One Shall Stand, One Shall Fall
The best thing about War for Cybertron is that it actually takes place on the Transformers’ homeworld of Cybertron. The problem with nearly every Transformers story is, of course, that they tend to take place on earth.
So on the one hand, you have these giant, powerful robots, each with its own personality, and all of them are intense because, whether good or evil, they’re fighting for something they believe in; on the other hand, script writers always wrongly assume that the audience won’t be able to identify with these heroic badasses, so they throw in a bunch of humans that we can relate to, except the humans are always small, weak, uninteresting, and don’t really believe in anything. And I know I’m not the first person to be disturbed by the idea that if a human is riding around inside a Transformer while in vehicular mode, all it would take is one slip-up, one high-speed transformation gone wrong, to reduce the human a soupy mess of bone shards and sausage left spraying through the cracks of the Transformer’s hull.
So, thankfully, you get to play as any one of a huge cast of Transformers in and around the sleek, mechanical world of Cybertron. The bad part? The gameplay handles like a blind mule.
B button, the bottom bump, jumps; that much is fine. But then the attack buttons are mapped to Y and X, which are the left and top buttons. Imagine trying to use Y, the button commonly used to exit a menu, for attacking, then imagine using the very top button in the middle of close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat. The end result is that you’re going to find yourself hitting A, the button on the far right, the button most commonly mapped to some form of attack, in the middle of a fight… and the A button is, guess what, used for swapping out characters. This function should have been mapped to the “select” button, not nestled right alongside buttons used for attacking and evading. Of course, all of this would be moot if players had simply been given the option to change the control scheme to fit their personal taste or, in my case, in order to resemble the thousands of other games I’ve played during my years as a gamer.
The stylus is not used except for one purpose: to transform. So forget transforming on-the-fly. Transforming should have, of course, been mapped to the “start” button, so that it’s available but still out of the way, while the menu screen could easily have been accessed by the stylus. As it is, you’re going to find yourself fighting, pulling out the stylus, tapping the screen to transform, and then tucking the stylus into your mouth so you can access it as quickly as possible. But because it’s absurd to expect gamers to do that, expect to eventually get pretty good at never transforming unless the level design specifically requires that you do so… meaning that transforming becomes more of a bothersome chore rather than a fun gameplay bonus. And why you can’t recharge your weapon’s energy while in flight mode is beyond me; perhaps the developers were afraid gamers would have too much fun while in flight.
There is one thing solid about the gameplay: the huge cast of unique characters. You can play as two different characters during each outing, and it doesn’t take long to unlock quite a few to pick from. Characters can be slow-moving heavy bruisers, like Megatron and Optimus Prime, light and fast like Bumblebee, or capable of flight, like Starscream. Characters handle similarly at first, but as you gain experience and level up and distribute stat points into different fields of expertise, eventually each character can really gain a unique identity all his own.
All of the Transformers look visually interesting and unique, and the levels themselves work around the graphic limitations of the DS by using intense combinations of colors that is, at times, superb. It takes a true artist to overcome a limited palette and create something visually striking.
However, all of those great visuals are ruined by the fact that the camera is tilted way to much towards the floor, and the floor of nearly every level just so happens to be the least visually interesting thing going on. Time and again I would enter an area, be fairly amazed by the color scheme, then the camera would reorient itself back to my character’s shoes, as if the camera was manned by some anxiety-stricken introvert deathly afraid of making eye contact with someone else. I caught myself jumping a lot just to get a look at some cool futuristic structure, or look out a window at a gleaming cityscape, or to get a glimpse of a shining nebula out in space. But can you really enjoy a great view while straining to peer over a window ledge two feet above your head? This isn’t the fault of the DS and its small screen; I’ve played a lot of great action/adventure games on the DS in which this wasn’t a problem. This is a problem concerning the gameplay guys not communicating with the art guys or the early testing guys.
The sound, however, is a slam dunk. The music is action-packed and dramatic and, while not exactly memorable, it inspired me to great acts of heroic violence on more than one occasion. The Decepticon themes are especially great; sinister “cold electronica” tracks perfectly highlight not only Megatron’s thirst for power, but also the brutally psychotic nature of his underlings. The voice over, when it occurs, is surprisingly good. While the dialogue is of laughably rock-bottom quality, the voice work itself is done with a good deal of personality. Nobody is simply phoning in their lines. It’s unfortunate that dialogue is accompanied by incredibly tiny character portraits and, while I understand that animating each and every interaction is probably impossible, some comic book-inspired artwork to go along with the voice work would have been great. As it is, the lackluster visuals alongside the great voice work make the game feel as if it’s still in development.
At least the DS makes that cool transforming sound when you open and shut the lid – that’s something!
Now, there is the issue of how this game is being sold. One disk for the Autobots and one disk for the Decepticons means that if you want to experience both of the unique storyline perspectives concerning the battle to control Cybertron, you’re going to have to buy TWO games in order to essentially play, well, ONE game. If you want to ignore all of the criticism I’ve leveled at War for Cybertron, and choose only to hear the good things I’ve said about the graphics and sound (which are admittedly good), then I recommend only investing in one disk, not both. I went into the experience assuming that the Decepticons would be cooler, but both sides are equally interesting in their own way. The Decepticons are admirable because it’s fun to lust after power, and the music is very foreboding and dark, but the Autobots are also fun to play because you get to see some character development with Optimus accepting his role as Prime, and the heroic side of the soundtrack is also enjoyable. So it’s not one hundred percent true that only owning one disk means owning half of the game; you can have a very complete experience by playing just one side. Not only is there a fairly lengthy campaign, there’s bonus areas and characters to unlock, and each game even allows you to engage in a poorly executed ad-hoc battle with a buddy in which you both try to figure out how to effectively use the frustrating lock-on targeting system!
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.8 Graphics
Visually interesting Transformers and great-looking levels are marred by a downward-facing camera.. 2.0 Control
Though the Transformers move with a satisfying sense of heaviness, combat is a chore due to awkward button mapping and a heinously fickle lock-on targeting system. Using the stylus to transform precludes actually transforming on-the-fly. 4.1 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
A great, if not memorable, soundtrack perfectly embodies the sinister aspect of the Decepticons and the heroic struggle of the Autobots. Voice acting, when it occurs, is expertly delivered. 3.2
Plenty of Transformers to unlock and collect, and even customize through distributing points during level-up, can add a lot of gameplay to an already-robust campaign. Whether it’s fun to actually use those unlocked Transformers is another matter entirely.
2.6 Overall Rating – Average
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.