Transformers: Battlegrounds is one of the best things to happen to the property in years. That’s not entirely a glowing recommendation, since the Transformers property has been driven into the dirt thanks to those movies and games from publishers like Activision, so the bar has been set really low, but Battlegrounds is a spot-on interpretation of the properties strengths.
It is, basically, an all-ages XCOM-like tactics strategy game, and that means a couple of things; firstly, it is drastically streamlined and simplified from what the genre typically offers. XCOM and its ilk have traditionally been the “hardcore” alternative to Fire Emblem; the deeply challenging, intense tactical action that really makes you work hard to understand all of its nuances in order to succeed. These are games that are traditionally unforgiving on errors, rely on complex interactions between individual character skills and party-based tactics to deliver “strategy”, and provide an immense sense of reward to those that master them.
None of that would fly with the younger audience, and so, there’s none of that in Transformers: Battlegrounds. Different units differ from one another mildly and have unique special attacks, but each are firmly linear in approach. You’ll have mastered the tactical utility of a unit within a level of having it join the party, and from that point, their use in battle becomes clear with each new level. Certainly if you up the difficulty level the game will be more willing to punish you, but that simply turns each battle into a puzzle rather than an example of tactical depth. By that I mean there’s one path and “solution” to a level and if you stray from it you’ll fail the level. Ironically the lower difficulty setting is the more creatively engaging from a strategic point of view, but without the challenge, it’s not going to test the brain matter.
Gameplay is appropriate to the Transformers property, too. Where a typical XCOM clone focuses on cautious, deliberate movements and heavy use of cover, as well as the ability to “read” and respond to enemy movements, in Battlegrounds you’re encouraged to be mobile, with your characters able to move up to three times in a turn, or once or twice and still deliver an attack. Taking a shot and zipping by cover, or tempting the enemy into close range so you can duck out and deliver an attack with potency makes sure that things are always moving in every turn. With the levels built around this mobility, it’s clever design that both matches with the series ethos of characters that can turn into vehicles (or dinosaurs), and prevents kids from becoming bored with something “static”.
As an added bonus, Battlegrounds is fully featured, with all kinds of bonus modes to go with the main narrative. Throw in the breezy presentation and highly accessible gameplay, and it makes this one of the more distinctive and thoughtful efforts to capitalise on what XCOM pioneered. However, I will say that the Mario and Rabbids game, with its wild sense of fun and genuinely original approach to everything from the tactics to the world-building, is more creative and far more refined, but for a game that could have gone so, so wrong, Battlegrounds proves itself nicely.
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The critic purchased a copy of this game.