, (their push for online passes, DRM and Microtransactions deserve the hate they get) but overall their games tend to be of much bigger quality than Activision's.
  • Frieza - July 1, 2014 1:59 p.m.

    Maybe because EA is a bigger company, and hold a much greater number of big name games?
  • BladedFalcon - July 1, 2014 5:16 p.m.

    Last I checked, wasn't Activision just as big though?
  • Frieza - July 1, 2014 5:52 p.m.

    I have no idea. I just presumed that EA was bigger because of all the attention they get. I guess I'm just talking out of my ass.
  • BladedFalcon - July 1, 2014 7:39 p.m.

    That's the thing, far as I know, both are just as big, people are jsut more hellbent on hating on EA and thus bring bigger attention to them.