Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Transformers: War for Cybertron

Post-Launch Review
Transformers: War for Cybertron
Developer: High Moon Studios 
Released: June 2010

Transformers: War for Cybertron is a game not directly tied to any existing Transformers stuff – it's not linked to a movie or a specific toy line or a TV show or anything. The third-person shooter chronicles the war between the evil Decepticons and the noble Autobots for the Transformers' home world of Cybertron. Megatron, leader of the Decepticons, discovers a powerful new energy source and potential weapon: Dark Energon. The Autobots, led by Zeta Prime and Optimus, fight the Decepticons for the very survival of the planet.

At Launch
Reviews were generally positive, with all three versions of the game receiving very close scores in the high 70's. Reviewers liked the new character designs, the writing and dialogue, and the multiplayer, but found the visuals repetitive and complained about low amounts of ammo. War for Cybertron was described as the best Transformers game to date.

Post Launch
Two DLC packs were released, each containing several new playable characters for Escalation (survival) and multiplayer, as well as a few maps for each game mode. These packs are not available for the PC version.
The Good
Character Designs
The Transformer character models are a really cool blend of the classic cartoon style and the more realistic and highly detailed Michael Bay style (from the recent films). If you know the characters, they're all very easily recognizable, but with a new spin on the visuals of each character.
Since the game takes place on Cybertron and not on Earth, the Transformers' vehicle modes appear more alien and less directly based on cars, trucks, and planes. The basic form is still there, but you're not going to see a Ferrari or anything.
Art Direction & Graphics
The developers did a great job of designing a purely metallic and mechanical planet. There are all kinds of moving parts and interlocking pieces of machinery. There are some particularly great small details: when a Transformer uses a turret or picks up a weapon, the two bodies interlock and merge together, creating a single unit. It's a nice touch and makes perfect sense.
The only downside to Cybertron's visuals is that it can occasionally be hard to figure out what's going on or where the enemies are. Since everything in the game is metallic and follows the same general colour scheme, it's sometimes tough to figure out where you need to go or who's shooting at you. Fortunately it's always easy to distinguish between Autobots and Decepticons, since the former tend to have red lights and glows, and the Decepticons are purple.
In terms of the criticism that Cybertron is lacking in variety, I don't put too much stock in them. The same textures are used through the entire game, but there are a lot of architectural differences and environmental features that are fairly distinct. 
Two Campaigns
There's a Decepticon campaign and an Autobot campaign, each with five missions. The story continues between the two: in the Decepticon campaign, Megatron seeks out Dark Energon to boost his forces' power, and in the Autobot campaign, you deal with the fallout of Megatron's actions. Some games have campaigns that take place simultaneously, but these two tell one story with two perspectives, rather than two stories, if you know what I mean.
Of the two, the Autobot campaign is the better. It feels longer and much more intense, despite actually being a similar length. In particular, there are a few vehicle form levels where you're racing to a destination before X happens, which are very cool. The Decepticons are very blatant bad guys, and sometimes it's overdone, but more often it's played for laughs – like when Starscream exclaims “The Autobots have booby-trapped the chamber! Fools!” and a squadmate asks “Wait, do you mean the Autobots are fools for setting the trap, or we are for activating it?”
Combat and Transformations
Combat is straightforward but fun. There's nothing fancy going on, just some good solid weapons from the usual assortment, but with a couple of variations to keep things interesting. The cool part is that you can transform at any time, seamlessly swapping between robot and vehicle forms with fluid animations. When playing as Megatron, I shifted to tank form whenever I needed heavy damage, since he's got a powerful cannon that can really chip away at a big enemy's health bar. Another good trick when playing a flying character is to switch to jet mode when low on ammo, since they have unlimited ammo in that form.
Also it's fun to just randomly transform while moving quickly, and particularly when jumping or falling – leave the ground as a robot, land as a car. Awesome.
Voice Actors
Voice acting is excellent, and a lot of funny lines are delivered perfectly. The developers managed to get Peter Cullen as Optimus, and the other actors did a great job of replicating the voices from the cartoons. It's a little thing that really helps make this feel like legit Transformers if you're familiar with the franchise.
There's one Autobot level that takes place in orbit above Cybertron, as Jetfire (and two other guys whose names I forget) are tasked with taking out the Decepticon orbital laser that's wreaking havoc on the Autobots. There's an even mix of free-roaming space combat and interior action. Above all others, this level really gets across the freedom of movement and versatility of the Transformers. It's excellent, and even manages to poke fun at some action movie conventions - namely, the fact that the bad guys never seem to have backup systems on their superweapons.
Actually, this level reminds me of StarFox. Which is good.
The Neutral
Oddly, War for Cybertron's co-op is for three players, instead of the usual two or four. If you're not playing co-op, or if you're short one person, there are still three characters, but the non-humans are controlled by bots. The bots aren't super effective, but they also seem to be invulnerable, which helps. Co-op is competent enough, but with two problems.
One is that there isn't a huge variety in terms of character mechanics. Yes, each of your three characters will play differently, but for the most part characters that fill the same combat role are nearly identical. That's not really a big deal, though.
The bigger issue is that when playing co-op, if one player dies, everybody is reset to the last checkpoint. This is a really weird and annoying move, especially when the functionality is there in the Autobot campaign to revive fallen allies. For some reason it just doesn't apply to players. This can be really awful during some of the nastier boss fights with instant-death traps or very powerful attacks, where it's actually easier to clear a battle in single player because your bot allies don't ever die.
The game's difficulty feels quite good on normal mode: challenging but not overwhelming. The health system contributes to that: you get four blocks of health, which regenerate only the current block - if you lose a block entirely, it won't come back without a health pickup. You do sometimes feel a bit fragile for a giant robot, which is a little odd.
But that's normal gameplay. Some of the bosses are really hard. A couple feature instant-death attacks, or attacks which are so powerful that if you stop moving for a fraction of a second, you're toast. The final boss, Trypticon, can be particularly frustrating. He's a two-stage battle, and I had to retry both stages, oh, at least five times. The bosses can feel unfair, but it's very rewarding to take them out - except for Trypticon. You don't get any real closure or badassery from his defeat. He just kind of... falls into a hole. Rather disappointing.
The Bad
Autobots = Decepticons
There's a decent variety of enemy types, but the Autobot and Decepticon forces you fight are identical reskins of each other. The feel of the gameplay doesn't change at all between the Autobot and Decepticon campaigns because you're fighting the exact same enemies in each one. It would have been nice to actually see mechanical differences between the two forces so that it feels different to fight and play as each one.
War for Cybertron was never a hugely popular game, and so long after release, there's almost no one playing the multiplayer. When I checked the population, there were 78 players online - and since "online" doesn't necessarily mean "in multiplayer", it'll be just about impossible to find a game. This is not a game to buy for the multiplayer, no matter how good it is, since there isn't any now.

The Verdict
Recommendation: Play it if you're a Transformers fan, but if not, maybe don't bother.
It's a cool game, but it could be hard to get into if you're not already a Transformers fan. There's very little explanation as to who each character is, or much in the way of character development (except for Optimus). You won't even know why you're fighting this war, or what started it, apart from the very obvious fact that Megatron wants to be in charge. However, if you are a Transformers fan, it's a fun experience to play as so many different characters, to have the actual cartoon voices, and to see what happened at the end of the war for Cybertron.

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