REVIEWS -- Transformers: War for Cybertron -- PC
For the Transformer purists
by Lazare Gvimradze
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
‘War for Cybertron’ brings true third-person shooter dynamics to the unique world of Transformers, jumping years ahead of prior games.
A franchise grown from a famous toy line, Transformers is one of the most recognizable sci-fi brands in the world. As of this day, the universe counts hundreds of cartoon episodes, several animated movies, two relatively successful adaptations to the big screen, and, of course, lots and lots of toys. When it comes to video games, however, the bots always seemed to drop the ball. Nothing worth relating to the series has been published since 2004′s Transformers for the PS2, mainly due to the horrid reputation of movie-to-game tie-ins which had the inevitable fate to be mainly overlooked, and with good reason.
The two games hurriedly released to fit with Michael Bay’s explosive twists on Transformers were mediocre at best; the common picture involved underdeveloped characters stomping around on low-poly cars in cardboard environments mistakenly named “cities.” The second game had a decent enough multiplayer and even afforded one DLC to quench the anger of the fans, but nothing would save Revenge of The Fallen from the unfortunate path every Transformers game was theoretically doomed to take, at least while they tried gaining inspiration from the films.
High Moon Studios promised to steer our favorite bots towards success, and their claims started taking frighteningly realistic shapes as the first trailers and story details were revealed. Transformers: War for Cybertron was a standalone project not based on anything in the given universe, not even the cartoons, and promised to bring the franchise to its long-awaited videogame glory. Many previews even classified the game as “Transformers: Arkham Asylum” (a hint to the unexpected success from Rocksteady’s Batman game a while back) -- the die was cast.
A prelude to the animated series
The story of WFC is 100% canon to the general universe, taking place before Generation 1 on the planet Cybertron, the homeworld of the Transformers. The plot covers the Civil War of the two factions of the resident bots, the heroic Autobots and the meanie Decepticons -- a widely-known backstory which has never really been expanded upon. The game itself does little to delve into the details regarding the absolute origins of the confrontation, but devotes impressive amounts of time fleshing out events, twists, and all the complex details which eventually forced the Transformers to flee to Earth.
The single-player experience continues on the double-sided trend of all Transformers games, offering you a traditional choice between the two sides. While you can go for any of the two campaigns you want, they are actually arranged chronologically, one after another, so it is recommended to start by playing out the Decepticon side to get the most out of the story. The Autobot switch-over happens halfway through the overall timeline, and continues on the consequences caused by the Decepticons (which is, well, you) and how the Autobots (which is also you by that point) are sorting them out. So starting with the evil side will definitely benefit the overall value you’ll get from playing… or not. As it is with tastes, playing out as the heroes and THEN experiencing a full-blown prequel as the baddies can be equally rewarding, so it’s ultimately up to you.
Anyway, canonically the game kicks off with the Decepticons scheming out some nasty stuff, including the utilization of Dark Energon, an infectious element (think of space tiberium) which will somehow benefit Megatron’s twisted ideals and bring Cybertron to its “former glory.” As their quest progresses, you’ll witness events which hold key value to die-hard fans, like the ever-cowardly Starscream surrendering the aforementioned element and joining the opposing faction, betraying the Autobots in the process. After putting a reasonable amount of ticks in his what-to-do list, Megatron seriously screws over the state of the planet, weakening the opposition at the same time.
The Autobots then kick in, as the original cast is introduced at their very start, when even Optimus was just “Optimus,” leading a small group of brave warriors along minor battles. Things changed after a major plot twist at an Autobot capital city, Iacon, forcing the Autobot to embark on a quest which would eventually lead him to the status of Prime, the Matrix of Leadership, and pretty much everything that makes up the REAL Optimus. As the game concludes, avoiding spoilers, the surviving bots flee Cybertron, putting an end to the battle of ideals, and starting off the endless confrontation which we are all more or less acquainted to.
As a backstory for the franchise loved by millions, the story adds a mighty amount of info and uncovers details and motivations behind many nostalgically colorful characters, all of them with their trademark personalities and little moments of heroism (or villainy, in case of the ‘cons). Fan favorites like Bumblebee, Sideswipe or Ironhide are standard-issue, while a bit more second-class guys like Brawl or Warpath are presented with equal intensity, making for one hell of a Transformers experience.
Solid gameplay mechanics
It all fares correspondingly in the gameplay department, where basic, time-hardened TPS (third-person shooter) mechanics breathe new life into the franchise. One of the most fundamental changes ties deeply with the setting: since the action takes place on Cybertron, where no annoying little humans are in the way, the developers decided to do something very smart and removed all emphasis on the gigantic size and heavy weight of the bots, resulting in a speedier gameplay process more reminiscent of standard over-the-shoulder shooters rather than games about giant robots beating the crap out of each other at a slow, clumsy pace.
All this “robo-realism” is further enhanced by a fully-working ammo system (no more “cooldowns” and bullets magically reappearing in weapons) and two slots for your guns of choice, which are no longer bot-exclusive and can actually be “picked up” by anyone wishful. The special abilities, which are genuinely special this time around, can add unique flavor to each character and tally up impressive amounts of possibilities to decimate your foes, resulting in an experience not unlike Gears of War, well, minus the cover system. Which is, you know, no big deal. Metallic robots, people.
Basic mechanics are also copy/pasted from modern trends and let you move around, jump, aim and shoot just about anything that moves. A simple medpack system and some of the more defensive special abilities can get you out of numerous tough situations, and the overall heightened pacing of the gunfights are extremely satisfying at times. What’s more important, however, is that the Transformers’ primary ability (to, well, transform) comes into perfect play just when you’ve had enough of the lightspeed firefights and need to diversify a bit.
The Transformations are not a minor gimmick anymore, nor do they serve some wacky mechanics-purpose like in Revenge of The Fallen, where alternate modes were simply opportunities to speed up for a couple of seconds and then do something cool in robot mode. War for Cybertron goes the easy, traditional way once again, and does it masterfully. You press a button, you transform, and the game is born anew. The mechanics change, the pacing shifts dramatically, and the vehicles control like vehicles, without the anger management issues the car physics suffered in previous games.
In alternate modes, you have two sub-systems to explore. By default, you are in hover mode, where the pacing slows down but you get superior maneuverability along with enhanced defenses and independent weapon systems. You can even jump, provided you’re playing as a land-based character. The second alternate mode system, which is activated by holding down the right trigger, causes your transport to lock wheels with the ground and dart forward, allowing for a ridiculous increase in speed, which also happens to decimate any futile attempts to actually redirect your trajectory or even slightly shift directions, resulting in a clumsy, but fun-to-explore boost feature that comes in handy in some of the wider set pieces, where every mode gets equal attention regarding level-design and opposing forces.
Balanced characters for the dumb AI fodder
Speaking of which, the enemies can become quite a chore as the seemingly stupid AI enjoys generating hordes of hostiles programmed with the sole purpose to advance and kill you, doing little in utilizing the environment or basing their tactics off your armament, much less trying to work in groups. Every enemy type takes great joy at simple rush-and-crush strategies, further urging you to get your metallic boots moving, jumping, and kicking at a faster pace than you’d expect from a game with big robots. Some will even transform and start storming your flanks or simply raining fire from the air, while other rarer geniuses will actually whip out snipers and start chewing away at your health bar at a steady pace. Whether the AI sucks or not, it still fails to break the dynamics of the best firefights (unless your squad-mate gets stuck in a wall -- only happened once though, and the guy eventually smarted himself out by transforming), and while a bit tiring and outright flawed when it comes to replaying them, they still provide a never-before-seen Transformers experience.
But you can only go so far at trying to maintain gameplay balance yourself by alternating between vehicle and robot forms, even if you’re playing an air-based character. While control mechanics and physics are implemented brilliantly, it still feels tiring at the end, as the wild pace will only get even more intense as epic final boss fights of both campaigns will leave your eyes twitching at their peak. To compensate, the developers came up with the best way to contain such insanities: multiplayer.
The unique characteristics and class-based differences between the wide choice of playable heroes is very impressive, drawing a superb picture of almost ideally balanced characters to chose from, which works equally as well for the online part of the game. Traditional modes seem to get enough out of the fact that every player is able to turn into a tank or a jet at any moment, providing some great moments of victory or shameless death (how can you be angry at someone who manages to rip your head off with a sniper shot -- from mid-air?). It’s only sad that War for Cybertron lacks any kind of means to capture and share those kinds of stuff.
Anyway. To delve a bit deep into the differing character types, first thing to say is that there are no original heroes you can play as in multiplayer, as first you are given the option to choose between several transformers presets and color them in any way you see fit. The classes are few, but varied: Soldiers carry the meanest firepower and assist team members with additional ammo, while Scientists are the most nimble, yet weak members of the team, relying on their air-based alternate form and their ability to heal comrades to survive. Scouts are also keen on going speedy, with a cloak feature allowing for handy escapes as their health bars usually tend to deplete faster than you’d like. Leaders, on the other hand, rely on boosting the morale (both figuratively AND literally, gameplay-wise) of their squad-mates and pack one hell of a punch, along with substantial stamina. The choice is not hard to make, but it’s strictly recommended NOT to stick to just one. Every class has its aces and its flaws, and both are usually fun to explore.
General variety and some level of customization make for one hell of a multiplayer experience, but it still manages to bore itself to death if you risk playing for too long. The problem here is at a different front, however: the woefully strange art direction. And I say strange because at first sight, it looks inspired and tremendously worked upon, but it’s always the dingy red-and-gray Cybertron background of the trailers that seemed like a minor nuisance at the time.
The issues with the visuals in War for Cybertron can easily be overlooked or even laughed upon, provided you’re the type that takes solace in polygon count and bump map qualities. Rest assured, they’re more than up-to-date along with impressive amount to detail to all the little things, like the various mechanical parts moving around on the bots even as they stand still, or the synthetic surroundings of post-war Cybertron constantly morphing and transforming on their own, like part of an even bigger character. That, and even the above-than-average optimization during the large-scale scenes, coupled with believable animations and fluid transformations, mean nothing in the face of the degenerating effect the art direction carries.
It’s probably a bold statement, but hardly an exaggerated one: the only thing standing out in the overall color scheme during the gaming process is your character alone. The colorful robots are the sole saving grace to rest your eyes upon after wandering through endless mechanical plains of all the multi-layered levels, and even if you’re still thinking yourself capable of cherishing the pure aesthetic value of the unique environments, wait until you start doing a bad job at distinguishing enemies from the landscape. It’s not THAT bad in actuality, but the aforementioned flaw took place quite a few times during a full playthrough.
Sound? Peter Cullen, ‘nuff said
Still, it’s viable to say that the game provides an adequate visual experience, environmental variety aside. There are dramatically scripted events, large-scale bossfights, sweeping views of war-torn Cybertron and much more to quench your fan thirst, if you happen to have one. Every tiny bit of detail, as well as every major element is polished with great care, starting from the designs of the robots (which hold a perfect balance between Bay’s complex movie interpretations and the blocky shapes from the cartoons) and their vehicle forms and ending with the outside -- and inside -- sceneries of the metallic planet. What’s even more, you get a tremendous audio value to back everything up.
The music goes traditional in ways of forgetful scores and some electronic guitar tunes, which blend harmonically with the game’s somewhat classic feel. Steve Jablonsky is listed as a composer for the themes, the man behind many iconic soundtracks including the ones for the live-action Transformers films, but the fact remains that War for Cybertron isn’t really up in his top works. What really stands out, as every fan of the franchise will no doubt confirm, is the voice acting.
Peter Cullen, the one and only man behind Optimus Prime, returns full-force with great character depth and even some humor (something the movie failed to provide), along with a whole group of professional actors who did their jobs both at the original cartoons, and in many different titles beyond. Fred Tatasciore and Steve Blum definitely deserve a mention, as their unique talent helped bring multiple heroes to life (Fred’s Megatron captured the character’s feel completely). Additionally, if you happen to know the voice behind Desmond from Assassin’s Creed and Nathan from Uncharted, well, he’s in here too, portraying the Decepticons’ ultimate tank-bot, Brawl, in all his glory.
The audio side is equally impressive in the ambient and environmental departments, and the game successfully rounds up the technical quality by having user-friendliness written all over it: the handy menu system, great porting with fully integrated keyboard/mouse controls along with their corresponding on-screen cues, instant controller support, impressively well-optimized code of Unreal Engine 3, and an expertly tuned online-play all go in favor of the newest and most full Transformers experience in a long time.
It all is as it sounds. War for Cybertron proves that a game, crafted from inspiration beyond the limiting confines of movies or cartoons, can have much greater potential than a rushed product meant to compliment cinema ticket sales. Sure, it’s definitely not an Arkham Asylum to the franchise -- nothing major was delivered in terms of gameplay or genre innovations -- but it’s guaranteed to satisfy lots of hopeless fans who waited so long for a decent Transformers game. It might even recruit new followers to the world of giant, transforming robots, a silly, but magically nostalgic series which entranced millions many years ago, and is now taking up far larger fronts and continues to expand. Transform, and roll out… preferably towards your closest videogame store.
Developer: High Moon Studios
Release Date: June 22, 2010
Review Date: 01-11-2010
Numbers of Players: 1
Players Online: 2-10
Mild issues with the moody art direction evaporate in the face of a smooth-running, amazingly detailed visual representation of an atmospheric Cybertron with all its large-scale landscapes and post-apocalyptic feelings of war.
A swift twist on traditional third-person shooter mechanics fuse successfully with the transforming world of Autobots and Decepticons, providing either powerful shots of dynamic gameplay, or hours of unique multiplayer experience.
With the story basically representing fan service from head-to-toe, War for Cybetron is bursting with all the content you’ll ever need, offering a never-before-seen background on the origins of the endless confrontation between the two factions.
Powerful teams behind both the acting and music create a solid audio component that brings Cybetron to life, introducing classic humor and great one-liners from the characters. You’ll never want to return to Michael Bay’s dull-minded bots again.
The definitive Transformers experience. If you ever happened to get up early just to catch episodes from the colorful lives of Optimus Prime and Megatron, this game is a must-have. If you also happen to like shooters, then, well, let me introduce you to your very own game of the year right here.