Transformers: Fall of Cybertron Review
Director Michael Bay made a big splash in bringing Transformers to the big screen, but since the first movie, the franchise has started to lose its footing. With the exception of the misguided Dark of the Moon game that launched alongside the third movie, the Transformers games have been getting better, though. War for Cybertron ignored the movies' plots and went way back into the past to show the sentient robots' home planet, and this direct sequel to it - Transformers Fall of Cybertron - chronicles the exodus from the planet as it dies its final death. We now have a new best Transformers game ever made, and in my opinion, it does more justice to the originals than any of the three of the Michael Bay movies. I'm so happy to see that happening, because I feel like developer High Moon Studios deserve to have accolades heaped on them.
Throughout Fall of Cybertron, you'll be playing as a pretty diverse range of Transformers, starting with an Autobot-centered chunk of the game, then going into a Decepticon portion. Finally, some alternation between the two leads to the finale. You'll be seeing or controlling a who's who of famous Transformers, starting with Bumblebee and leading onto Optimus, Grimlock, Jazz, Cliffjumper, along with a few others, and on to the Decepticons: Megatron, Shockwave, the Combaticons, Starscream, and more. The game has portions for Combaticons, Dinobots, and Insecticons, and the whole thing is woven together by a nerdy - but entertaining - story about the final battles leading to the death of the Transformers' home planet, Cybertron. It's a linear story with few opportunities to divert even one bit from the script, and sometimes the game does degrade into a rather basic hallway shooter with low walls, but it never does this for long at a time. Also, I should point out that this game is not a traditional cover shooter since you can't actually stick to cover in it - even if your enemies often do.
Fall of Cybertron does lean on maybe a few too many war-based third person shooter stereotypes, though, including even Optimus Prime putting two fingers to his robotic ear and walking slowly when he's talking over a communicator. (Hello, Gears of War.) Video game voice legend Nolan North does a great job voicing Cliffjumper, but his presence just kind of solidifies the feeling that this is maybe a bit too similar to other AAA games out there. And throughout the game you'll see robotic versions of many video game tropes and human sayings, and while some of them have always been a part of Transformers, sometimes it can get a little tiring seeing it combined with all the video game stereotypes simultaneously.
Still, the game winds up shifting the perspective and objectives so often that it almost never overstays its welcome with any one character. Sure, it might seem like that's only really good for attention-deficit gamers, but in the context of this game with so many playable characters, it winds up working pretty well. Every Transformer you play as will get a special ability on the RB button; for example, Optimus Prime can mark a spot for artillery (or later, the city-sized Metroplex) to take out an area with a huge, impressive blast. Other characters get stealth, grappling hooks, and the like, and all characters have the ability transform into their vehicle types at any time, although there are long sections of the game where there's almost no need to bother. In other sections, like Starscream's chunk of the game, you'll kind of need it considering that he transforms into a jet and in his section of the game, there are vast parts of open sky between platforms.
This character specialization highlights one advantage in FoC over its predecessor: by assigning one particular Transformer with a given ability to each level, the developers can design a whole level around that ability. For example, in Jazz's level, he uses his grappling hook to quickly zip between platforms while playing sniping games with Decepticon wall-climbers. Meanwhile, Cliffjumper uses stealth to take out very tough opponents, and Optimus Prime's ability is best for all-out shooter action as it allows him to target areas for artillery barrages. Either way, the strict assignment of a particular character to each part of the game means that a more interesting level gets built around a certain concept. Unfortunately, that also means the death of a cooperative-enabled campaign, but Fall of Cybertron does include both the return of the Horde-style Escalation mode with four players fighting huge waves of enemies along with a true competitive mode. They're both a blast to play, too, even if I don't see these modes getting nearly the longevity of Call of Duty or Halo multiplayer modes. Escalation mode has some of the interesting unlocks in it that you'd see in something like Call of Duty Nazi Zombies, so there's some actual depth there beyond just playing it once or twice and moving on. Meanwhile, the competitive mode has much of the progression systems pioneered in COD4 and included in so many other games, and while I guess it's good to have, I wonder who will be the next developer to revolutionize persistent progression in competitive shooters. It won't likely be High Moon, but at least Fall of Cybertron is ridiculously good fun for a little while.
Speaking of ridiculously fun, I did really enjoy many big, exciting moments in this game's campaign. It's got a cinematic quality to it his time that War for Cybertron only flirted with at a few points, but here the conflict eventually becomes huge, epic and completely bonkers - which is exactly what this story needed. No, the campaign isn't going to last you more than a couple of long evenings of play, but the rather feature-filled multiplayer modes come in quite nicely to help take the sting away. Some will complain that High Moon has basically taken the Call of Duty method of game development and applied it to the Transformers world - and that's not entirely untrue - but hell, it works better than you might have expected. Just about the only place that this formula hasn't been aggressively enacted is in the performance department; FoC's using the latest Unreal Engine and layering on lots of texture quality and special effects here on 360, but it also causes the frame rate to dip well below its usual 30fps fairly often. The only way to play the game at flawless speeds is to get the game on Steam and feed it a powerful gaming PC, and that works fine as long as you either use a standard WASD config for mouse and keyboard or set up a gamepad, as the game has little in the way of detail tweaks and a laughable collection of "presets" for keyboard configuration. So if you have the option of going for the PC version and want impressive visuals and speed, go for that, but be prepared to play it primarily like a console game.
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron won't likely garner many Game of the Year awards since it just slightly misses the mark on a few key points, but what it does bring is some serious passion for a great property. What's important this time around is that Activision allowed High Moon to see that through with a big budget and the time needed to polish things up. The game's a blast on 360 and looks better than any previous TF title (and better than most console releases out there), and the short-but-intense campaign along with solid multiplayer modes are perfectly suited to the strengths of Microsoft's venerable console. Will the lack of a cooperative campaign or the shift in focus towards deepening the other multiplayer modes make everyone happy? Nope, but I can see what High Moon was trying to do with Fall of Cybertron, and I really hope they're successful with it. After all, the story of the closing of Radical Entertainment is still fresh in a lot of gamer's minds.
Disclaimer: This review is based on playing a bought retail copy of the game.