California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Transformers: War for Cybertron

by

June 29th, 2010 at 9:50 pm

  • Print Print
Transformers: War for Cybertron box art
Transformers: War for Cybertron

Release Date: June 29, 2010
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (version reviewed)
Developers: High Moon Studios
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
ESRB: Teen

CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Transformers: War for Cybertron

Wait, so if Cybertron can talk – which it can, incidentally – then doesn’t that make the planet a Transformer? Why can’t Cybertron solve its own problems?


Without all the annoying humans, this Transformers game is a massive improvement on the films.
Not that that’s saying much.

The problem with Michael Bay’s Transformers movies – that is to say, the root problem, not just the choppy editing, idiotic storylines, inconsistent tone and overt racism – was the Transformers themselves. Since each beloved character cost millions of dollars to create via computer, and since somebody had the “brilliant” idea to make their design so complicated that they were genuinely difficult to look at, fan-favorites like Optimus Prime, Megatron and of course my beloved Starscream had to take a back seat to less-developed human characters. Although the movies show no signs of looking back, Transformers: The War for Cybertron finally puts the Transformers back in the driver’s seat, which is a little ironic since they’re also the car. Though the game is probably the best thing to come out of the Transformers franchise in many a year, the renewed emphasis on the original heroes just throws into sharp relief all the problems the franchise had to begin with.

All is not well on Cybertron, home of the Transformers. A Civil War has been raging for years between the evil Decepticons and the pure-of-heart Autobots, and at the start of the game the tables have turned against our heroes as Megatron harnesses the awe-inspiring power of Dark Energon, whatever that is, to power his soldiers and conquer the planet. The story is as weak as one might expect but it does have an interesting structure. Chapters 1-5 tell the story of how Megatron came to power from the Decepticon’s point of view, while Chapters 6-10 focus on the Autobots as they struggle to regain control of the planet after the events of the first five chapters. The intriguing part is that players can choose whether to play through the game in chronological order or begin with Chapters 6-10 and then play through Chapters 1-5 afterwards as a kind of elaborate backstory.

Transformers: War for Cybertron

Speaking of “Missile Inbound,” some of the rocket launchers in the game offer “Vehicle Lock-On” as a special feature. Think about that for a second. Isn’t everyone in this game a vehicle?

Alas, the inventiveness of the presentation is undermined somewhat by the fact that we’re not being presented anything of consequence. The Decepticon campaign begins well, with Megatron invading a satellite guarded by Starscream, an Autobot (neat, huh?) charged with protecting Dark Energon from the Decepticons. By the end of the level, Starscream turns traitor and joins Megatron, and their Shakespearean power struggle begins. Imagine if Richard III had Iago as a man-servant… now imagine that they’re both robots. There’s a great sequence a few levels later in which Megatron travels to the core of Cybertron and loses radio contact with his troops, only to learn that Starscream has seized this opportunity to usurp Megatron’s power by informing all the Decepticons that their leader has been killed in battle. So you have to stop what you’re doing and make a dangerous journey back to the surface of Cybertron in order to take back control of your army. Sure, it’s a distraction from your ultimate goal, but it’s also unique in that it’s the only objective throughout the entire game that’s based on character. As a result, it’s the only objective you’re likely to give a damn about.

The rest of the plotline is peppered with so many MacGuffins you’d think Alfred Hitchcock was having a fire sale. Just to be clear, a MacGuffin is a plot point that only matters because the characters in the story want it. It could be diamonds, it could be a nuclear bomb, it could be anything as long as it motivates the heroes and villains to get out of their house. Tranformers: War for Cybertron has so many MacGuffins that they all get lost in a haze of fictional nonsense. First, Megatron is out to steal this Dark Energon because it will give him the power to win the war. Then we find out that the Dark Energon just gives him the power to get the Omega Key, which he needs to win the war. Then we find out the key is just the key to the Omega Key, at which point the average player will officially stop caring about whatever the hell is going on and just keep playing without giving a damn why. The convenient markers tell you where you need to go, what you need to shoot, or what button you need to press. The only reason to do so is to keep playing the game, not because you actually want to see what happens next.

Transformers: War for Cybertron

Some characters spawn with a gun that heals other Transformers, which is useless in Single Player since none of the NPCs can die. So you have to waste your time looking for a better weapon as soon as the level starts. A forgivable annoyance, but poorly conceived.

So with that in mind it’s important to say that, ignoring the plot, Transformers: War for Cybertron plays very well. The controls are pretty fluid and easy to master and there’s a decent variety of bad guys to kill. The biggest gameplay flaw is balance, and becomes an issue very quickly. You’re given a series of weapons but some of them are so effective you’ll never want to use anything else. The Null Ray has a 10x scope and is usually a one-hit kill, unless the enemy has body armor, in which case it’s a two-hit kill. You get less ammo than the assault rifles, but then those weapons take an unconscionable number of shots to fell even the more common enemies, and ammo crates are always plentiful.

Balance is a problem with level design as well, which shift from ‘Easy As Pie’ to ‘Difficult As Baked Alaska’ with little warning, but most importantly never really mix-up the standard shooter formula. Walk down a corridor, fight these guys. Walk into an open area and fight off wave after wave of enemies until the game decides you can stop. Occasionally throw in an absurdly enormous boss fight. Repeat. They play well, when the bosses don’t throw out instant-kill attacks like rice on a wedding day, but they’re repeated ad nauseum. Making things more annoying is that fact that both the Autobot and Decepticon campaigns feature pretty much the same basic gameplay. In both cases the second-to-last level is about getting to and then defeating a giant boss. Then the last level is about defeating that last boss “for realz.” As if we wouldn’t notice.

Transformers: War for Cybertron

Despite this image, Transformers: War for Cybertron is one of the few Third-Person Shooters lately that does not employ cover mechanics. This is probably because anything you’d use for cover could potentially be somebody you know in disguise.

The similarities between the Autobot and Decepticon chapters create other problems for the game as well. To start with, the Autobots just aren’t as interesting as their nemeses. There’s an overwrought but never adequately explained subplot about how Optimus was destined to become a “Prime” (whatever that means) but doesn’t feel ready for the responsibility, but apart from that little bit of melodrama the best the Autobots can muster in terms of internal conflict is tedious bickering. Another problem is that enemies that are supposed to feel “special” show up on both sides. For instance, as Decepticons you have to fight off Autobots with cloaking devices. There’s even dialogue about how creepy these “Cloakers” are. Then, as Autobots, you fight off Decepticon Cloakers instead. Where were these guys when the Decepticons needed them? Or the “Brutes” and “Tanks” that show up on both sides (and can only be killed by shooting them in the back, naturally), but never on the side you’re playing as?

Of course, the Transformers have never made a lot of sense when you think about them too hard, which works against Transformers: War for Cybertron since the game takes itself so seriously. When you can transform into vehicles, but have no need to disguise yourself, why would you choose to be a car when harrier jets are so much more practical throughout the entire game? Why are some of the machines on Cybertron “people” while so many others are not? Why would you call your political party “The Decepticons?” Is it supposed to be ironic? Why is there rain on a planet with no vegetation, or for that matter any water to speak of? Why return to the design simplicity of the original series only to make the appearance of the game so thoroughly chaotic?

Transformers: War for Cybertron

By setting Transformers: War for Cybertron on planet Cybertron a lot of logical inconsistencies come to light. How does one get to be named “Bumblebee” on a planet with no plants, animals or indeed any ecosystem at all?

Transformers: War for Cybertron is a generic game with a generic plotline that occasionally hints at greatness. In the Autobot campaign you discover that the Decepticons are genocidal, which is about as “hardcore” as it gets, although it does throw a pall on the first half of the game, when you’re playing as and associating with these little robo-Hitlers. But the giddy thrill of tearing down a sci-fi highway, jumping off of a ramp, transforming into a robot and then chopping another robot in half with a battleaxe before changing back into a car as you land without losing momentum is, in a word, awesome. It’s a fantastic rental and a great purchase if you’re already a fan of the franchise, but non-fans will find themselves dissatisfied by the generic level design, balancing issues and the lackluster storyline that doesn’t even end with the hero fighting the actual bad guy. That’s right, Optimus Prime and Megatron never fight throughout the entirety of Transformers: War for Cybertron, which implies that at some point the designers didn’t really think this one through. But they did succeed in making a product superior than any of the Transformers movies. If you liked Michael Bay’s Transformers 1 & 2, well then your standards are pretty low, but at least you’ll love Transformers: War for Cybertron.

  • skillz

    prme and megatron didnt fight cause there is gonna be a part 2 you can tell by the way it ended

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    The argument that “they’re saving material for the sequel” is often a just a nice way of saying that they didn’t make the original good enough. The important thing for the sequel is that Megatron is not properly defeated. Fine. Then have the Optimus Prime fight occur at the end of the Decepticon campaign, allowing Prime to be defeated. Or, have Optimus fight Megatron in the Autobots campaign, and force Optimus to choose between killing his nemesis or saving lives at the last minute. You can make room for a sequel without ignoring the need for a dramatically satisfying confrontation between the hero and the villain.

  • Ian Felix Dejean

    Hey there William. Long time Transformers fan over here (of the Generation 1 variety). Just read your review, and I more or less have to agree with your assessment of the game. I just purchased it a couple of days ago, and while my nostalgia factor has been soaring while playing the game, it ultimately led me down the path of frustration rather than jubilation, especially concerning some points within the story, generic characters (all the original characters are great, but do we really have to look at black on purple Decepticons and black on red Autobots? Sheesh) and level design (as you point out as well). As I played I found myself deeply immersed with the controls, and controlling my preferred Autobot or Decepticon wasn’t a problem, but the lack of a cover system ala Gears of War style really detracted from the experience in my opinion.

    A cover system would’ve allowed, in my opinion, for more tension building throughout the story than set piece explosions and cheap boss battles. And one thing I for the love of the Lord, couldn’t understand was; given that it’s a prequel, and Hasbro has deemed that it’s supposed to reset and re-define the canon, why didn’t High Moon Studios endeavour to put their own mark on the franchise with new side-characters that could’ve been developed alongside with Hasbro? It would’ve made their product stand out more, for both new and old fans, as well as maybe have challenged them to work more on the story than what we’ve been given in Transformers: The War For Cybertron.

    As for some of what I would consider nit-picking, the character names don’t really matter that much, other than to sound cool along with a nice paintjob. Would you rather have Optimus Prime or Optimal Conveyor Belt Number One?

    As for the weather conditions, apparently Generation 1 canon says this: “Cybertron appeared considerably smaller than the planet Earth. Entirely metallic on the surface, some of the lowest levels of Cybertron consisted of rock and dirt, suggesting an organic beginning to the planet. Its gravity was light enough that humans were able to traverse the surface without any trouble, and it possessed a breathable atmosphere. Water, or at least a substance resembling it, was in evidence on the planet—lakes and rivers have been shown to exist, albeit sparingly. Many levels below the surface was the energy-furnace, the Plasma Energy Chamber, and at the heart of the planet was the spherical mega-computer, Vector Sigma.” (http://transformers.wikia.com/wiki/Cybertron_%28planet%29)

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    Ian, I’ll concede the weather conditions point, although I do think that the information qualifies as trivia. Regardless, I didn’t mark the game down at all for having weather conditions, I was simply noting it as a minor distraction.
    The naming issue was a similarly minor point.

    That being said, I would rather play as a character named Optimal Conveyor Belt Number One EVERY SINGLE TIME. Who wouldn’t?!

  • Ian Felix Dejean

    Well, it might be trivia, but seeing as the folks at High Moon Studios are making G1 canon with this video game iteration, it kind of makes sense.

    And well… I won’t lie; Optimal Conveyor Belt Number One does actually sound pretty sweet.

    With all that said, in this post and the previous, I am anxiously looking forward to what hopefully will be the sequel to Transformers: War For Cybertron, with a more polished and a somewhat more colourful look, going hand in hand with a cover system of some sort. Fingers crossed anyway!

  • http://cybertron-transformers.blogspot.com/ christina thomas

    War for Cybertron was the only good thing to come about as a result of the Transformers’ movies, which Bay all but destroyed. Visually impressive, but why not just shell out the bucks for Halo?

Get The Latest California Literary Review Updates Delivered Free To Your Inbox!

Powered by FeedBlitz

Recent Comments