Ever since Firaxis released XCOM, the profile of turn-based squad level strategy has increased, and there has been a wave of contenders releasing on console and PC with mixed success. Even the mighty Julian Gollop returned to the fray with the long gestating “Phoenix Point”, attempting to embrace the modern whilst still retaining some of the old granular charm of the original X-COM: UFO Defence.
Transformers: Battlegrounds has attempted to take the theme of small-scale skirmishes between a few characters on each side and move it to the Transfomers setting, with many of the familiar 80’s toy characters present, including Megatron, Starscream, Bumblebee, Grimlock (my favourite as a kid) and, of course, Optimus himself.
The game sees you take the role of an unnamed human caught up in a skirmish between the good-guy Autobots and the bad-guy Decepticons. Luckily, you are not Shia and the humans aren’t a big part of the story. Instead, you are whisked up into the air for safety – something that makes little sense given that most of the Decepticons can transform into planes. You can then issue orders of move and attack to your Transformers as they take on legions of generic bad-guys, as well as named ones that offer a bit more of a challenge.
The controls are fairly simple, with the shoulder buttons used to change characters or dictate which attack you plan to use. Each character has three actions so they are all quite nimble, though each can generically only attack once. It’s quite possible to start off out of view of your enemies, make an attack and then vanish back behind cover again. However, as your opponents can often move quite a long way, they can easily get back into an attacking position; cover is far less important than in XCOM.
Much of the terrain is breakable, which makes sense given the huge scale of the battling behemoths. Fences collapse as you walk over them, parked cars explode and rocks produce dust-clouds, for some reason, when they are hit by gunfire. Later on in the campaign you’ll also encounter energon cubes which will charge up your “ultimate” meter that will allow you to make some great special moves. These energon cubes are, however, unstable and a couple of hits will see them blow up, causing a lot of damage to anyone standing by them.
Combat is fairly straightforward, with most characters packing a ranged shot and then a variable special attack which has more range or damage depending on how many actions you dedicate to it. Bumblebee has a stinger attack with his sword which can also nerf the enemy characters’ ability to return fire, whilst Grimlock just chomps pieces of metal out of the hide of his foes. Most enemy grunts can only take a few hits before dying so combat is fairly swift, and the good-guys are far tougher than the average bad-guy. Named villains, especially bosses, put up far more of a fight and are often backed by a swarm of generic grunts.
As you work through the campaign, which is actually fully voice acted though the presentation is almost as a static comic book, you’ll earn spark points which can be spent to unlock and equip new attacks for your characters. As you progress, you’ll also encounter and unlock the use of new characters, often swapping a few members of your squad around, though only three Autobots can be deployed into combat. Unlike XCOM, this game doesn’t feature perma-death, so you can avoid Transformers 1984-style trauma.
The missions tend to be fairly simple with either a “reach this spot” or “take out the baddies” as your directive. Your team, which can consist of nimble scouts, healing support characters and hard-hitting brawlers, will need to work together to overcome the numerically superior enemies, but the challenge level is usually nice and low. You can also replay a level at a higher difficulty level to earn more spark points but the desire to grind out these is fairly minimal, with the level variation beyond the scenery low.
Graphically, Transformers: Battlegrounds is quite nice, with simple cartoony graphics that offer something closer to a modern cartoon show than either the anime inspired 80’s cartoons or the CGI madness of the awful Michael Bay movies. The characters move well around the maps, with decent little touches such as transforming when they cross over a building or are moving quickly. The scenery is a bit bland, but nice and colourful, and you can always tell what everything is and what it is meant to be.
The sound effects are fine, if a bit childish, with little beeps and zips for the weapon sounds and the transformation noises, though not quite the cherished ones of the 80’s cartoons. The audience for Battlegrounds appears to be that of parents to play this game with their kids or the kids to play the game alone. And that works as the game is simple, not too challenging and there’s no content that would worry a parent. The violence is very cartoony and there’s no “death” as such, though plenty of mild peril.
In terms of difficulty, it offers a gradually increasing challenge as you’ll be pushed to learn new concepts, to equip the right skills and to use your team efficiently. The new toys are drip fed in gradually and you’ll never feel overwhelmed. For a child, this is probably about the right speed, though anyone under, say, seven or eight playing alone may prefer something that runs a bit quicker. However, with only three friendlies to move, the turns roll over quite fast.
The game also features a simple arcade mode so you can recreate some fights and even play local multiplayer.
All in all, Transformers: Battlegrounds on Xbox One offers a nice, simple set of virtual toys that you can play with, with a campaign of decent length and some interesting choices to make about customization and which characters to use. It lacks, of course, the deep customization of something like XCOM or XCOM 2, and there is something to be said that without permadeath the model doesn’t quite have the same tension. You know that if Bumblebee bites the dust, he’ll be back in the next mission.
For younger gamers Battlegrounds may well hold more appeal with the lack of mission and enemy variety, as well as the somewhat simplistic squad management being probably about the right level. It’s also quite conceivable that a parent and child combo could have some fun playing this one through together.