Transformers haven’t had the greatest track record when it comes to games. Among loads of crap, there have been a couple of serviceable-to-good titles, the most recent being last year’s Revenge of the Fallen – which, despite being approximately 263 times better that the film it was based on, received the damning praise of “good… for a movie game.” Now Transformers: War for Cybertron is upon us, and we finally have a game that isn’t beholden to any film or modern cartoon; it’s really just based on the idea that Transformers as a concept are pretty cool, and then it just goes from there. Is this creative freedom enough to finally push the franchise to greatness?
Gears of War, emphasis on the Gears
The third-person shooter Gears of War casts a heavy shadow over the games industry, and more than a few games have taken inspiration from it. So why not this T-rated robot-shooting game? War for Cybertron has Gears’ heavy, lumbering pace, and mimics its shooting mechanics pretty well, as the automatons march through warzones and blast their fellow metal men to pieces. If you’re going to steal, sorry, pay homage to something, you may as well pay homage to the best – although it would have been better if War for Cybertron had included Gears’ amazing cover system in that homage. Instead, it’s been (barely) replaced by sporadic chunks of debris to stand behind, without any actual snap-to-cover feature.
Then again, the meatheads from Gears can’t change into vehicles, which is a lot more fun than simply sprinting. Transforming is always quick and simple – just a single button press away – and it really changes the pace of the game, since the car or plane versions of each character move much faster than their other forms. Still, despite a few areas that were designed especially for vehicle mode, we repeatedly forgot about the feature during the intense firefights until our AI companions transformed and rolled out.
Aside from the stretches of the game you’re supposed to drive or fly through, nearly all of WfC is built around going from skirmish to skirmish, killing everything that moves before heading to the next area. The shooting is fun enough that it never gets really bland, but after killing your 100th non-descript Decepticon clone, it can get a little old. Fortunately, the enemy types are varied enough to keep the combat from getting too monotonous. And there are some really nifty boss fights to shake things up, too, either against massive Cybertronians like Omega Supreme, or multi-tiered sequences where just when you think a boss has been downed, they surprise you by bringing a whole new layer to the battle.
Above: This is one of the bigger enemies
Each level is built for three-player co-op (more on that later), which means the areas can be played through as one of three distinct characters. They all handle differently from each other; you’ve got the heavy, the spy and the medic, all with different weapons and abilities, and that’s on top of each one having a unique vehicle form. This keeps the game from falling into monotony and gives you a chance to explore and find the most fitting class.
Till all are one
The campaign is where WfC actually has one up on Gears. All the levels support three-player co-op which is kind of a weird number, but it nonetheless enhances the experience, like all good co-op can. Once you’re done fighting over who gets to play as Optimus or Starscream (our favorites, depending on which campaign we were playing), it makes the game much more fun, and the occasionally painful difficulty spikes more manageable. It would have been even better if being revived by a teammate brought you back to full health instead of just a sliver of it, but most games don’t give you the option of exploding as you bleed out, so we’ll call it a wash.
In the competitive online multiplayer modes (outside the co-op campaign), WfC steals from a different game: Call of Duty, or more specifically its leveling system and weapon-loadout options. The difference is that here, you determine the loadout for each class you want to play as, and can switch between them every time you die. The only bummer is that you can only play as ”generic” Transformers with color schemes you can alter, not as any of the marquee characters. But all the standard multiplayer modes are there, and they’re all fun, making the mode much more than an afterthought.
Above: Here's a glimpse of Escalation
While the regular online is fine, but we had more fun with WfC’s variation on Gears of War’s Horde mode, called Escalation. It takes what’s fun about these smaller, focused bits of co-op, namely you and three friends battling increasingly powerful waves of enemies, but gives it a new wrinkle: money. Instead of just finding ammo or healing drops, you purchase those items with the points you get from kills. Teamwork comes into play when you come up short when trying to buy some needed health, as your more successful friends can spend their own credits to help a brother out. Now, if only there were more maps… but that’s what DLC is for, we guess.
Just like the Batman film series went back to square one after some horrid films endangered the franchise’s legacy, War for Cybertron gives the bots a clean slate to work from. The story takes place four million years, give or take, before the modern setting of the original cartoon series, when the conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons for control of their home planet of Cybertron was at its peak. Optimus isn’t the Autobot leader yet, and Megatron is trying to find a weapon to turn the tide in the battle for the planet.
Thanks to the time and setting, no puny humans can get in the way, there’s no terrible acting by a tiny digital Shia LaBeouf, and no lame levels were created to match a scene in the movie. It’s just a full-on war between robots that hate each other on a techy, sci-fi planet that can transform, just like its inhabitants. And since the Transformers continuity is pretty malleable after all the films and different cartoon series, developer High Moon Studios can use the mythology to fit its needs, instead of being a slave to it.
All the redesigns for the characters look great and reflect the game’s setting, as the robots haven’t gotten to earth yet, and therefore don’t look like modern cars or jets – they’re more like futuristic versions of their normal selves. It also feels like a restart because, outside of Optimus and a couple others, all the voices are done by new actors, including some work by the inescapable Nolan North. It all adds up to a feel that is both fresh and familiar.
Specific stuff like that will only be caught by Transformers superfans, though, as will the many cute references and asides throughout. Yet even if you have a passing interest in the series, or haven’t paid attention since the animated movie when you were a kid, WfC works as a great starting point that never confuses you with too many asides to fans. Sure, you won’t chuckle at Achievements called “I still function,” but that’s hardly integral to enjoying robot-murder. We’re just happy to see a Transformers game that isn’t embarrassing to play as an adult.
Above: We won't spoil why it's great, but the awesome credits are worth beating the game to see
Is it better than…?
Tranformers: Revenge of the Fallen? Yes. Though the second movie game was much better than it deserved to be, War for Cybertron trims the fat (Megan Fox) and deepens the multiplayer aspects, while avoiding all the problems involved with doing a direct film tie-in.
Gears of War 2? No, but if you’re not old enough to purchase that game and don’t have parents cool enough to get it for you, this is as suitable a T-rated replacement as you’ll find. And if you only have a PS3, it has one of the best recreations of Horde Mode we’ve seen, so you can finally experience it for yourself.
Resident Evil 5? Maybe. Both make co-op a large part of the campaign and multiplayer (though Transformers uses it in less frustrating and complicated ways), but WfC isn’t as deep as RE5. Also, getting a headshot on some robot isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as it is on a zombie.
Just for you Metacritic!
By taking ideas from some of the best games of the last five years and combining that with a respect for the material that isn’t so excessive as to alienate non-fans, War for Cybertron ends up being the best Transformers game yet.
Jun 22, 2010