When it comes to Transformers only one word comes to mind: nostalgia. Indeed as I sit here reflecting on the hallowed toy, cartoon, and now big budget movie franchise I’m filled with fond memories of having a few of the toys as a kid and having seen the cartoons on Saturday mornings. I even have vivid memories of literally begging my parents to buy me the huge, expensive Optimus Prime toy. Alas while I did not ever get that toy, I did get to play High Moon Studios’s Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, their latest third person action game bearing the Transformers license. Having played the game I can say without question that the folks at High Moon Studios are incredibly passionate about the source material and even go to great lengths to introduce some of the lesser known Autobots and Decepticons for the gaming audience. However, while Fall of Cybertron features some phenomenal storytelling its unfortunately interspersed with gameplay that can only be described as average at best.
The narrative in Fall of Cybertron follows the exploits of everyone’s favorite Transformers (both Autobot and Decepticon) after the events of War for Cybertron. At this point in the timeline, the civil war on Cybertron has been raging for a few eons. Scores of civilians, Autobots, and Decepticons have died, and with the stores of Energon, the life-giving resource needed by the Transformers, depleted things are looking pretty bleak indeed. It’s at this point that Optimus Prime in his infinite wisdom calls an audible on the war plan, and devises an escape from the planet via a ship fittingly called the Ark. Of course, Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons and the complete antithesis of Optimus Prime, isn’t about to let the Autobots (or really anything for that matter) escape his space blockade of the planet and ruin his plan to bring Cybertron back to its golden age by any means necessary. The story is told through various pieces of well voiced dialog and some really well made cutscenes. Moreover, the world of Cybertron looks bleak and metallic but the levels also showcase enough variety within the setting to keep it appealing to the eye.
Throughout the single player campaign players take on the role of individual Autobots and Decepticons in levels that are designed to emphasize that specific character’s abilities. As an example, Jazz’s level features a lot of high ledges and platforms to make use of his grappling hook. Meanwhile, Cliffjumper has the ability to cloak himself and so his level is designed mainly as an exercise in stealth. Optimus can call in airstrikes from Metroplex later on in his campaign. Some of the characters also have special abilities that are linked to their vehicle forms, but they’re mostly defensive measures like barrel rolling while playing as Starscream or Jetfire.
Speaking of the vehicular forms, it’s possible to switch just about anytime from robot to vehicle form. In fact, several characters have far more powerful weapons while in vehicular form than they do while walking around as robots. Unfortunately, vehicular forms handle poorly from a control standpoint, making the whole experience feel more like riding around in a series of bumper cars as opposed to a robot in disguise. This also hints at the larger problem with Fall of Cybertron and that’s the gameplay itself.
While the act of moving around and shooting bad guys feels competent, it’s also very bland. The game features none of the standard tropes that we’ve come to expect from third person shooters these days. As an example, there’s no cover system within Fall of Cybertron. From a design standpoint it seems that High Moon wanted to make a Transformers game that was more of a balls-out, run-and-gun action game. Which would be awesome if two problems didn’t persist throughout the single player campaign. First, your allies and the enemies all have the ability to take cover while all you can do is manually stand behind a rather conveniently placed box or wall. You can switch shoulders in order to aim around objects, but you won’t always be able to get a good line of sight on the enemies. Isn’t this the exact reason that cover based systems were introduced into games like this? It would have been easy to forgive this design choice if some other alternative were offered. In these times, you’ll choose to run out shooting which brings into focus yet another problem.
Choosing the run-and-gun strategy will also get you several trips to the game over screen. I’m sorry, but how is it that Optimus Prime…you know…The Last Prime…can be taken out so easily by a crew of three shotgun toting, nameless Decepticons? Or how can Megatron be overwhelmed by nameless soldiers? The characters within the game are far too fragile and die very quickly in heated gunfights. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t give the player any true sense of power until they’re controlling Grimlock or the combined might of the Combaticons in the form of Bruticus. Even then, those moments are primarily melee focused and here again, the game doesn’t control well. Still, I will grant that it is fun to send a swarm of Insecticons flying in all directions while swinging Grimlock’s gigantic sword or using his tail while he’s in beast form, but it only lasts for one chapter towards the end of the campaign.
The last chapter of the game (which I won’t spoil with plot heavy details) is the pinnacle of High Moon’s work. As the frantic action ensues between the Autobots and the Decepticons you jump from role to role during the course of the battle. It’s an amazing level in terms of the design and makes use of each unique Transformer within the game’s cast. One could ask why this particular idea wasn’t used throughout the game, but that would have made the pacing a nightmare for the developers. So its nice at least that one chapter at the end of the game allows the story to be told this way which adds to the overall pathos of the struggle of the Autobots to flee from Cybertron.
Fall of Cybertron also features online multiplayer modes. From the cooperative side there’s Escalation which is a wave based survival mode for up to four players. Each player plays one from a specific set of four Transformers in a bid to beat up to 15 waves of enemies that increase in toughness and number as the mode progresses. Here again each player has a special ability designed specifically for Escalation. As an example, Jazz has the ability to call in a beacon around which ammo will be replenished. Meanwhile, Rachet has a heal beam for replenishing player health. There’s nothing special about this particular mode, but it’s not bad either. On the competitive side of things there are the standard modes such as team deathmatch, capture the flag, headhunter mode, and capture and hold. This particular side of things is also class based with each class having unique abilities and vehicular forms. Each battle in the competitive modes earns experience which unlocks new weapons for use in customizing a loadout. Battles also earn a player cash which can be used to buy custom parts for making your Transformer look however you wish. Want to look like Megatron? You can buy the complete armor set to make your class look like the ruthless Decepticon despot. You can also mix and match from a variety of different custom parts to your heart’s content.
There are a few technical issues that affect both the campaign mode and the multiplayer suite. There are times in the single player campaign where driving at speed in vehicle form can out pace how fast the game renders. This usually means that you’ll have to sit through an in-game load for the next part of the level to stream off the disc. Cutscenes usually play fine, but there’s also an issue with the audio synching that can cause voices to be off. In the multiplayer, matches are prone to lag which can cause some serious framerate issues. In addition to this, when the framerate drops the texture detail lowers itself to compensate. This can make some online matches look particularly horrendous when server loads are high.
After playing Transformers: Fall of Cybertron only one word comes to mind: functional. It’s sad that a game with as many narrative hooks and the look of the generation one Transformers is so prone to technical issues and some bizarre design choices. It makes the whole package a wash when compared to its counterparts in the third person shooter genre. But is it a good Transformers game when compared to the pantheon of licensed video games? I think so. High Moon Studios makes no secret of its love of the franchise and is ambitious in Fall of Cybertron. Perhaps next time High Moon makes a Transformers game (assuming that there will be another one…) they’ll successfully combine their passion for the source material and the narrative with some engrossing gameplay mechanics. For now though, I can only recommend Transformers: Fall of Cybertron to the people out there that simply have to know what happens to the Autobots and Decepticons. As for the rest of you, you’ll probably want to rent this if you’re going to play it at all.