For those of us who grew up with it (or, in my case, as a brand-new dad experiencing it through the eyes of my young son), the world of the Transformers occupies a special space in our hearts and minds. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, Starscream, Soundwave—these characters were part of a changing cultural fabric that was starting to shift into technical overdrive. The war of the Autobots and Decepticons was played out on a world stage that was starting to see videogame systems and personal computers become commonplace. As for the Transformers, the TV show was cool, the toys before it even cooler, but best of all was the new high-tech playground that was beginning to surround us. Attempts to re-capture the Transformers magic have largely been failures, including the noisy and vapid movie blockbusters of recent years and the many mediocre videogame incarnations.
High Moon's Transformers: War for Cybertron, however, has taken me by surprise, in part because I literally hadn't seen it coming, and because it does the best job yet of catching that Transformers lightning in a bottle. Whether you're a grownup reliving those countless hours spent in the company of Optimus and Megatron, or just a fan of action shooters, you'll find something to enjoy in War for Cybertron.
Set in a time before the original cartoon and its many descendants, the game does a great job of filling in the archetypal “lust for power” back story, character origins and relationships. The origin of the Matrix, the role of Omega Supreme, the rise of Optimus to a position of power—its all here in its silly, nostalgia-tinged glory, and whether it gives you a nerdgasm or leaves you cold, at least the battles and levels have context and meaning.
The single-player game includes two campaigns (Decepticon and Autobot) spread over approximately eight hours of gameplay. The first campaign focuses on the Decepticon's rise to power, and the Autobot conclusion is about retaliation and survival. There is little repetition between the two campaigns with long, varied levels full of adequate checkpoints. For each campaign there is a choice of three characters—essentially, distinct class types—suggesting that the optimal way to experience the story is via online co-op.
Although the weapons are interesting and effective they are essentially variants of the same rifles, shotguns, rocket-launchers and pulse weapons from countless other games, though the ability to transform between vehicle and robot forms adds a unique and entertaining wrinkle to the formula. Ammo and armor are in short supply and running low or out of both is irksomely common. To add to the frustration, checkpoint restarts return the player with the same, sometimes inadequate levels of ammo or armor they had when dying, and chapter restarts become the only way to break the cycle. There is no cover mechanic, which seems odd and dated in a title that borrows gameplay features so heavily from the Gears of War and Halo series of games.
The influence of other games—primarily Call of Duty—can be found in the multiplayer suite as well, with a leveling and perk system that will be instantly familiar and game types that are nothing if not traditional. This time around, the Transformers' character classes, character customization, and ability to assume different forms do bring a bit of novelty and excitement to the party. Like so many adequate—even excellent—multiplayer shooters, it is doubtful that War for Cybertron can siphon enough shooter fans from Modern Warfare to establish a new and thriving community.
Graphically, the Unreal engine does its usual stellar job once again, with smooth character animations that are full of shifting and sliding mechanical detail in the transformations and overall design. The world of Cybertron is artistically rendered, though it sometimes feelsas if character models and environmental detail get in each other's way.The color and texture palette is a bit muted and simple. Overall, this might not be the best-looking game of its generation but it succeeds where it counts: respectfully bringing the beloved, iconic characters to life once again.
The outstanding audio helps as well. Actor Peter Cullen's reprises the voice of Optimus and kicks the nostalgia factor into high gear. The dialogue is, appropriately, full of the chest-beating banter that made the first-gen Transformers so entertaining, and the music has a Michael Bay fist-pumping energy that underlines the action effectively.
While its story sometimes lurches and lunges, and its gameplay mechanics can be quirky, Tranformers: War for Cybertron is, somewhat surprisingly, probably the best reboot of the classic cartoon. Well-acted and thoroughly respectful of the beloved original, War for Cybertron manages to pull off what several other games and high-profile films could not: combine nostalgia, effective storytelling, and cutting-edge technology in a way that extends and enhances the thirty-year-old franchise.
Autobots or Decepticons? Think Megatron and gang are vicious megalomaniacs, or are Optimus Prime and his Autobots simple do-gooders? Pick a side and let us know on Twitter @Gamers_Hell