Saturday, 6 August 2016
Transformers: Combiner Wars - The Fall (Episode Review)
Hype is a dangerous thing indeed. There are few swords more double edged than it in media, and it has led to as many failed franchises as successful ones. Fail to promise enough and you get overlooked by your competition. Promise too much and you get called a liar and the backlash can be immense. Devote most of your budget into the campaign over the product, and you end up producing Aliens: Colonial Marines. For the better part of a year, Machinima has been hyping the living hell out of their new franchise, pulling out all the stops to make Combiner Wars their Transformers series.
From hiring John Bailey (AKA Epic Movie Trailer Guy, XCOM government man and the go-to fan voice of Optimus Prime) to relating the story closely to the IDW comics, this looked promising. In fact, even the individual trailers promised to try and veer away from the creative rut some series fall into; with Starscream being shown in an oddly positive light and his promo framed in a manner akin to a Presidential campaign announcement. Even while clearly on a tight budget, the product looked promising. Or at least it did, right up until we saw the first episode.
The story here surrounds the aftermath of the Great War. The Decepticons were defeated at long last, with Megatron stuck down and the Autobots claiming victory. However the NAILs (non-aligned forces who avoided the war) were bitter against both factions, as much for the War itself as the near total destruction of Cybertron. As such, the old faction alliances do not mean nearly as much as they once did, and Cybertron has become focused upon rebuilding what was lost.
Starting by reaching out to its long lost colonies (those founded by the ancient Metro-Titans who bore other cybertronians across the stars), they form an alliance with Caminus; allowing their cityspeaker Windblade (a figure who communicates with the slumbering Titan directly) to assist the Mistress of Flame in representing them on a council opposite Rodimus and Starscream. However, fears are arising in this new era of a threat to the tenuous peace. The secret to combining cybertronians into new, more powerful, forms has been unleashed, leading to several brutal skirmishes between rogue units. In the face of this aggression, Cybertron's new era of hope might meet a violent end before it can even begin...
Naturally, this is a lot to take down all at once, and audiences would need to be eased into the idea. An introductory episode would need to quickly establish a few of these key details to get the audience up to date and the ball rolling with the new drama. Or, at least, that's what you do if you're competent. If you're Machinima, you limit the episode to five minutes and spend the entire thing on a couple of very poorly choreographed fight scenes without explaining a damn thing.
Who Windblade is, why combiners are feared, what and where Caminus is, why Menasor and Computron have just been ejected out of a Space Bridge into a planet's orbit? Not a single one is answered. Terms are thrown out without any context and the whole thing tries to rely upon the Michael Bay approach of throwing enough eye candy at the audience to make them forget what they're watching is crap. Unfortunately, unlike Mr. Bay, this company did not have the talent to try and pull that off.
Let's be clear here: This looks and sounds as if it were done over a weekend on a shoestring budget. What will immediately leap out at you is the jerky framerate, which is so uneven that it seems almost as if they were going for a poorly advised stylistic choice. Every other second it almost looks as if there is a frame missing, leading to stuttering, lumbering, unwieldy motions which lack any sense of weight or power. Even as two jets swoop out of the sky to fight a giant combiner five times their size, there is no sense of swiftness, speed or even natural movement to their actions. Instead they jump about on the screen in a manner which makes Energon's poorly rendered Autobots look sleek by comparison.
This alone would be enough to kill a good episode, but unfortunately for us it's the tip of the big bloody iceberg of errors which makes up this release.
The rendering looks as if it was done in the mid-90s at best, and even compared with the primative CGI of Beast Wars, Reboot or Transformers: Cybertron, this stuff is crude. Layering seems to some alien concept to the artists behind the show, and each giant robot lacks even the most minute of details, textures or hints of life. They look even more like plastic objects than the toys themselves for God's sake, and it only becomes more obvious once the fight gets underway. Any explosion, sign of damage, or killing blow looks as if it were merely tacked on over each model or, worse still, superimposed via aftereffects once the scene was finished. Even once a character is grabbed and repeatedly smashed against a wall until her limbs are torn off, it proves to be hilarious rather than dramatic. Bereft of anything more than a couple of cheap electrical effects, the whole thing looks like a child smashing a Lego model against a wall.
Things only get worse with the cinematography and sound editing both of which are, to give the most technical of terms, downright piss poor. Free-falling battles are an easy thing to depict and make exciting for an audience, and everything from Gandalf's Balrog brawl to Tron: Legacy's brief skirmish has always looked awesome. Even if you're lazy, you can just pull back and let the animators do their thing, but here what you have is akin to a cheaply made FMV from twenty years past. Each combiner keeps spinning around the camera, repeating almost the same damn motions time and again, offering a single punch before flipping about, denying the audience even the satisfaction of an exciting opening fight. It gets downright boring after the first two punches, and the most exciting thing anyone could apparently think of was to eventually have one knee the other in the abdomen.
Once the smaller 'bots get involved, things actually manage to take a turn for the worse. Much of the fight looks as if it was footage taken from some bizarre light gun game, as Winblade and Maxima (AKA redshirt 01) zoom about ahead of him, making pathetic "pew" noises with flashy ineffective guns. Unimpressive as this is, the sound itself is poorly laid over the scene, barely fitting into any other sound effect and interfering with the music, even leading to numerous audio distortions as the battle goes on. It doesn't help that the music itself is fairly unimpressive, but most fans would hope something with Hasbro Studios backing would at least get the bare basics right.
Oh, and then Maxima dies, Windblade kills and/or horribly wounds both combiners and the episode closes on a shot of Optimus looking at the camera. Roll credits.
For the five minutes we were given, other fans I spoke with only managed to offer disappointed and quite confused responses, wondering just what the hell they had watched. Only three moments stood out at all for the fans - The hint of the new council possibly building a combiner army for themselves, Maxima burning Menasor's face off, and a brief moment where Computron extends a drill from his knee to stab the Decepticon combiner. All of which sound much more fun than anything in the episode, largely thanks to the horrible dialogue and poor voice acting from all involved.
While no one was expecting anything truly on par with the late great Monty Oum's work, fans were hoping for something at least competent. They were hoping for a show which looked as if it had been planned, built and staged from the start, rather than the product of a few first year college students experimenting with a new program for fun. This doesn't even look finished so much as an experiment, trying to serve as some rough proof of concept for a future series, giving slight hints of what they could pull off with a bigger budget. While the later episodes could improve upon this naturally, this is the first impression Machinima's audience has been given of Combiner Wars, and it is not a good one. From both the comments and ratings, people are ready to abandon the series before it's even truly begun. Unless the creators rapidly turn things around in the very next episode, we might as well call this an overhyped failure and forget about it here and now.