The Transformers are the very definition of a multimedia property. The brand’s roots are in action figures, but since their introduction in 1985, Autobots and Decepticons have appeared in countless TV cartoons, comic book series, and movies. Before the Michael Bay-helmed live-action “films,” however, Cybertronians were rarely represented in video game form. Despite the fact that the entire fiction focuses on robots who fight each other and turn into vehicles, a concept custom-made for video game translation, we only saw a few awful Commodore 64 titles, an NES game, which was remarkably bad, a N64/PS1 Beast Wars fighting game that practically redefined “bad,” and a Japan-exclusive PS2 game that has been referred to as “the worst "Dynasty Warriors" knock-off ever made.” Finally, in 2004, Atari and Developer Melbourne House produced Transformers for the PS2, the first half-decent Transformers game. It focused on the terrible “Unicron Trilogy” continuity, and was extraordinarily difficult, but it was still far better than any of its predecessors or either of the two movie games, which came afterwards. For their newest Transformers title, Activision and High Moon Studios decided to set the battle between Autobots and Decepticons in an entirely new continuity, and start the tale at the beginning; their own home world of Cybertron.
A standard third-person shooter, Transformers: War for Cybertron puts players in the robotic shoes wheels of some of the most well known Transformers characters and sets them on an adventure that kicks off a new war between heroic Autobots and villainous Decepticons. With a standard control layout, the game doesn’t try to innovate too much on tried and true formulas, and instead presents a solid shooter with a surprisingly high level of polish. The 10-12 hour campaign mode consists of two separate stories. The first five chapters feature the Decepticons, and the rise to prominence of their leader, Megatron, while the latter chapters chronicle the resurgence of the Autobot resistance, and the ascendance of a young ‘bot named Optimus. Along the way, a slew of classic Transformers are introduced, creating some awesome fan-service moments for longtime fans of the property, including the first meeting between Megatron and Starscream.
Overall the story of War for Cybertron isn’t much deeper or more mature than anything found in the old cartoons, but Megatron’s hunger for power, Starscream’s treacherous leanings, and Optimus Prime’s self-righteous poise and courage are perfectly represented here, making the somewhat pedestrian plot far more intriguing because of the surprisingly well-realized characters.
As a shooter, Transformers is highly successful, if a bit derivative. Players must use simple tactics like taking cover behind items and working with their two AI-controlled teammates to flank enemies, but for the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward run-and-gun experience. Characters carry two guns in robot mode, and one in vehicle mode, except for planes, which carry unlimited machine guns and rockets in vehicle mode. There’s a nice variety of weaponry, ranging from sniper rifles to rocket launchers to shotguns, and major characters like Megatron, Optimus, and Starscream, each carry their own unique firearm. Early in the game, enemies go down pretty easily, but the difficulty ramps up very quickly, and it’s not too long before opponents are able to soak up massive damage before falling. This is a relatively standard convention for action shooters, but the constant dearth of ammo on levels makes it particularly difficult to deal with large waves of enemies. Luckily, teammate AI is far better than that of enemies, so players’ three-bot teams aren’t too badly overwhelmed, though simple squad commands would have been a great addition. Powerful melee attacks and special abilities like force fields, radial attacks, and limited invisibility, which are recharged by collecting parts from fallen opponents, also help make the surprisingly difficult campaign more manageable.
Along with the wholesale slaughter of the player’s enemies, there are also plenty of crates to bash. These contain health (in the form of Energon cubes), ammo, grenades, and new weapons, and are often well-hidden enough to keep players searching and exploring the game’s linear environments. Difficult-to-find Autobot and Decepticon logos are also scattered throughout the game, and destroying all fifty of them would tax even the wiliest of Halo 3’s skull hunters and Gears of War’s cog-hounds. It’s not a huge amount of single-player content, and some challenge rooms would have been a nice touch, but the game is challenging and entertaining enough to warrant a second play through.
Luckily, Transformers: War for Cybertron is far more beefy in its multiplayer modes. In addition to standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes, there are also three variations of capture the flag, and a King of the Hill mode called Power Struggle. All of these are fun and somewhat more strategic than what many may have expected, but Team Deathmatch is a standout. Skillfully coordinating the efforts of a powerful Leader class, a healing Scientist class, and a stealthy Scout class can yield some very satisfying multiplayer moments, and lead to many lost hours spent earning new perks and abilities for each class. Escalation mode brings the familiar Horde Mode recipe to Cybertron, with equally fun results. Here, players are able to choose from a list of iconic Transformers, then fight side by side to fend off wave after wave of oncoming enemies. In-between rounds, health, ammo, grenades, and new weapons can be purchased with points accumulated from killing enemies. There are only a few Escalation mode levels, which is a shame, and the difficulty ramps up very high, very quickly, but it’s an absolute blast to play with friends or strangers, and greatly increases the replay value of the game.
Co-op campaign mode is also very well implemented, and three players can charge through the game with slightly less difficulty than a single player. Cooperation is obviously encouraged, but there’s also an option that keeps players’ scores, awarding bonuses to the winner of each chapter. All said, there’s no shortage of ways to play the game online, and all of them are well designed and solid. The only online disappointment is the much-touted customization system for online multiplayer modes. Players basically select their class, pick from one to three character models for that class, and choose primary and secondary colors. It’s extremely limited, and while I’m not sure what I was expecting, it was definitely more robust than what is offered here.
The one thing that the Transformers movie games did well was visual presentation. In both previous TF titles, character models were extremely highly detailed, and moved and animated very well. Activision continues this tradition with a game that, while very dark, looks fantastic. The newly designed character models draw inspiration from just about every incarnation of the brand, but modernizes them all, giving them a more alien look that fits the Cybertronian setting of the game. The result is a roster of robots that are decidedly new and distinctive, but still instantly recognizable to fans. Environments are almost as impressive, featuring an impressive variety of war-torn, metallic locales that do a great job of intuitively leading players through the linear game. The all-important transformation animations are excellent, as well, and there’s a certain thrill to driving straight at an opponent, jumping over him while transforming, blasting him with a rocket, then transforming back into a car and speeding away. The only knock on the game in a graphics sense is the relatively low number of different enemy types, and their somewhat bland design, but overall, High Moon Studios has managed to create a Cybertron that‘s almost exactly as this longtime fan always imagined it, and it looks spectacular.
When it comes to the sound in a Transformers game, there’s only one sound that really matters; “The Transformation Sound.” War for Cybertron nails it, and does a good job with the rest of the audio, as well. Cybertronians are huge, usually between 5 and 25 tons, so their footfalls are loud, heavy clangs against the metallic surface of the planet. Likewise, switching out guns is essentially a mini-transformation, complete with its own funky, robotic sound. Attention to small details like these really help sell the game as a fan-service project, but nothing hits fans in the nostalgia centers quite like the sound of Peter Cullen’s booming baritone performing the role of Optimus Prime. Other voices in the game may take some getting used to (Jetfire is British!), but the script is solid, and the voice acting is excellent.
Transformers: War for Cybertron doesn’t do a whole lot new. It takes a lot f the gameplay of Gears of War, some multiplayer cues from Call of Duty and Left 4 Dead, and a mission structure from pretty much every licensed movie game ever made. As with most things in life, though, these are all made much better by the ability to turn yourself into a car, plane, or tank. Without the Transformers license, War for Cybertron would be a capable, but utterly forgettable third-person shooter with some nice graphics. Setting the game on Cybertron, however, and re-telling the origin of the most beloved toy franchise of the 1980s makes it an experience that gamers will enjoy and recall fondly, and one that fans of the Transformers absolutely shouldn’t miss out on. The Transformers game we’ve all waited for is finally here, and it’s pretty damn good.