Since the 1980s, children have been enamored with Transformers. The idea of giant robots disguising themselves as cars, jets and a few everyday objects captured the imaginations of most kids. While Hasbro's popular toy line has experienced success in both film and television, it took some time before the video games hit the North American console scene. The spin-off series, Beast Wars: Transformers on the PSOne and N64, was mildly successful, but fans of the original design (now referred to as G1) didn't get a very good game until Transformers on the PS2, and they couldn't wait for the inevitable sequels. Unfortunately, the two games based on the live action movies were mediocre. Sensing a chance to start over, Activision and High Moon Studios tried to recapture the essence of the PS2 title, which appealed to both fans and non-fans alike so many years ago. With Transformers: War for Cybertron, they may have done just that.
The game takes players to a time and place often talked about but rarely explored: the Cybertron War. It is the height of the war, almost a millennium before both factions would make Earth their battleground. With the Decepticons and Autobots reaching a stalemate, something had tip the scales in favor of one side. Megatron, the upstart leader of the Decepticons, plans to use dark energon to power his minions and restore the planet to its former glory so that he can rule over it. Meanwhile, the Autobots have just lost their leader, and with no one to lead the fight, a young Prime has taken it upon himself to be the planet's champion of free will.
The developer's approach to the Campaign mode is fairly unique, even if it doesn't initially appear to be. The option to take on the campaign as either Decepticons or Autobots isn't anything new, since the two movie-based titles did the same thing. What is interesting, however, is that the campaigns aren't just two separate takes on the same story. The Decepticon campaign becomes the catalyst for the Autobot campaign, which comprises the second half of the game. The plot plays out well and seems rather plausible. If you ever wanted to see how someone like Starscream came to follow Megatron or see how Prime became the Autobot leader and was renamed Optimus Prime, this is your chance.
That doesn't mean it's perfect, though; the missions seem to be a sampling of the victories that each side gained during the war. The rest of the moments are told through narrated text blurbs at the beginning of each mission, so the flow of the story is sometimes uneven, such as when you've completed a major mission but are told that faction's morale is still low. The 10 chapters create about 15 of solid gameplay, which increases if you decide to go for some of the Achievements/Trophies.
As expected, this is a shooting game shown in the third-person perspective. The minute you start playing, you feel that this is the license's take on Gears of War, and you would mostly be right. The perspective is slightly shifted, so your character is to the left of the camera. In addition to your grenades and melee weapon, you can only have two weapons. You always have AI companions throughout the mission, and you have a regenerative health system that seems to be popular in most modern shooters.
There are a few differences, though. Regenerative health is broken into segments, so laying low doesn't mean that you'll get all of your health back. Except for a few scripted moments, you won't be spending much time resuscitating your fallen teammates. You also don't have a cover system, so you'll have to rely on the old gaming tactic of moving behind a box, pillar or piece of debris and facing it, hoping that you don't get shot in the process.
The most obvious change, though, is being able to transform, and depending on your character class, transformation can yield different results. For slower characters, it means access to a backup reserve of more powerful ammunition. Faster characters can use it as a replacement run mechanic, and flying vehicles can be tactical in more open spaces by flying from spot to spot to pick off and flank enemies.
With the exception of a few missions where you'll be in flight, you're never forced to use the transformation mechanic, but a good portion of the levels keep the environment open for you to transform without feeling constricted. While some may cry foul at the proposition of not being able to transform all of the time, if you think about the source material, most of the combat is done through robot form anyway. In that sense, the game adheres to the source material pretty faithfully.
Like most modern shooters, War for Cybertron has a multiplayer component with a few rewarding modes for dedicated fans. The cooperative Campaign mode allows for a total of three players through each level, and while that may seem like a strange number to have online, it fits perfectly with the single-player campaign, which is usually filled with three characters in combat against everyone else. Your character choices are similarly restricted to who is available in the single-player mode for that mission, so you'll be out of luck if you wanted to take Starscream as your player in the first Decepticon mission because he isn't available at that time.
Escalation is the game's answer to the Horde mode introduced in Gears of War 2. Here, up to four players can choose between any Decepticon or Autobot featured in the story, depending on the chosen map. As expected, players must face wave after wave of enemies, surviving as long as they can until the entire team expires. When compared to other games that offer a similar mode, the big difference is the availability of kiosks where players can buy ammunition, health and different guns to deal with the enemy hordes.
There are a few complaints that can be levied against the Campaign mode, aside from the lack of forced transformation. The first is your companion AI. They aren't exactly brain-dead, as you'll often find them taking out a few enemies along the way. However, they don't seem to react as well during boss fights and can sometimes get left behind during some of the platforming sections. Enemies rarely go down with one shot, so the other complaint is that the amount of available ammunition is usually closer to what is provided in a survival-horror title than a typical action title. This means that you'll have to manage your ammunition and engage in more melee attacks. It also means that you'll have to transform just to get to your reserve ammunition, and you'll have to spend more time spent finding ammo rather than using it.
Beyond this, you have a standard assortment of multiplayer modes like deathmatch, king of the hill and capture the flag. The modes aren't revolutionary, but the fact that you're playing with transforming characters makes it exciting. You certainly won't find other multiplayer games that offer cars, tanks and jets duking it out on the ground and in the skies. The fact that the configurations of the combatants can change on a whim keeps things fresh.
If that weren't enough, the game borrows the specific class leveling system seen in Battlefield: Bad Company 2, so your playtime with certain classes also levels up their abilities and equipment. The title also borrows from the ever-popular perks system seen in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and while some of the perk effects are the same, the names have been changed so that it falls in line with the material. If there's a caveat to the relatively lag-free experience, it would be that the customization of your multiplayer character is rather limited. There are only a few configurations and color schemes available per class, and while it would have been nice to have more variety, the options are merely cosmetic and don't affect gameplay at all.
Despite War for Cybertron being a third-person shooter, the control scheme shares many traits with the first-person shooter genre. The right trigger shoots, the left trigger zooms, pushing in the left thumbstick lets you transform, and pushing in the right thumbstick initiates melee attacks. Like any good shooter, the controls are responsive. This is especially true in vehicle mode, which was troublesome in older Transformers games for both land- and air-based vehicles. Our concern about the controls was the location of the melee attack, but that didn't pose much of a problem during gameplay. Even if you don't end up using it too much, you never have to think about which button lets you initiate a melee attack or transform.
The graphics look great, with some areas helping to disguise other flaws rather well. The character designs are all based on the G1 style but modified to fit the Cybertron world. Longtime fans can easily tell who's who the minute they appear on-screen in either vehicular or robot form. The only exceptions to this would be Megatron, who is in his tank design instead of his handgun design, and Soundwave, who now becomes a vehicle instead of a personal recorder. Everyone else, from Optimus Prime to Starscream to Warpath, looks the same. The design also bleeds over into the cannon fodder robots; they all look the same, but they feel like they're an important part of the world.
The environments don't fare as well as the characters, though the fault lies with the source material as opposed to the artists' treatment of it. There's plenty of detail in Cybertron, and the myriad of cables, tubes and silos that make up the world are still a marvel to see. The lack of color variety, though, doesn't prevent you from getting the feeling that one environment looks the same as the next. Even when the environment color changes, it is a unilateral one, so it always feels like the level only ever had one color scheme in mind.
Luckily, the animation saves the environments from feeling like total wastes of space and enhances the characters even more. Cybertron is a transforming planet, and the level of detail for the environmental transformations is astounding; steam spews from areas of great transformation activity, and you see gears and pistons move into place. That level of detail also goes into the characters, so you'll see the intricate movements as a character transforms between forms, a weapon transforms between forms, or when they switch weapons. The animations are enough to make one forget about the colorless world of Cybertron for just a little while. As for the particle effects, the explosions and the smoke look great, though an abundance drops the frame rate a few times. This doesn't happen too often, but it is noticeable when it does, especially during cut scenes.
The sound is another area where fans are treated to a somewhat authentic experience, as some of the more iconic voices reprise their roles for the game. Optimus Prime and Soundwave, for example, are voiced by the same actors from the 1980s cartoon. The voice actors for the other characters turn in very convincing performances. This is especially true of both Starscream and Megatron, with the former trying to emulate the inflections of the original actor while the latter conveys a nice amount of menace. The effects don't follow in the footsteps of the original cartoon, but they still sound great, with the right amount of balance between being loud and being overwhelming. As for the music, it is your standard action game fare. It dictates the mood nicely, and a few pieces are memorable enough. Oddly enough, the best music in the game is played during the ending credits, and while new fans may not get too excited over it, old fans, especially ones who saw the animated movie, will be grinning from ear to ear.
Ultimately, Transformers: War for Cybertron is a game for Transformers fans made by Transformers fans. The attention given to the lore and construction of the story shows that they didn't just throw the characters into a random adventure. The graphics prove that the developers really wanted to hearken back to an era loved by most, if not all, fans. The sound supports this claim even more, thanks to the voices and inclusion of a particular artist for the credits sequence. To a casual fan who might not care much about these details, the game ends up being a very solid piece of work with a great single-player mode and a very good set of multiplayer modes. To the die-hard fan, however, War for Cybertron is a high-water mark for Transformers-based video games.
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