"If subsequent Transformers titles use War for Cybertron as a baseline, the future could be great for both new and old fans of this beloved series."
On the morning of my fifth birthday, I awoke with anticipation to the sounds of my mother preparing a special breakfast in the kitchen. When I opened the door and saw an impeccably wrapped box sitting at the table where my plate normally would have been, I knew that it could contain only one thing: a new Optimus Prime toy. The box size and the massive grin on my momís face gave it away.
I tore into the wrapping paper like a Sharkticon into its Quintesson overlord. Inside I found not Optimus, but rather the pale imitator Ultra Magnus. Bless my motherís heart, she had no idea that there was a difference between the two Autobots. She simply saw a Transformer in truck form and thought it would be the perfect toy. Despite my initial disappointment, Ultra Magnus went on to become one of the most heavily-used toys in my collection. That morning was the moment where I ceased to be merely a Transformers cartoon fan and became a lifelong fan of the overall brand.
Though it has seen a massively popular movie adaptation and an inexhaustible supply of toy lines, the Transformers franchise has had trouble making a smooth leap to video games. With Unreal Engine 3 providing the tech and the promises of an expanded history of the first generation Transformers universe, War for Cybertron was poised to turn that trend around from the moment when it was first announced. An adaptation that not only pays homage to the original series but tries to build on it? Sign me up!
As you might expect, the aforementioned Unreal Engine 3 lays solid groundwork for the gameplay mechanics of War For Cybertron. Controls are tight and responsive and the shooting action should feel instantly familiar to fans of Gears of War. Since this is a Transformers title, though, we lose the cover-heavy shooting of its relatives and gain the ability to instantly change from robot to vehicle form to unleash a different set of abilities and weapons. The people at High Moon Studios deserve high praise for nailing the transforming as well as they did; everything from the animation and sound to the fluidity and utility of the action works fantastically. Equally important to the essence of the franchise is the divide between Autobot and Decepticon, which High Moon chose to represent with two separate and sequential campaigns.
The first few levels of the Decepticon single-player campaign in War for Cybertron did not leave me feeling optimistic about this game turning the franchise around. They featured seemingly endless slogs down the same shiny metallic hallways. When those slogs finally concluded, they typically did so at the mere press of a button that opened another reflective corridor, filled with invisible walls and inaccessible doors. Though there is supposedly a war going on, Cybertron rarely lets you experience it, preferring to funnel the player into tight spaces with only a few foes engaging you. Some of the setpiece and boss fights are decent, but they all rely on variations of the same rotating-laser-of-death and can feel a bit long in the tooth once you get the pattern down.
The one highlight of the Decepticon campaign was the dialog. Megatronís banter with his subordinates is amusing and very much in the character of the original cartoon series. Constantly threatening his underlings with his wrath and berating them for whining, Megatron is actually pretty endearing to a player that has to tolerate their substandard AI. While it's up to the player to select which of the Decepticons (or Autobots) they play in each chapter, the computer-controlled teammates will universally disappoint. If you choose to play the Leader, you will find that your Scientist never uses his healing abilities on you when you need it most. If you decide to take matters into your own hsnds and play the Scientist, you will find your AI partners incapable of hitting the broad side of a barn with their giant cannons.
Fortunately for all of us, the Autobot campaign really turns things around. The levels open up, the story picks up the pace and the set pieces become awe-inspiring examples of Cybertronian conflict. Everything is still covered in a fine metallic sheen, but this is Cybertron and that makes sense. The ongoing war encroaches on the action with increasing frequency as your fellow Autobots fight and die all around you. You can stop to ressurect fallen Autobots, and will be rewarded with an achievement for doing so, but it often places you in more danger of being dismantled yourself.
Fans of the original series are in for a treat as the story unfolds here. The Decepticon campaign focused on Megatron's acquisition of Dark Energon, a MacGuffin of unimaginable power, and his desire to use it to control all of Cybertron by corrupting it's core. Once the Autobots get behind the wheel, things get a lot more interesting as Optimus struggles with issues of leadership against the backdrop of the war. As it reaches its climax with an atypically awesome ending, War For Cybertron rises above mediocre beginnings to provide a satisfying conclusion and a great lead-in for further adventures.
Once the war concludes, there's still plenty more game to be enjoyed. You can play the campaign co-operatively with a buddy or two, or choose to step into Escalation mode to face wave after wave of Cybertonian foes. Escalation is eerily reminiscent of Call of Duty: World at War's Nazi Zombie mode, including the ability to unlock new areas of the map and purchase upgrades from different vending machines. War For Cybertron also includes a robust competitive multi-player offering, complete with six different modes, character classes, leveling and unlockable special abilities.
Multi-player maps range from simple and functional killing corridors to more open orbital arenas that make for excellent bombing runs in jet mode. Your choice in weapons and abilities always impacts your performance, but never makes or breaks you. Every one of the four classes (Leader, Scientist, Scout, and Soldier) is useful in some unique way, whether that be the sheer killing power of a Soldier unleashing a whirlwind attack in melee or the buffing abilities of the Leader's war cry. Earning new abilities and trying new combinations will keep most players coming back to the multi-player mode for a very long time.
Ultimately, my experience with War for Cybertron resembled the aftermath of my fifth birthday. Though I initially felt disappointed by the game, that disappointment faded quickly as I interacted with more and more of its toys. The campaign mode may feel more like Ultra Magnus than it does Optimus Prime, but the multi-player modes really save the title from being "merely" good. If subsequent Transformers titles use War for Cybertron as a baseline, the future could be great for both new and old fans of this beloved series. 'Til all are one!
Freelance review by Frank Austin (July 19, 2010)
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