I was 10 years old when my childhood came to sudden and tragic halt. I remember the exact moment that it happened. I was sitting in a movie theater on my 10th birthday watching 1986’s Transformers: The Movie and during the film’s opening battle, Prowl died. Sure lots of Transformers died during the battle and the film, but that was the one that really affected me. When Prowl opened his mouth and smoke roiled out as he turned gray my childhood drained away just like his color. Thinking back on it right now, I can still see it like it was yesterday and all those feelings come rushing back.
I never really paid any attention to the Transformers after that. The show was still on TV and I did see the episode where they found Optimus Prime’s zombie hulk floating in space and brought him back to life, but I found it weird, creepy, and more than a little upsetting. It only reinforced the notion that Transformers was no longer for me.
So that was that. The Transformers kept reappearing in one incarnation or the other, but I paid them no mind until the Bayformers ravaged souls and movie screens all across the nation. I watched the first two and was impressed by the special effect while at the same time feeling embarrassed for suffering through such childish gags without throwing my TV in a swimming pool. Of course, those movies also got videogame adaptations, because of course they did. It’s just what happens but I didn’t play a single one.
Then something weird happened: High Moon Studios released a good Transformers game called Transformers: War for Cybertron. Based on my old stomping grounds - G1- it told a story that acted as part of a prequel to the G1 story of the autobots fleeing their homeworld of Cybertron, then crash landing on Earth. I didn’t play that one either because Transformer had ceased to be my thing nearly 20 years earlier.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I found myself assigned War for Cybertron’s sequel, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. I was going to have to face off against the entity that ended my childhood all those years ago in that dark and sticky movie theater. So I set aside my personal feelings and sat down with controller in hand to see how the years had tempered those negative associations and also to see if I could find a decent game hidden somewhere in the nostalgia fogging up the lenses of my rose-colored glasses that had sat cracked and broken for two decades.
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron details the last days of the war for dwindling resources on Cybertron and dovetails nicely with the Ark’s crash landing on Earth that kicked off the old G1 cartoon. Over the course of the game’s 13 chapters you’ll play as a selection of both autobots and decepticons allowing you to see both sides of the war. The selection was nice, I don’t want to spoil it here, but if you must know, I’m sure it’s out there on the ‘net somewhere. I will say that while it wasn’t the character line up I might have preferred, the variation was nice.
During battle, each Transformer can wield a primary weapon and a secondary weapon. Each can be upgraded at Teletraan 1 stores using energon shards as currency. Also at Teletraan stores, you can purchase perks that permanently upgrade all the playable characters’ attributes and you can purchase offensive and defensive equipment like fire support drones or shields. Collectible blueprints can be redeemed at stores that let you upgrade newly discovered weapons, and there are collectible audio logs to fill in the back-story.
The primary weapons follow the standard “pistol, assault rifle, smg, sniper rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher” template (hereafter known as the P.A.R.S.M.G.S.R.S.G.R.L or Parsmugrusgirl template), while the secondary weapons mix it up. Some offer nice twists like the Corrosive Slime Cannon, or not, like the Scrapmaker heavy machine gun. All of them are fun to use and can carve out a niché for themselves in any battle. Also cool is the way they integrate into the wielder’s arm instead of simply being held in their hand. Let’s face it; if Transformers were real, that’s what they’d do. You can’t drop a gun that’s part of your arm after all. Also, you get a nice little “transformation” when you switch the side your gun is on and if there’s one thing Transformers is about it’s transformations. To round out combat abilities, each character also get’s their own special ability that works on a cool-down timer like artillery strikes, an energy grapple, or invisibility.
Speaking of transformations, no Transformers game would be complete without the ability to change form. Fall of Cybertron allows seamless one-click transforming at almost all times (there are a few places on each map and during plot-advancing sequences where you can’t). Each character’s vehicle form follows alien aesthetics and actually has two forms: the hover form that allows slow controllable movement and the actual vehicle form where wheels are on the ground (or your wings are out if you’re an aircraft). In this fast form, you can boost for extra speed while both forms allow the firing of your vehicle mounted gun or guns. There are even sections that boil down to mini races where you can only survive by speeding away as a vehicle. These sections were a nice change of pace after a series of grueling battles.
Everything involved in transformations is spot on. They’re fully animated complete with that classic “chi-cha-chu-chir” sound. Not only that, but the vehicle forms felt integral to the gameplay as the levels are laid out in such a way as to encourage both forms and the quick shifting between them - even in the heat of battle. Even the vehicle handling was good. If you normally crash immediately whenever you get behind the virtual wheel, you’ll still find yourself cruising at breakneck speeds with little trouble once you get used to it. In the robot future past, things like over steer and under steer thankfully don’t exist.
Early on in the game, once I got a handle on the controls, I forgot about the past and it was as if I was back in my room after school watching Transformers G1. Everything felt right. There’s just something seductive about robots that can change into vehicles and back again. Jumping off a ledge as a robot, transforming in mid-air and landing as a vehicle, then speeding off, or jumping into space and changing to an aircraft, then “landing” again as a robot just felt right - like I was back in the old TV show rather than playing a videogame adaptation 20 years after the fact. High Moon Studios should be commended for nailing that very important aspect of the property. After all, nothing would ruin a Transformers game faster than poorly handled transforming.
Of course, not everything is just like G1: vehicle forms are different - alien, like I said. Also, robot forms are much more complex than they were in the old cartoon. Purists may find themselves annoyed by the fact that Bumblebee is mute and that since there’s no mass shifting, Megatron doesn’t turn into a handgun (he’s still technically a gun, but it’s a giant self-propelled cannon), and Soundwave doesn’t turn into a cassette player (although his pets Lazerbeak and Rumble remain - seeing them was a shock for me because I’d forgotten they existed so long ago), but that stuff never bothered me.
To go along with the extreme sense of Transformers déjà vu
, I got another strong sense of videogame déjà vu
from Fall of Cybertron. Surprisingly the game I was so strongly reminded of was Halo. Despite the fact that Fall of Cybertron is a third person shooter versus a Halo’s first person shooter, Fall of Cybertron has a lot in common with Microsoft’s stoic space marine. The pacing, battles, gunplay, and vehicles all felt pretty much identical. You move through either open battlefields or tight hallways full of both enemies and allies shooting at each other and you can traverse them either on foot or in a vehicle. The only difference is that you ARE the vehicle in Fall of Cybertron so there’s always one handy. And I swear if you don’t think of the Covenant Ghost as you circle strafe and run over enemies in your vehicle form, then it’s because you’ve never played Halo before. They way enemies react to taking gunfire is similar as well: they don’t. Killing bad guys at a distance is a matter of pumping them full of enough bullets to kill them before they disappear into cover and let their shields recharge. At close range, you’re either playing a chess match of ducking behind boxes or killing them outright in one or two hits with something overwhelming. Also like Halo, the levels themselves are each a trial of shifting goals. In almost every level, you’ll go from charging a waypoint to operating a turret, to calling in artillery strikes, to being ambushed by enemies way more powerful than you are. The game was a constant supply of Halo-esque situations. All the **** was hitting all the fans in some levels while others required you to infiltrate enemy strongholds while fending off snipers, and stealth killing sentries. I can’t really convey to you to depth of Fall of Cybertron’s similarities to Halo during its roughly 10-hour campaign, but trust me when I say that it’s not really a criticism, and it may not be intentional. Halo does a lot of things right and in High Moon Studios’ similar effort to do a lot things right it’s possible they simply came to identical solutions.
Once you’re finished with the campaign, or at any other point for that matter, you can jump into War for Cybertron’s multiplayer modes. There are both co-op and competitive modes. The co-op is called Escalation and plays out just like any other game’s “horde mode.” You are part of a team that must defend an area against waves of enemies. You earn money with kills and you can spend it on new gear and defensive upgrades. Overall, it’s not very remarkable; it’s just there because people enjoy it in other games. What’s really bad is that it only ships with four maps.
The competitive modes are probably where people are going to spend most of their time, and I have to say that one of the features of the competitive multiplayer is going to allow many a gamer’s inner child to come out cheering. Why? Well, you can CREATE YOUR OWN TRANSFORMER. Let that sink in for a minute. Imagine being a little kid playing with Transformers action figures and you suddenly found yourself with the ability to design your own. You’d die. I know I would. You choose from one of 12 templates spread across four classes that follow the standard “scout, soldier, heavy, engineer” template. From there you can customize the look and both an autobot and decepticon color scheme. Along with the expected variations of heads, arms, and legs, you’re also given the option to choose one of several different vehicle forms along with wheels, cannons for the heavies (called titans) and wings for the engineers (called scientists) who are all aircraft. Finally, you get to name your creation. It’s awesome.
Once you are done creating your very own Transformer (if you can ever stop because you can create 12 different ones), you can play one of four modes: Team Deathmatch, Conquest, Capture the Flag, and Head Hunter. Team Deathmatch is pretty straightforward, Conquest and Capture the Flag are just variations of the same idea (capture or control things for points), and Head Hunter requires you to kill enemies then collect sparks. The winner is the first to collect 30 sparks. Thankfully, competitive multiplayer doesn’t get the short end of the map stick - the game ships with a very healthy 10 maps. As you play, you gain xp to unlock new items and eventually you can enter “Prime mode.” It resets all your characters and xp so you can do it all again, but with a snazzy medal next to your name.
The multiplayer for War for Cybertron was pretty popular, but Fall of Cybertron has been accused by fans of WfC of being dumbed down because perks and other features were excised to make for a more streamlined experience. I never played WfC so I can’t say for sure. Multiplayer is so subjective anyway that your best bet is to simply play it for yourself to see if it’s worth your time.
So pretty much everything I’ve talked about so far has been pretty good, however, graphically, Fall of Cybertron is only average. The aesthetic is as Transformers as Transformers can Transformers, but the actual nuts and bolt are un-special. Fall of Cybertron uses the Unreal engine so everything looks like it was molded out of clay, then wrapped in colorful tin foil (which I kind of like, but your mileage may vary). As per Unreal usual, there is a lot of texture pop-in, and they’re still not that good once they’re all popped in, but it doesn’t really harm the game. I also noticed a fair amount of jaggies, suffered some framerate drops, and once I was booted out of the level geometry by a decepticon leaper. I then proceeded to fall through what must have been all 84 levels of robot hell (It’s a very real place, ya know?) before the game finally decided I could die and reload the checkpoint. Don’t get me wrong, Fall of Cybertron doesn’t look bad; it just won’t wow anyone anytime soon.
Sound wise, Fall of Cybertron was fairly unremarkable. The voice actors all do a very good job, and Peter Cullen returns to reprise his role as the Only Optimus Prime That Can Ever Be. The soundtrack, meanwhile, left zero impression on me. Same with the other sound effect. They weren’t good or bad, just there.
Now before we finish up, there is one thing that for me counts as an “elephant in the room” issue I need to talk about. There is only one level (or maybe one and a half levels depending on your definition of “level” that lets you play as the dinobot’s leader, Grimlock. ONLY ONE! That’s an outrage if you ask me. He was a main focus of the game’s marketing, and looking back, I think it was pretty misleading since he’s in the game less than just about every other character. Also, Grimlock is boss. He was my favorite Transformer, and he should have been every little boy’s favorite because he exists at the nexus of two of their favorite things - robots and dinosaurs. Another issue I had was that you couldn’t freely transform into his T-Rex form at will. For some reason, Grimlock is arbitrarily damaged so changing form is relegated to his special ability and must be refilled by killing enemies. All the other Dinobots can transform at will, and frankly seem much more capable than Grimlock, which doesn’t jive with how he was portrayed during, pre-release hype (as an unstoppable killing machine - in fact he’s very stoppable). It doesn’t affect my final opinion of Transformers: Fall of Cybertron much, but dammit, it bears mentioning. It’s the one real blemish on an otherwise fun game.