Transformers: Fall of Cybertron re-paints the kind of picture I may have imagined decades ago, when I was one of millions of kids playing with my Autobots and Decepticons at home. Couches, steps, tables and even cars in the garage served as my setpieces, providing chances to add my own goofball dimensions to this elaborate alien conflict.
In an age of entertainment where remakes and reboots threaten to take a blowtorch to many of our memories of childhood play (G.I. Joe, Michael Bay, constant pressure to rewrite the origin stories of everyone from the Ninja Turtles to Superman), High Moon's latest offering treats the Transformers universe with the same sense of respect and honor Rocksteady Studios gave to Batman. It features a special mix of storytelling concepts and gameplay mechanics while never letting you ever forget its identity. It feels like the kind of game kids who played with Transformers would make if they grew up to be game designers.
High Moon set the table effectively with War for Cybertron, establishing a feel for how a Transformers game is supposed to play. It took the robots away from Earth and put them on their home turf in Cybertron, a place that was rife with imaginative possibilities for scenic craftsmanship. The result was a mechanically lush planet, the kind of place where moving parts created a sense of blooming and life that was carried on by its inhabitants. Now plunge this world into war, with lots of firepower and the ability to transform at any time. In an interesting move, High Moon also split the campaign equally so that players would experience the war from both sides, offering a variety of characters at your disposal.
Much of that structure remains the same in Fall of Cybertron, where it is clear that the Autobots must leave their home world and search for another place to live. To that end, they have constructed the Ark, a massive ship that will carry them throughout space until they find a home (not unlike the Quarian migrant fleet concept in Mass Effect's realm). Of course, the Decepticons know this and simply wish to eradicate all Autobots before they can leave.
Fans of the first game will notice a lot of changes immediately, especially in the storytelling. While the campaign still divides the conflict evenly, players no longer have a choice of characters to use in each mission. While this might annoy fans who want to simply be Optimus Prime or Megatron all the time, I thought this move was reflective of High Moon's respect for the Transformers universe, brilliantly dishing out enough "playing time" for several Autobots and Decepticons. I also got the feeling that having dedicated chapters allowed for more character development and story chemistry, as opposed to creating a more general atmosphere to accommodate whatever choice a player would make. The result is a sweet mix of wonderful balance that gives the game a sense of a multi-genre shooter.
The short mission of Bumblebee serves as the tone-setting tutorial, where players learn new tricks, such as the ability to switch your shooting hand from right to left by pressing B. It's a simple, handy wrinkle that can offer more angles to the player during battle. There's also the introduction of heavy weapons, such as a rocket launcher or massive machine gun, and you can switch back and forth with the Y button. You can still transform at any time with a click of the left thumbstick.
Wiping out the enemy still offers coin-like energy shards, but they can be used as currency instead of a means to refilling a meter for special abilities. All weapons can be upgraded at the new Teletraan 1 terminals, so you can add stuff like more firepower or a faster reload rate. You can also "buy" other weapons and gadgets, such as a portable shield, a drone that fights with you or even a grenade that produces a small black hole.
You get introduced to Teletraan 1 through the pair of missions set aside for Optimus Prime, which partially portrays the legendary Autobot leader as a badass soldier fighting side-by-side with his guys instead of a perpetually unstoppable solo act. With Peter Cullen again providing the voice of the venerable Prime, I got an immense amount of satisfaction simply hearing Prime mutter, "Clear!" after helping Warpath and team of Autobots wipe out an area of enemies, or saying, "I like the perspective this offers!" when he settled in behind a gun turret.
Prime provides the meat-and-potatoes shooter action, as he eventually gains the ability to call in airstrikes or demolish tanks behind the controls of a gigantic neutron cannon. He's also the one who eventually activates Metroplex, the giant transforming Autobot city. There's a short, amazing sequence where Prime, in vehicle form, drives from Metroplex's massive hand to his destination, with Metroplex in the background laying waste to clusters of Decepticons as he walks to meet Prime at the same spot. It was one of the scenes that helped give the game an identity unique from any other shooter.
Each robot's personality is stamped on each mission. For stealth and some speed, you get the missions with Jazz and Cliffjumper, who have the most fun banter by far of all the Autobots. Jazz also has a sweet grappling-hook feature that calls to mind the same pace you got with Batman and his grapple hook in the Arkham games, while the diminutive Cliffjumper (or just "Cliff" to Jazz) can turn invisible for short periods of time while also offering stealth kills if he manages to sneak up on an enemy. For some flying and driving, you have the missions with the Combaticons, like Vortex and Swindle. You also witness the introduction of Bruticus, the titan-sized Decepticon who shows up when all of the Combaticons transform and physically join together for some old-fashioned smashing. His mission feels like a monster movie, with him trudging through the ranks of Autobots and annihilating structures (and little things like cannons) in his way. For more aggression, you eventually step into the role of an angry Megatron, who has to fight his way back into his role as Deception leader. Then there's more flying, deception and demolition with Starscream.
But of all the missions and Transformers in the game, the one who stole the show for me was Grimlock, the leader of the not-yet-official Dinobots, the powerful Autobot assault team (think of them like the Spartans). He transforms this shooter into a melee bashfest for two missions, serving the perfect outlet for the player who has done almost everything else in the game under the pressure of eluding fire and by now simply wants to break things. There is little to no eluding with Grimlock, only destruction and a trail of Decepticon asses in his wake. His shield (left trigger) and a massive energy sword that spreads death with the mashing of the B button turn him into the Autobot version of Kratos. He can pick up Decepticons and throw them. He can impale them with his sword. He cuts everyone in half. He also has much more health and armor than any of the other robots, save Bruticus. He's a bad dude.
Then, there's his brilliant T-Rex transformation, which can only be triggered with the right shoulder button if he's full of enough rage after constant slaughtering. Grimlock's T-Rex can breathe fire and clean up the immediate area of enemies with just one whip of the tail. It's yet another example of the way High Moon deftly changes up the action to keep the player's appetite whetted, especially going into the epic final chapter, which tells the story of both the Autobots and Decepticons in inspired fashion, jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint and asking the player to call upon the skills he or she used in previous missions, leading up to a confrontation between Prime and Megatron. It's a fitting final battle shared by all, segueing to an abrupt ending that leaves the door open for yet another chapter.
Given the captivating nature of the single-player campaign, it's almost easy to forget there are other game modes. Escalation (basically Horde mode from Gears of War, but with Transformers) is a fun way to pass hours of the day if you're not willing to be sucked into the story. You simply fight waves upon waves of enemies until you die. Multiplayer offers some interesting twists with even more customization of your multiplayer character among four different classes of Transformer, ranging from the smaller "infiltrator" types to larger "titan" models. You can adjust their loadout, colors and even the kind of bodies and pieces they can have. The action is a fun distraction but requires a bit of a learning curve if you're used to more traditional multiplayer or even something as recent as Max Payne 3's experience online.
I found very little not to like about Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, which is superior to its predecessor in every way. It still felt a bit short, but it looks better, it plays better and it even feels better. One day, when I was playing through it, I had a flashback of coming home from school to watch the TV show (which hasn't aged well) and then digging around for my toys. It was the same kind of joy.
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