Wage both sides of this war...
As a child of the eighties, it would be easy to slip into hyperbole about how fantastic the original series was, how awesome the toys were and just what those iconic characters mean to me now that I'm an old man in my early thirties, but this game has to do so much more for me than that. It has to create nostalgia, whilst feeling fresh. It has to compete in an increasingly crowded multiplayer world, but stand alone. Perhaps most importantly of all, it has to do what Arkham Asylum did; overcome decades of awful games with something that's true to the spirit of the original vision.
The plot is now famous for Hasbro adopting it as canon; no small feat for a videogame, especially considering just how long it's been since that original series first aired. I find it incredible that nobody at Hasbro ever thought to flesh out that Cybertron-storyline before, but there you go. The plot details Megatron's desperate urge to control Cybertron through the power of Dark Energon, a substance which I'm sure was part of the G1 series at some point, but I could be wrong. You first play through the Decepticon campaign, charting Megatron's journey to the core of the planet, then the focus switches to the Autobots, as you discover how Optimus Prime came to be the leader of the Autobots, and his efforts to halt Megatron's dominance. The plot is pretty good, and generally delivered well by the voice cast. Some of the lines are a bit overblown, attempting a lofty nobility far above the reality of the franchise, but it's all in good fun and gets the job done. I'm tempted to suggest that the game suffers from the same problem that people are assuming will plague the forthcoming Halo: Reach - namely, that you already know how the game ends. The overall plot arc is somewhat hampered by this knowledge, but it makes up for it with some great fan service, detailing some small, but interesting details, like why Starscream is consistently challenging Megatron, and also, where things like the Matrix of Leadership came from. It’s all very pleasing and hangs together well.
The game is basically a squad-based third-person shooter. You are always accompanied by two other transformers, and the goal is to blast your way from one end of each level to the other, encountering waves of enemies, locked doors and boss battles along the way. The game can be played solo, or with online co-op: there is no split screen, which is probably a good thing. When playing by yourself, the AI of your robot buddies is somewhat questionable. You’ll see them shoot plenty, but hit little, if anything. If this was the only complaint, that would be fine, but unfortunately the AI pathfinding is seriously wonky. You’ll continually bump into them while strafing enemies, and they don’t move for a few seconds, just stand there, blocking you. Your companions will constantly bash into you in vehicle mode with nary an apology in sight. If you stop to look for secrets or just to check areas for ammo, they’ll outstrip you and move on to the next area. Sometimes their names are highlighted on the HUD for you to find easily…sometimes not. It’s not game-breaking, but when you get killed because the AI won’t get out of your way, it’s incredibly annoying.
Strangely, the game has no cover system, beyond simply standing your bot behind scenery, which is utterly necessary for some fights, but you’re never 100% sure whether you’re completely shielded, or even if you can shoot from the ‘cover’: the reticle will turn red, even if your path to the target is blocked. The firefights are frantic affairs, with lots of explosions and movement going on at once. However, the frenetic nature of the game exposes the first major issue; it’s tough. It’s hard to say exactly what makes the game a serious challenge; it mostly seems to come down to the fact that there’s a dearth of ammo around to pick up, coupled with just how quickly it’s possible to empty your firearms, even with the ability to carry three weapons. There’s a few places in the game where you’ll either come up against a small number of tougher enemies, or lots of regular ones, and you’ll quite simply run out of ammunition. As your companions are unlikely to kill them off for you, you’re forced to evade enemies until you can get a safe opportunity to melee-kill them (no small feat) or just restart that section and focus on conserving ammo as much as possible. Neither are very fun. These difficulty spikes occur about once per level, I’d say, and again, although not game-breaking, they can seriously test your patience. There’s one part in particular during the Autobot campaign (curse you, Ratchet!) that had me close to giving up. Having said all that, though, no part of the game is utterly sadistic, but because the game swings wildly between glorious metal carnage and a sniper-like conservatism, the overall ambience is hard to pin down.
Graphics and sound
The game does very well with its setting. Lots has been written about the exposure to gunmetal grey in this world, but I’m very firmly in the “It’s Cybertron! It’s made of metal!” camp. Coming to this game expecting a rainbow-like colour palette is wrong. Having said that, though, the developers did a good job of adding colour where possible, largely around the dominant colours of the Transformers universe, violet and red. There’s lots of glowing lights, flashes and bangs, fiery explosions and electric gunfire to brighten up Cybertron’s matt grey finish.
The design of the Transformers themselves is a delicate and effective blend between the original G1 designs and the more modern Bay-era movie concepts. I’d say they lean more towards the cartoon side, but generally the designs are excellent, evoking the original robots, but without the simplicity, allowing the developers to recreate the transformers with the basic look of the originals, but adding the complexity of the newer designs. Bumblebee has horns!
The staple sound is in there, namely the transforming noise, and everything else fits in well. The weaponry sounds satisfying to fire and there’s plenty of metallic clunks as the, rather nimble, bots thump around the battlefield. Music is used sparingly, which is the way it should be.
Although the game is pretty polished throughout, immersion in the game world can sometimes take a dip, as there are times when you have to wait for textures to draw in on characters. This happened a few times to me, and once it got so bad, the game decided just to skip the entire cutscene, rather than load the textures. I had just defeated a boss, so I had to quit the game, load up the extras menu, watch the cutscene to see that part of the story, then reload the game. I also once got my guy caught on some scenery, and no amount of transforming or jumping could get him loose, so I had to restart.
The campaign’s pretty short, so you’ll want to spend some time online, and you’ll most likely have a blast with it: it certainly surpassed my meager expectations. Let me be clear from the start – I am not a big online gamer, mainly because I have a young family and simply do not have the time these days. As such, the only online game I ever got good at was Killzone 2, and even then I wasn’t great, just competent.
The online element of the game is curiously addictive, and seemingly quite solid, with multiple game modes and plenty of customized loadouts to make and save. The degree to which you can modify the look of your bot is sadly limited to choosing a style of transformer and then picking two colours for it. Hardly Modnation, eh? However, as the pace of the game is even more frantic online than off, you’ll hardly even notice the minor palette changes other players have made, you’ll just learn to recognize the different shapes of the Autobots and Decepticons.
The best modes are definitely those where you have to maintain control of areas on the map, either 3 fixed points, or one point that keeps shifting. Although there’s always enough people online to get a game going, it’s disappointing to note that the boring death-match mode regularly has upwards of 1000 players, whereas the more interesting modes have between 50-200 players. I’ve even seen it as low as 10. I guess some people just don’t like to experiment.
You’ll get enough game for your money if you don’t play online at all, but you’re seriously missing out if you don’t at least try it. The rewards and leveling up come pretty quickly and there’s a good variety of maps to choose from.
Transformers: War for Cybertron isn’t perfect, but it’s great fun both on and offline. There’s a few minor niggles (and be warned, you’ll need a mandatory install of FIVE gb on your hard drive!), but nothing that will ruin the game by any means. Settle in for a tough challenge and some of the best multiplayer out there! Ah what the hell…
AUTOBOTS! ROLL OUT!
Irresistible, utterly irresistible.