When you consider the history of the Transformers franchise in video games, it's easy to want to celebrate War For Cybertron as some kind of revelation. High Moon's third-person shooter is quite a bit better than just about any Transformers game you could think of. But take it away from those easy comparisons and start to think about third-person shooting at large, and you'll find a pretty cool set of online options that are paired up with shallow, repetitive gameplay that only manages to get by if you've got some sense of nostalgia for the original set of Transformers toys or cartoons.
The game's story is set before just about every single event you can think of in the Transformers timeline, giving you some information about what the Autobots and Decepticons were doing before they crash-landed on Earth. This gives you some Transformer origins, since at the outset of the game, Optimus Prime is just "Optimus," and he isn't yet the leader of the Autobots. Starscream is unaffiliated, though he quickly falls in line when he first encounters Megatron, who is attempting to infect the planet Cybertron with "dark energon," an unstable form of energy that manifests itself as big crystal formations. The campaign itself is set chronologically, though for the first half of the game you play as the Decepticons, who gain control of the dark energon and use it to subvert the planet and attempt to take over. At halftime, you switch to the Autobot side of things, which is a bit more interesting since the Autobot side tends to actually fight named Decepticons, including fights against Starscream and Soundwave. For the most part, both factions are just mercilessly beating up generic drones that take the form of cars, jets, tanks, and so on. These enemies have no personality and aren't much fun to fight. Also, while it's totally understandable why the game's designers would need to cook up a bunch of easily repeatable enemies, it doesn't really feel like Transformers when you're just bashing robot after robot as you trudge ahead.
The game itself is a third-person shooter that feels like something of a throwback to the days before hiding behind things was so important. Though you can certainly manually stand behind a lot of objects, there's no proper cover system, and the game almost wants to rub it in by occasionally having your AI partners take proper cover during in-game cutscenes. Strafing in and out of cover feels kind of silly. Also, the game is more focused on resource management than you might expect. You're constantly looking for more ammo packs, and there were multiple occasions where I was completely running out of ammo for every single weapon I had on me. Many of the various pistols, launchers, rifles, and sniper weapons also eject cartridges as they're fired, and the weapons don't really feel like the unlimited laser blasts you might expect from a Transformer.
Of course, the big thing about being a Transformer is that you can turn into something else at the touch of a button. Though the toys were often very unique in their transformations, here every character is boiled down into one of four character classes and a couple of different vehicle types. Every single ground-based vehicle, be it a car, truck, or tank, hovers and can strafe back and forth. While each class does get some unique abilities, the similarities between the ground-based vehicles makes most of the vehicle forms feel generic. One class turns into jets, but rather than give you full-on dogfights, these jets sort of hover in place and don't feel as threatening as they probably should. You can boost in each vehicle, too, which gives you a good forward burst of momentum. This leads to what is probably the coolest part about the entire game. When you're driving and boosting ahead, if you transform back into robot form, you'll often slide on your knees for a brief period of time due to all of that speed. It looks pretty rad.
For the most part, the game looks nice, but the metallic world of Cybertron doesn't lend itself particularly well to a lot of environmental variety. The actual Transformer designs are some of the best around, with robots that sort of split the difference between the original 1980s cartoon designs and their pre-Earth, Cybertronian forms. You'll easily be able to identify guys like Optimus Prime, Soundwave, Bumblebee, Jazz, and others just by appearance. In vehicle form, things get a little crazier, and there's something thematically incorrect about having Soundwave turn into some kind of hover van, though he does turn into something that at least resembles a tape deck during one cutscene. The sound effects are spacey and very heavy on the metal-on-metal contact that you get from running, falling, using a melee attack, or just about anything else. Since the game always has three Transformers together during the campaign, you'll get a fair amount of chatter. The voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, once again reprises his role in War For Cybertron. He does a good job, but something about the dialogue he's given seems even more overwrought and dramatic than Prime's lines usually do.
The multiplayer modes let you play any campaign level cooperatively with up to three players. You can jump in or jump out of strangers' games, though the game has to be created as a co-op game--you can't have people join you on the fly if you're starting out in the solo mode. There's also a wave-based survival-type mode called Escalation that feels sort of like the Call of Duty: World At War Nazi Zombies mode, as you'll need to pay off vending machines for additional ammo, weapons, and health. Up to four players can play on two maps.
The main, competitive multiplayer sticks to the player persistence and unlockable add-ons that became so popular back in Call of Duty 4, but it maintains some semblance of its class-based structure. Each of the four classes gets its own weapon selections and killstreak bonuses, and you'll level up each class individually to unlock additional perks and abilities. Some of these let scouts stay cloaked longer or provide health bonuses to your entire team. Then there's martyrdom, which does exactly what it sounds like, but it drops "thermo mines" instead of hand grenades. Some of the similarities seem shameless, but it's a proven system that works, so it's not a negative thing to see this style of multiplayer applied to a very different-feeling game.
The multiplayer, which allows up to 10 players at once, offers standard shooter modes, like team deathmatch, node control modes, and a couple of takes on capture the flag. Though it sometimes feels like melee attacks are a little too effective, the competitive side of War For Cybertron is its strongest suit. The abilites feel useful and it's way more fun to take on human opposition than it is to grind through the monotonous campaign. It probably won't replace whatever popular shooter you're currently hooked on, but War For Cybertron's multiplayer makes for a good diversion.
That's really the best thing that can be said about Transformers: War For Cybertron. Its campaign is only worth seeing through if you're extremely curious to see how it ties into some of the other Transformers lore out there, and the multiplayer is solid, if perhaps a bit uninspired. It's a good diversion that'll keep you engaged for a few days, but don't go in expecting long-term excitement.