Despite having a few serious problems, Transformers: War for Cybertron was a step in the right direction for Activision. For one thing, it completely ignored the Michael Bay movies, instead choosing to tie the game in with the classic 1980s cartoon series. They also took the experience far away from Earth, allowing the developers at High Moon Studios to stretch their creative muscle and paint a world unlike anything we've ever seen before.
Even with all of these good ideas, War for Cybertron had a few notable problems. The world of Cybertron started to look the same after a while, the stages overstayed their welcome and the game had a serious lack of variety. I feared that Fall of Cybertron would get yet another letdown; just another batch of metallic stages that all look the same. Boy was I wrong. Activision's upcoming Transformers sequel may be the first game in the franchise to live up to the potential.
Last week I had an opportunity to check out Transformers: Fall of Cybertron at a party held the day before San Diego Comic Con. This was High Moon Studios' chance to win me over. They knew I would be skeptical and came prepared. Their display was a 1-2-3 punch, featuring a look at the single-player campaign, the competitive multiplayer modes and something called Escalation. Don't worry, we'll figure out what Escalation mode is in due time.
I started my tour with the single-player, as this was the sticking point for me in the 2010 model. I was immediately struck by how cinematic the game looked, full of dramatic camera swings and events happening all around you. It's clear that the developers took notes while playing Uncharted 2, because the game has an impressive cinematic look.
Fall of Cybertron is split up into thirteen chapters, offering a mix of Autobots and Decepticons. Unlike the first game, this sequel has you taking control of only one giant transformable robot at a time. There is no co-op play here, something that was integral to War for Cybertron. The result is a tighter narrative where the events appear to matter. The tutorial stage is one impressive set piece, full of explosions happening all around you and action at every corner. And best of all, it ends with a cliffhanger, making this the first Transformers game I actually feel invested in. Will my big giant robot be okay? Will he actually make it off of Cybertron? I can't wait to find out.
Even with the impressive opening stage, I still wasn't convinced. So I decided to skip ahead a few chapters and see if the game looked any different. Much to my surprise, this chapter had a completely unique style, color palette and tone. You could tell that it was part of the same game, but the atmosphere was different and it was suddenly interesting in a brand new way.
Beyond the visual differences, I was impressed by the variety between stages. The first level was all about third-person action, with me dodging enemy fire and learning to use both of my powerful weapons. This new stage involved the Transformers equivalent of platform challenges. I was weaving in and out of lasers and searching the environment for audio recordings (similar to BioShock or Arkham Asylum). This gives me hope that the eleven remaining levels will be full of surprises.
After battling through two single-player stages, I moved on to the multiplayer arena. Here I was able to do something I've dreamed about doing my entire life -- creating my own Transformer. This mode starts you out with a generic character in one of four classes; from there it's up to you to customize the body, head, voice, colors and more. It was fun to see how radically different each player's Transformer was. I went classic with big square parts, just like the toys I used to play with. Other characters were full of sharp spikes, similar to what you might see in the Michael Bay movies.
The mode I played was called Conquest and it felt a lot like the classic Battlefield games. The team wins by occupying bases to collect points. But don't sit on your own base too long, or the other team will steal bases in other parts of the level. It's a mad dash to defend and steal the bases set up around the stage. Best of all, being able to turn into an airplane or car allows the player to zip to the other side of the level quickly, ensuring that the action will always be intense.
This multiplayer mode was fine, certainly nothing I haven't seen before in countless other competitive online shooters. Still, being able to transform made the game unique, and the different weapons felt fresh for the genre. I also liked the look, which is light-years away from the military shooters that are so popular these days. Both maps I played on were full of hiding players, as well as wide-open battle zones. I can't wait to see how diverse the stages are.
Now that I've created my own Transformer and played through a chunk of the single-player campaign, it's off to wrap my mind around Escalation mode. This is a multiplayer co-op mode where the object is to survival. You know the drill: You and three friends get stuck in an arena and have to blast your way through waves of bad guys. Players are able to revive fallen friends and there are weapons to be purchased throughout the stage. You go until you've beaten back the bad guys ... or everybody dies. Whichever comes first.
Each stage has you choosing from four different Transformers. In the level I played, the options included Optimus Prime, Ratchet, Bumblebee and Warpath. I was immediately struck by how different each Transformer played. By this point I had managed to take control of four different characters, and each of them felt completely different. It's not just the weapons they use and vehicle they transform into, it's their weight and how they handle.
After playing through the three major modes in Fall of Cybertron, High Moon Studios left us with a big announcement. Not only will players will take control of the Autobots and Decepticons, but at some point in the future (via downloadable content) there will also be Dinobots and Insecticons. These nostalgic additions are exactly what longtime fans of the franchise have been asking for. This is a huge step in the right direction.
From the cinematic flourishes in the single-player to the action-packed multiplayer modes, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is on my radar. With its top-notch visuals and interesting narrative, this may be the Transformers game that finally gets it right. And even if that fails, at least we're finally getting a game with the Dinobots and Insecticons.