When it comes to Transformers: War for Cybertron, only one thing needs to be said: thank the gaming gods that the developers didn’t have to struggle with the binds of a movie or other timed tie-in. Transformers games in the past came in two flavors: vanilla or crap. Either forced to abide by a movie’s plot or not showing any true creativity, previous Transformers games failed to live up to the promise of such a storied franchise. But with War for Cybertron, gamers and Transformers fans can finally see what a dedicated developer can do when it’s not forced to abide by plotlines, devotes itself to refining the gameplay and loves the franchise so much that its nigh-canonical additions actually seem plausible.
Transformers: War for Cybertron delves into a timeline that’s never previously been explored: the period before the Autobots and Decepticons ever set metallic foot on Earth. Because this timeline’s never really been discussed, the main campaign is divided into two portions: Autobot and Decepticon. What, you were expecting “Megan Fox” and “everything else”? The initial campaign puts you in the shoes of Megatron, the uber-baddy who’s looking for nothing less than to lead the Decepticons to total domination of the Autobots’ home planet. The second arm of the campaign, which takes place in the same setting but from a decidedly different vantage point, follows a little character you might just know named Optimus, who’s soon to be promoted to the rank of Prime.
Before you get all twitterpated at the prospect of transforming into a big rig and back again, remember that Transformers: War for Cybertron takes place pre-Earth-interaction, so you won’t see any Mack-branded vehicles, VW Beetles or F-14s. The robot transformations are still recognizable, and Lord help you if you don’t immediately recognize the voice of Optimus, but the vehicles themselves aren’t stuck with the visuals from a feature film. However, this isn’t really a big deal for two main reasons.
First, the gameplay isn’t dependent upon a movie tie-in or marketing blitz to wow you. Amazingly enough, it’s actually able to stand on its own two mechanical feet. Throughout the game’s various missions, you’ll find yourself undertaking a mix of aerial combat, melee combat, gunplay and even a small dose of platforming. Although certain parts do get tiresome — most notably the lack of ammunition in the Decepticon campaign, the seemingly endless hallways in the early going and the lack of a way to avoid the remarkably accurate snipers — War for Cybertron still manages to eek out an experience that’s above par compared to all Transformers games before it. The Autobot campaign opens things up a bit in the ammunition and environment department, but the enemies’ lack of intelligence renders the automatic weapons a bit superfluous.
The second reason the lack of “name brand” vehicles is moot is because you’ll probably find yourself playing mostly from the robot perspective anyway. With Transformers: War for Cybertron, the developers at High Moon found a fantastic balance between the literal need to transform from robot to vehicle and back again, and the inherent desire just to do it. Some of the levels are absolutely huge, so switching to the vehicle form lets you cover a lot of ground quickly. But it’s also just one of those childhood fantasies to be able to transform when and where you want, which is not only an option here, but a fun experience. Jets in a building? Not advised, but possible. Even so, the game plays more like a third-person action game than a racing or flying game, so most of your time is spent as a robot that just so happens to have a catalytic converter and five-disc CD changer. There is no cover mechanic to speak of, though, so before you equate it to something like a Gears of War, make sure you prepare for a much more frantic, run-and-gun experience. War for Cybertron is much more arcade-y in that regard, a vibe that fits perfectly with the series’ staunch roots in the 1980s.
Yet there’s a sick irony in playing as a giant robot living on a planet populated by other giant robots: you don’t really feel that giant. I will say that’s the one thing that the movie-based games had going for them: you felt like a complete and utter badass able to not only scale tall buildings in a single bound, but bring them crumbling to the ground with a single shot. Another thing the earlier games had going for them was their difficulty. Well, to be more precise, their consistency in difficulty. I’m not going to sit here and say Transformers: War for Cybertron is a controller thrower, but a little leveling-out of the difficulty levels would’ve gone a long way toward making individual players find a bit more pleasure out of certain levels. Theoretically, the difficulty variances are a motivator to have players take advantage of the three-player online co-op, which does make things more amenable, but that seems like a weird carrot to entice people into trying something new.
In addition to the three-player online co-op, High Moon’s Transformers game also includes a Create-A-Transformer mode and, yes, the ability to take said “robot in disguise” into the competitive realm. The online modes aren’t entirely innovative, but the ability to assign a class (and therefore a specific skillset) to your robot are nice. And really, when it comes right down to it, who hasn’t wanted to create their own Autobot or Decepticon and prove their mettle against all who dare question your authoritay?
With Transformers: War for Cybertron, High Moon Studios and Activision have achieved something no previous Transformers game has: a decided lack of suck. Certain parts of the game need a bit more polish and playtesting, but when you want to talk about coming out of left field to surprise me, this game certainly did. It’s fun, entertaining and actually provides some nice context to a revered cartoon franchise. It’s safe to say that 20-ton robots have never looked or played as good as they do here.
- Score: 8.1
- What’s this? These “robots in disguise” are actually disguised as an enjoyable game! It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly worth some time in the ol’ console.
— Jonas Allen