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Transformers: Devastation looks too good and might be true

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Licensed games aren’t supposed to be good, but I like to keep an open mind.

Yes, there's a lot of crap floating through the lazy river ride of licensed games, sped through development to meet a deadline. But there's also Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor and the Batman Arkham series. The former is more abundant than the latter, but still. Anything's possible.

And so it was with a bit of side eye and a willingness to be impressed that I walked into a conference room on the first day of E3 2015 to see Transformers: Devastation, the just-announced title from Platinum Games.

Here is my report: This game looks awesome. And it might just be the game I didn't even know I was looking for.

I am, I admit, the target demographic. Transformers: Devastation is not a modern take on Hasbro's changeling robot franchise. These are not Michael Bay's Transformers. These are cel shaded recreations of their '80s incarnations, rendered in 3D to look like cartoons that burst into another dimension. And they look really good. I can't help but thinking, as two representatives from Platinum play through a couple of levels and discuss the game, that it looks just about exactly like what I pictured in my head when I was a kid. Video games have made playable cartoons possible, and somehow, impossibly, Optimus Prime was still here in 2015 to prove it.

And it was Optimus Prime, too, voiced by the venerable Peter Cullen. When they fought Soundwave, it was Peter Welker as him and Rapage, too. This was the Transformers I remembered. And when the developers warped to a boss battle so Prime could fight the skyscraper-tall Constructacon monstrosity Devastator, I started to think that, maybe, this was the Transformers game I wanted, too.

Transformers: Devastation‘s gameplay is simple. It's a brawler. You play as one of six Autobots — good guys Bumblebee, Grimlock, Optimus Prime, Sideswipe and Wheeljack — out to thwart an evil Decepticon plan to terraform Earth into a replica of Cybertron, the Transformers' home world. To do that, you'll need to run through levels beating your way through your adversaries.

This, I admit, didn't seem terribly interesting at first. Just being a Transformer isn't enough to make a decent game. But as the developers played and explained, it became far more enticing. These are Transformers, Platinum seems to have realized, so why not design combat around what their name implies? And so they did, adding transformations as a fundamental part of combat. In Transformers: Devastation, you're free to transform from robot to vehicle and back to robot at will.

They're also smart to prioritize expediency over animation. When asked, they said they studied the cartoons, preferring their simple animations over the complexity of the recent movies. It works. Time slows down, the robots transform and unleash ever more destructive combos. There is a reward, in other words, for being a Transformer who chooses to transform.

There's no reliable way to know the whole of a game from a few curated vertical slices. But Platinum is a known quantity. The studio behind Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Vanquish knows how to make an action game. And it certainly appears that the complex and satisfying combat they're known for is on display here with a transformative twist that isn't just narratively interesting but actually seems to make combat more fun.

But this is a licensed game, and I was still skeptical. And for reasons I can't explain, it doesn't really feel like a full retail title to me or anyone I've talked with about it.

How long have they been developing this game, I asked. Since early 2014, they said. This seems like a good sign. And there's still time. Transformers: Devastation is headed to PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows PC later this year.