We all know them, one way or another. Maybe you recreated the Cybertron civil war with click-clacking plastic figures now stored in a dusty box in the attic, or followed the Autobots' journey from their home planet to Earth in the pages of Marvel's comic book series. Perhaps you shed a tear when Optimus Prime was gunned down in the animated movie, or wondered why the hell he'd turned into a monkey in the bewildering Beast Wars. Whatever the case - these are the Transformers, and you know them.
Even if you don't, you soon will, as this summer's huge live-action remake is set for massive multi-media saturation, ooh, any day now. Naturally, part of that saturation is the PS3 game we're about to deliver the scoop on. Ties between the game and the film are close, with everything from the overhauled storyline to the sexy new character models shared between the two. It's good news for gamers as well as cinema-goers, then, that the creative force behind the film is the dream-team pairing of director Michael Bay - the summer-smash specialist behind Armageddon and Bad Boys II - and producer Steven Spielberg.
Looking back, moving forwards
Spielberg, of course, all but invented the blockbuster, and has consistently nailed a perfect balance of heart-stopping action and human feeling in his films. It's this balance that the new Transformers is crying out for - a mix of faithful nostalgia trip and blinding mech mayhem - and it was apparently the veteran helmer's advice that influenced the film's central relationship. Picking up a story thread from the '80s cartoon, the plot initially focuses on human teenager Sam and his friendship with the transformer Bumblebee, thanks to Spielberg's feeling that the movie should be about 'a boy and his car.'
The prominence of this relationship might go some way to explaining why, if you've seen any shots of the game so far, they've almost certainly featured the chirpy yellow and black Autobot - he's been plastered all over fansites and gaming mags for weeks. He's also the game's starting character, and it's with him that our hand-on session starts. We begin, an onscreen title tells us, in 'The Suburbs,' a setting which taps into the Spielberg back-catalogue of middle-American fairytales and makes sense of Bumblebee's transition from the jaunty VW Beetle of the old cartoons to a cosily beat-up 1974 Cevrolet Camaro.
The first thing we notice is the stylish complexity of the new character design. All of the Transformers - Autobots and Decepticons - have been visually reconstructed from scratch for the film by Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas' mammoth special effects workshop. The in-game incarnations are based on the 3-D animation models pulled directly from ILM's computers, slightly simplified but still displaying the more realistic, gears-and-all look that the film pioneers. So instead of the robust, boxy bot of old, the new Bumblebee is a towering tangle of dulled yellow body plates and exposed silver axles, with every piece of the Camaro frame - inside and out - accounted for in his standing form.
Currently, this form is exploring a free-roaming suburbia, stomping down narrow roads past drugstores, small-town Police stations and high school football fields. While publisher Activision is keen to stress that Transformers isn't an open-world game in the manner of GTA, you are free to wander until you begin a mission. Once you enter one of these - triggered by stepping into floating coloured spotlights, ironically much like GTA's - you're locked into playing it through.