Deep in a techno jungle of sparks, sludge, and flux-less capacitors, a war wages between one arbitrary group of robots and another. One team glows red and the other glows purple. I might ask, why not throw down your semi-advanced weaponry and participate in an all-out robot rave? Because that’s what it looks like.
Some raves might be well-curated, conscious dance meditations, while others explode into the night with a flurry of extraneous teenagers taking recreational drugs and trying not to puke. Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark neatly falls into the latter category.
Granted, in playing Dark Spark, you’re surely saving money on last-minute costume ideas. An ultra tie-in between Activision’s super fun Cybertron games and Paramount’s lackluster movie universe, the game pits you in a campaign to acquire the titular “Dark Spark,” a shameless expository something that crosses dimensions and might potentially destroy the universe and stuff.
Controlling both the heroically two-dimensional Autobots and the unbelievably inept Decepticons, the player slapsticks his or her way around war-torn Earth and Cybertron (the Transformers’ dying battery of a home planet), shooting hoards of robot-likes and transforming into cars and planes that go real fast. The game excels in flashy, pulsated surges of enemies, keeping the stimulation high as you switch forms either to make a quick getaway, shift weapon styles, or simply to see the cool transformations.
Weapons-wise, you’re given the choice of customizing light and heavy artillery for your bot, transferrable as you switch perspectives throughout the campaign. Satisfyingly explosive rocket launchers, cluster bomb grenades, chain lightning zappers, and even a nostalgic pew-pew blaster accompany your arsenal. You employ these in what might look like a Gears-esque cover shooter in which the cover has been scrapped to favor more, you know, shooting. Even maps are cycled out, setting waypoints only when necessary. These tiny details show the conscious choices to keep the player’s mind focused on what matters: the shooting.
At times, I found myself delightedly inundated: switching weapons on the fly, navigating through hordes of gunfire and being overrun by enemies, as if in a sort of nuevo take on classics like Serious Sam, MDK2,or Jet Force Gemini. Once I left Cybertron, however, and returned to Paramount Earth, levels grew clunky and hard to navigate. One tasked me with maintaining sniper cover while grappling to different vantage points across a chasm, and I ended up abandoning the tactic because said sniper absolutely sucked. Then, I got lost and drove around looking for a way out in what felt like an unworkable debug room.
Holding these experiences together is a narrative of infuriatingly blandness. Not that I’m the biggest fan of the movies, but as we zipped between universes I expected the slightest attempt at what is known as story, at least in pure dumb fun. The pivotal worlds-colliding moment unfolds like news station commentary as the player is informed: “Hey, remember that Dark Spark? Well, now it’s in Hollywood, because Hollywood said so. Deal with it.”
A game of this cacophonous stupidity could thrive online, so I headed to its “Escalation” mode with some anticipation. In it, you and a few friends stave off waves of computer-controlled enemies, playing as 40 of your favorite and not-so favorite Transformers, customizing abilities, hacks, weapons, and earning unlockables for the campaign. Unfortunately, there’s only the one mode, and while fun, it’s bereft of strategy. How I survived without ammo for three swarms I have no idea.
Still, there’s something to be said for small pleasures. Clicking the left joystick to make my teenage rave robot transform filled me with the same sense of glee I felt when playing with these toys as a kid. Inasmuch as a game might be an exercise in nostalgia, Dark Spark brought those toys to life. Being a robot that can transform into different shapes and use cartoony weapons to blow up other robots is fun, and maybe story is unnecessary for this kind of play. Sometimes, all you need is for neon strobes, dry ice machines and deep house bass to blast your senses into joyful oblivion.