June 4, 2010 – The bad rap that licensed games often get may be generally well-deserved, but every once in a while there are titles that don’t seem to fall victim to the trap of branding without the expected quality to back it up. High Moon Studio’s Transformers: War for Cybertron looks like one of these rare cases. I recently had a chance to check out the near-final build of this Gears of Megatron-looking game at an event in San Francisco and came away pleasantly surprised with the title’s quality.
This may be because the talented team at High Moon are all Transformers devout. Drawing from the series original mythos, High Moon has crafted an original story (set on the Transformers titular homeworld) that serves as a prequel to the series’ initial G1 series that debuted in the ’80s. To give you an idea of how that ties into the overall series, the first level of the Decepticon single-player campaign has Megatron and his cronies fighting Starscream, at this point a stranger, for control of a new energy source. Needless to say, War for Cybertron is pure fan-service, with Peter Cullen returning to voice Optimus, loads of fan-favorite Autobots and Decepticons, and, maybe most importantly, the freedom to transform at will for as long as you want.
It’s easy to tell the developers were inspired by Gears of War, as War for Cybertron has a very similar feel: the camera always places your character on the left and has a near-identical control setup, among other elements. Thankfully though, this is hardly a cover shooter. In fact, regardless of the game mode you’re playing – High Moon was showing off co-op single-player, multiplayer, and Escalation (the game’s Gears-style Horde mode) – War for Cybertron’s emphasis is on third-person action, which keeps you constantly moving and can get pretty frantic. Given the game’s standard third-person shooter control scheme, though, combat quickly becomes second nature.
Also like Gears, War for Cybertron has an impressively high amount of polish. The Transformers themselves are large and well-animated (although still dwarfed by the game’s massive bosses) and control smoothly and easily on the battlefield. Production values in the single-player campaign are equally impressive – what I saw of Cybertron in the Decepticon campaign was an appropriate mix of futuristic machinery, huge industrial areas (complete with traps), and fragmented ruins, which broke up the regular assaults from Starscream’s troops and sentries with some lite-platforming.
The script is typical, vintage Transformers fare, with Megatron after Dark Energon, a new energy source that will restore an ailing Cybertron to its former glory with the Decepticons in charge. The only questionable element to the game was its tendency to “warp” you forward when playing in co-op – something I found more than a little jarring – though the campaign’s level design is solid. Multiplayer and Escalation aren’t just tacked on modes, either; multiplayer has been balanced so that no one ‘bot has the advantage over another, and Escalation, which sends wave after wave of enemy units after you and your teammates, requires absolute cooperation among the varied classes you can choose.
Choice is actually a big part of the co-op and multiplayer experience here. Both multiplayer modes and Escalation let you choose from four separate classes (built for support, defense, or offense). Soldiers and leaders (think Megatron or Optimus) can lob grenades or rally the troops for a stat-boost (or transform into heavy duty vehicles like trucks and tanks), medics offer team support and can fly, while scouts are smaller and faster than other unit types. In the multiplayer modes you also custom create your Transformer, picking the chassis and (depending on the mode) weapons and abilities loadouts.
Loadouts are set in Escalation mode, but destroying enemies nets you currency to spend on health, ammo, grenades, and new weapon types, which quickly become necessary as the difficulty ramps up fast. The two maps that were playable were designed with all classes in mind, with sniper perches, wide open areas, and unlockable additions to each level that offer new weapons and, in some cases, a tactical advantage, which are only accessible if a team can agree to pool their monetary resources together. Escalation might seem easy at first, but after so many waves of mechanical spiders and small vehicles, things start to get nasty. This is where teamwork comes in: it’s essential to mesh your classes well and pick up your partner (Modern Warfare-style) if they go down.
Multiplayer modes encourage teamwork as well, particularly in any capture the flag, king of the hill, or attack and defend modes, but it’s not quite as necessary. Unlike Escalation, multiplayer also has a leveling system (again, a la Modern Warfare), with new weapons, perks, and abilities unlocked as you progress in skill level, allowing you full customization of your Transformer. Multiplayer maps are often larger than Escalation maps, so there can be plenty of tactical give-and-take depending on your team’s positions. The five-on-five matches provide for a surprising amount of chaos, and overall the balance of power in a match can shift quickly. One potential concern I noticed in both Escalation and multiplayer modes was that it was far too easy to run out of ammo. Although there are containers of it in multiplayer maps, and you can replenish yourself (for a price) in Escalation, the furious pace and nature of wielding a giant death-making robot often left a lot of players (myself included) desperately striking everything in sight with the powerful melee attack while searching for more ammo. Aside from that quibble, though, getting a group of friends together to blast the living crap out of each other should be a lot of fun when the game ships late this month.
Be sure to check back with us next week for hands-on impressions with War for Cybertron DS, as well as an interview with the developers!