Judging by some of the chatter on online forums, the most anticipated feature of the new Transformers movie is Megan Fox's arse. Fair enough: it is rather lovely, after all, and it's a natural work of art - unlike Michael Bay's über-expensive CGI creations. But for all the pleasures of seeing Ms Fox bent over a motorcycle, the real attraction of any Transformers movie should be big shooty robots.
It's a principle that equally applies to our industry, and yet somehow most of the previous Transformers games have been limper than a used prophylactic. Now, however, Activision has placed the licence in the care of Luxoflux - a company that claims to have a genuine passion for Optimus Prime and friends. Chief creative officer Joby Otero certainly seems to be a real fan, and he's promising that this will be the best Transformers game we've ever seen. Not a colossal claim to make, perhaps, but an important one nonetheless.
Otero states that Luxoflux's approach to the license has been built around three elements: a tight transformation mechanic, player choice (i.e. allowing people to replay missions as different bots) and a thoroughly meaty multiplayer mode. As welcome as those last two ingredients are, it's the first one that's really the most important. Whether you're a courageous Autobot or an evil-as-sin Decepticon, you can transform into your vehicle form at any moment you like, simply by tugging the right trigger on your pad. This same button also acts as an accelerator, and while you do have access to a handbrake you'll invariably find yourself powering ahead at high speed. If you relax the trigger, you'll slow down a bit; let go completely and you'll turn back into standard 'bot form.
This instant transformation is immediately enjoyable, but the real fun begins when you start mixing in other moves. By holding the jump button and releasing the right trigger you'll use your vehicular momentum to pull off a massive leap forward. Other buttons allow you to chain your transformation into a melee move or a ground-shaking stomp. There's a surprisingly wide range of movement abilities at your disposal, but everything feels extremely intuitive. Before long you'll be rocketing across the game worlds, switching back and forth between shapes and clambering up the sides of buildings. There's a highly pleasing sense of momentum here, and at times it feels a bit like you're engaging in some form of massive robot parkour.
While in your normal two-legged form, combat is carried out much like every other third-person shooter on the market: the left trigger brings up your guns to let you aim, while the right fires. Each bot has a primary and secondary attack, reliant upon a cool-down system rather than a limited ammo reserve, as well as a melee attack and a special ability: Optimus Prime gets a to make himself un-killable for a short period of time, Ratchet can heal himself and Ironhide gets a deployable AI turret that can be used to guard turf. There are 15 characters in all, including Megatron, Starscream and Long Haul on the Decepticon side of things, and they each have different speeds, sizes and endurance levels.
In the multiplayer modes, these differences almost serve as makeshift character classes - particularly when you factor in the type of vehicle everyone can transform into. In the early stages of my multiplayer hands-on, all the players on the Decepticon side seemed to be plumping for aerial characters due to the advantage you can get from claiming higher ground; under these circumstances, the perfect response was to pick Bumblebee - a highly manoeuvrable Autobot who has a very strong anti-air capability, thanks to his homing missiles. Later on when we switched to a conquest-like territory capturing game, it was the raw power of Ironhide and Optimus that seemed the best pick. There are characters who act like medics, snipers and saboteurs, those that use miniguns and those that require precision attacks. In short, there's a lot of variety to the cast of characters. It's like a box of Fruit n Fibre that can turn into a robot killing machine.
In single-player you'll gradually unlock new Autobots and Decepticons as you play through each of the two campaigns. After you've passed the first few training missions you should find that the game opens up considerably, giving you the choice of several different assignments at any given time. You can also re-visit missions as new characters, allowing you to approach things in a different way. One level I sampled found Ratchet escorting a wounded Ironhide through the streets of Shanghai. The first time you're supposed to use Ratchet's healing ability to support the larger bot, but perhaps you'd prefer to play as Optimus Prime and take the fight to the enemy? There are four different medals to be won for each mission, along with in-stage collectibles and a whole brace of CoD4-like achievements for scoring X number or headshots, aerial kills and the like. In addition to earning you new toys, these mini-tasks also earn you Energon - a commodity that can be used to upgrade your weapons and abilities.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is looking like a remarkably plump offering. It's encouraging to see a developer trying to do so much with a licence, but it's the fluidity of the controls and transformations that pleases me the most. It's highly satisfying to shape-shift at the touch of a button, and there are plenty of little effects to reinforce the idea that you're controlling a massive chunk of metal. As you climb up buildings you'll smash them up, and when you leap to the ground from a height you'll crack the ground beneath you. To be honest, the damage decals in both cases are somewhat basic - but most film tie-ins wouldn't have anything at all. The graphics in this game aren't going to drop any jaws, but on the whole they do their job well.
Oh, and I also like the fact that you've got human beings walking and driving around the levels; when they see you they scream and run away. If you kill too many of these little guys as an Autobot, Optimus Prime will be cross with you during the end-of-level de-brief. On the other hand, the Deceptacons will be pleased if you kill innocents and will get angry if you fail to be a big enough mecha-bastard (I guess this is one of the reasons why the two camps don't get along).
One more thing: The Luxoflux Transformers game is only coming to the PS3 and Xbox 360, while other formats are getting games from other developers. I've only had a brief squint at Krome's Wii game, but it was looking pretty decent and it had two player co-op to boot. We'll bring you more details on the other games as of when we see them.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will be released on all leading formats on June 26.