Transformers: War of bad level design
Transformers: War for Cybertron is a really hard game for me to review. I fairly enjoyed Beast Wars as a kid, but that’s where my slight affinity for the franchise begins and ends, so you could say I’m not that big of a Transformers fan. I only picked up this game because it was getting decent reviews on launch day and I just wanted to play an action game.
The game starts really strong. The first level of the Decepticons campaign is expertly paced and has some fairly strong visuals. But the strong initial impression soon wears off as you recognize a fundamental flaw in the game’s design. War for Cybertron is, or at least is supposed to be a non-cover based third-person shooter. With pretty much every single shooter after Gears of War implementing cover in some form or another, it was a really good idea for the designers to try and create a unique feel for the game. So naturally, I was expecting more Ratchet and Clank than Gears of War regarding the feel and the looseness of the shooting mechanics. Sadly, the designers of the game had other things in minds.
After playing the game for a few hours, I realized that War for Cybertron is really a cover-based shooter without a cover mechanic or a lean mechanic. And that is a fundamental design flaw. There is cover in almost every level, and your AI allies are shown to be able to take cover. It is only the player character that is unable to take cover. The hit-points are defined in such a way that you feel the need to hide from enemies once every few seconds to regenerate your robot health. But that is in clear contradiction with what the game is trying to be. The designers do not give you the ability to take cover, but require you to do so in order to progress through the game. For example, there is a sniper enemy type in the game, that acts like the snipers from the Uncharted series of game. That is to say they have lasers pointing to where they’re aiming. Having them makes sense in
Uncharted, because you can line up your shot in cover and then pop-out to shoot them. But in Transformers, you have to hide behind a wall in such a way that they can’t shoot you but you can shoot them. And doing that is no fun. Another thing that contradicts the fundamental design of the game is its small levels. The levels are mostly (very) tight corridors, and that practically makes the transformation mechanic meaningless. Except for a driving and a jet segment in each campaign, transforming is useless; unless you want to reduce your height to take cover. But that’s not where the design problems end. Oddly enough, ammo-conservation is a massive issue throughout the whole game. This is a big problem, since I often found myself running out of bullets in some set-pieces, or even during boss fights. On top of everything else, the checkpointing in the game just flat out sucks. Ignoring the fact that the checkpoints are not frequent enough, whenever you die, you respawn with the exact same amount of health and ammo. This is ignoring a very basic rule of thumb in game design, and that is that the player is supposed to respawn with full health at checkpoints.
For an Unreal-engine game, the game is surprisingly solid-looking. The texture pop-in issues are much less noticeable than other Unreal-engine games, and the blurriness of the distant textures is also much better handled. However, just like any other Unreal-engine game not developed by Epic, there are severe frame rate issues in some of the more open areas of the game. The art-design is (appropriately) cold and metallic, but that creates the same problem that Dead Space had: every single level looks the same. There are no stand-out levels, and all I can remember is tight corridors and the color purple.
The story is flat out nonsensical. All I remember is hearing the word “dark Energon” a whole lot (a cool drinking game: while playing the game, drink everytime someone says “dark Energon”). By reading the chapter descriptions, I have gotten aslight understanding of the plot. Apparently, Megatron just wanted to restore Cybertron to its former glory by any means necessary, and he kills the Autobots’ leader. Optimus Prime then steps up and becomes the leader and shuts down Cybertron’s core and evacuates the planet. Again, the story is appropriate for the franchise, but don’t come in expecting a Batman Begins type scenario.
You can tell that High Moon tried their best to service the Transformers fans just by watching the end credits. Personally, I am not that invested in the franchise for the nostalgia to overcome the games’ flaws. On a technical level, this is a well-produced game, and the game can sometimes be fun, but it has severe contradictions in its design. Hopefully for the next game the level designers will have a better understanding of what kind of game they are trying to make.