Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 7.5 = Good
Transformers: War for Cybertron, by The Bourne Conspiracy developer High Moon Studios, is a third-person shooter set prior to the popular Transformers: Generation 1 series. By setting the game before the perennial 1980’s cartoon and the recent films, High Moon was open to explore the universe without being tied to a stringent chronology or one of Michael Bay’s abominations. While they didn’t have complete freedom – there is a rough timeline that must be adhered to, after all – they did manage to wrangle a decent title out of a franchise that gaming hasn’t been terribly kind to.
Skipping the causes for the initial rift, the game begins with the Megatron and his Decepticons attempting to harness Dark Energon in an effort to finally best the Autobots. As you might imagine, the Autobots, lead by Zeta Prime, are out to stop them before they go too far in toying with one of the planet’s strongest, most unstable energy sources. While this might not sound like the most exciting storyline, the fact that the game takes place on Cybertron has a significant impact on the age-old conflict as it makes the war feel new and exciting, as well as allow for a host of treats for diehard fans.
That’s really where War for Cybertron will hit home: the diehards. While that might seem like a given, the fact is that the previous Transformers games have largely been so poor that even fans couldn’t be bothered to spend more than a few token hours with them. What High Planet did, however, was use the license to such great effect that, through the sheer force of presentation and fan service, it salvages a largely mediocre design.
At its core, War for Cybertron is a straightforward run-and-gun action title. There is no covering system, a limited arsenal (two weapons, a melee weapon and a grenade), and few options to handling a situation other than charging in and blowing everything to hell. Transforming is largely dictated by level design as small spaces and the vulnerability of the alt modes limit the small, cybertronian-styled vehicles to whenever the game requires them.
In fact, in many respects, the game is quite messy. Untimely scripted sequences, broken story triggers, and brain-dead AI litter the single-player campaigns. Each level consists of a team of three transformers, a leader (Megatron or Optimus Prime) and two subordinates, working – ostensibly – together to fulfill a variety of objectives. You can pick any of the characters prior to starting a level, but there are some problems when choosing one of the leaders. As each group goes through their campaign, the leader will issue a variety of orders, from flipping levers to opening doors, to their troops. The problem is that the game doesn’t take into account when you’re the leader, which causes Optimus Prime to issue commands to himself; when Prime order a door to be opened and you’re controlling him, the AI doesn’t jump to as if it was ordered, you have to open the door.
Not that I would expect the AI to do too much anyway because, aside from some solid banter, they aren’t good for much else. Whenever they decide to offer up some oft-delayed advice, they don’t follow it themselves. Oh, they might shoot the random lock or land a lucky shot, but for the most part, even if you’re advised to fire at a certain object, they tend to just fire wildly. This causes some problems during boss fights whenever all fire needs to be concentrated on one spot and your squadmates are choosing to instead go with the ‘spray and pray’ technique. Some poorly placed checkpoints and cheap one-hit attacks can drag sequences out even longer than they are, thanks to repetitive encounters and random glitches (getting stuck on objects, on-screen indicators not appearing, etc.).
Actually, the longer I played the game, the less I enjoyed it. Let me correct myself: the longer I played the single-player campaigns, the less I enjoyed it. You can tackle either side’s campaign in any order, but considering that the Decepticons start things off, it doesn’t make much sense to skip ahead and miss the backstory. I actually found the Decepticon portion to have better banter and fewer glitches than the Autobot portion, which was especially rough during the last three chapters. Despite the irritations, however, there are some undeniably cool parts, and many of which made the forced restarts and grunts of frustration largely worth it. For all its problems, War for Cybertron does a great job of transporting you into the Transfomers universe.
High Planet delivers in a way that all of the other Transformers titles lacked by delivering more. There is more of everything here: more characters, more backstory, more action, and more nods to the fans. Slogging through a repetitive portion becomes worthwhile when you’re taken to the Decepticon’s capital city and walk through their prison camp, or fall towards Cybertron from outer space as you battle Trypticon. Just the scale of units and structures is enough to impress. Sure, I might have spent an inordinate amount of time bashing crates for ammo but I can’t deny how awesome it is to see Cybertron from a space station slowly being ripped apart. With the Unreal Engine and solid voice-acting giving the events a bit of kick, the mythos and presentation do a great job in overwhelming the senses with a spectacle that I was happy to dive into.
A handful of great moments and a sense of flair only go so far, of course, so it’s fortunate that War for Cyberstron has a great multiplayer mode. While the single-player campaigns will primarily deliver for fans, everyone can enjoy the local and online multiplayer modes. Co-op and Competitive Co-op are available for those wanting to zip through the campaigns with solid AI while Escalation (re: horde) mode allows teams to fend off waves of enemies while using earned points to unlock new areas, access weapons, and heal. There are also the more traditional modes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Power Struggle (king of the hill), and Conquest (territories). Code of Power and Countdown to Extinction are colorful titles for capture the melee weapon and bases/assault mode. By and large, the modes are pretty common, and some have levels that are more attractive than they are functional, but it’s the skill and level system that really drives the experience.
Similar to Modern Warfare and Blur, players earn points from killing enemies and accomplishing objects that goes towards a level system. As you level, new abilities are unlocked. There are three slots to map an ability to and multiple abilities for each slot. The primary method that makes multiplayer addictive is that the abilities are staggered; the first ability in the first slot will unlock at level five while the next at level nine, but the first ability in the second slot will unlock at seven. By gradually rolling out the abilities, there is always a reason to keep playing as there is always a reward just around the corner.
As in single player, you can choose to play as one of several classes: leader, scout, soldier, and scientist. Each has a unique alt mode – trucks, cars, tanks, and jets, respectively – as well as weapons and abilities. The fact that each has their own set of unlockables adds a lot of replay value to the game, but, as with the previous titles mentioned, there are also numerous point bonuses doled out through rounds that give them an arcade-like energy – score a kill on a higher level, coming out of cloak or with a slither of life left, get a bonus. Bonuses are splashed across the screen as if you really accomplished something, and they fit well with the quicker tempo of multiplayer. The move set and weapons are limited as in single player, but they mean much more when facing real opponents because, not only can you also pick up their weapons, but alt modes also add much more to the fight. As a scout, I had a great time zipping around as a car in cloak, stalking someone setting up for a shot, then jump-transforming (always a cool animation) up for a sword slash. Combat is just much, much more satisfying in multiplayer; and when a game is 90% combat, that’s a good thing. Plus, with the game’s hybrid retro and new designs and crisp visuals, just hanging out in spectator mode and seeing teams battle it out is a treat.
Transformers: War for Cybertron is a so-so single-player game that happens to share billing with a really enjoyable multiplayer mode. It just so happens that the each campaign also contains some stunning scenes that really bring the scale of the universe, and some of its rich mythos, to life. It’s ultimately for the fans, because its wonky scripting and AI issues play havoc with its repetitive design, but the lush multiplayer component will be a hit with anyone looking to blow up some robots online.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)