- Transformers: War for Cybertron
- CLR [rating:3]
Release Date: June 29, 2010
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (version reviewed)
Developers: High Moon Studios
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
William Bibbiani is a highly opinionated film, TV and videogame critic living in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his work at the “California Literary Review” William also contributes articles and criticism to “Geekscape” and “Ranker” and has won multiple awards for co-hosting the weekly Geekscape podcast and for his series of Safe-For-Work satirical pornographic film critiques, “Geekscape After Dark.” He also writes screenplays and, when coerced with sweet, sweet nothings, occasionally acts in such internet series as “Bus Pirates” and “Heads Up with Nar Williams.” A graduate of the UCLA School of Film, Television and Digital Media, William sometimes regrets not pursuing a career in what he refers to as “lawyering” so that he could afford luxuries like food and shoes.
William can be found on both the Xbox Live and Playstation Network as GuyGardner2814, and on Twitter as – surprisingly – WilliamBibbiani.