Most of the features that made War for Cybertron a standout are gone. Gone is co-operative play. Gone are several multiplayer modes, including Escalation. In their place are three standard multiplayer gametypes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, and conquest), and a campaign so short that it feels like it was based on an episode of the cartoon show rather than a movie.
If nothing else, a game based on the Transformers ought to provide a thrilling sense of transformation, but Dark of the Moon is only partly successful on this count. You switch seamlessly between "robot" mode, which plays as a standard third-person shooter, "stealth force" mode, which plays as a tank shooter, and "vehicle" mode, which plays as an arcade-style racer. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and when the game gets cooking it is satisfying to snap back and forth to gain an edge on your opponents.
But in an attempt to provide a fluid sense of your character's transformation from one state to another, High Moon devised a strange, shifting control scheme. Each of your characters' modes has a unique controller layout. In theory, this should make it easier to exploit each form's abilities. Instead, it confuses the issue, as similar functions suddenly swap places on the control pad.
... the surprise isn't that it feels rushed and incomplete. The surprise is that High Moon made this one, too.
In robot mode, as in most shooters, pressing the left trigger zooms in on your target. Once you're in stealth force mode, though, you want to press the left bumper in order to aim. Holding the left trigger, confusingly, puts your car into vehicle mode and acts as the accelerator.
It gets worse. When driving, you steer with the right stick. Accelerate with the left hand, steer with the right – that's the mirror image of how every other racing game in the history of the world has done it. I lost track of how often I crashed into walls because I was nudging the left stick to try to stay on the road. The choice is as nonsensical as it is unnecessary. When you're driving, the left stick isn't even given a function.
(That's not totally true. You do use the left stick to back up. Which you have to do constantly. Because you keep crashing. Because steering is mapped to the right stick.)
Although Dark of the Moon is missing several of the online game types from War for Cybertron, it does retain that game's multiplayer class system and player progression. Players can customize their loadout as they gain XP, and earn Call of Duty-style killstreaks. This is more robust than the stricter single-player campaign, but the action is punchless. The robots are too slow and the weapons too uniform for thrilling battles. Objective-based multiplayer might have been the better way to go. Besides which, it's all done in by a poor sense of scale: the robots are large and imposing when bipedal, but as soon as they transform into vehicles you're left with the unmistakable sense of a bunch of RC cars zipping around the backyard.
Sometimes, when Dark of the Moon seems about to break out of its shell, it's done in by an inability to develop its ideas beyond a completely superficial level. For a good chunk of Soundwave's chapter, you control his tiny bird companion, Laserbeak. Soundwave instructs you to disguise yourself as various innocuous objects in order to hide from the Autobots. This suggests a tantalizing set of tactics, in which you assume various forms and acquire different powers to manipulate the environment in surprising ways. Instead, you hide in some boxes.
Most unexpected is the strength of the game's writing. Chapter 2, in which you play as Ironhide, turns out to be the comedy event of the year. The quips are sharp, and the delivery wry. After blowing up a wall in Detroit, Ironhide muses: "That certainly didn't help the city's image." There are other gems, too, including Mirage's dripping condescension toward his human contact, and Starscream's barely concealed insubordination. One doesn't ordinarily expect sly humor from a video game based on the third movie in a series based on a 25-year-old cartoon show, but there it is.
Then it all ends, seemingly out of nowhere, and after only a few hours of play. There's nothing wrong with a short game that feels complete, but Dark of the Moon feels half-finished. In fact, it pulls a neat transformation of its own. From a full-priced retail release on the store shelf, it changes to a glorified mission pack the very first time you press the start button.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Transformers: Dark of the Moon provided by Activision.