Transformers: War for Cybertron Review

By Matt Keil - Posted Jun 22, 2010

Transformers: War for Cybertron is Activision's first use of the Transformers license outside the context of Michael Bay's live-action films. Both a retro G1 tribute and a brand new vision of the Transformers' homeworld, the result is a decent campaign boosted by exceptional multiplayer.

The Pros
  • Inventive character designs and setting based on G1
  • Phenomenal multiplayer
  • Top notch voice acting including Peter Cullen as Optimus
The Cons
  • Decepticon campaign is slightly dull
  • Story doesn't explain much about the war
  • Limited character creation models to choose from

After two movie tie-in games that settled nicely in the “passable” category, Activision has finally decided to do something surprising with the Transformers license. Transformers: War for Cybertron takes us all the way back to the dawn of the Generation 1 Cybertronian war, millions of years before the Transformers arrived on Earth in 1984. Removed from the messy continuity tangles of the present, this setting presents developer High Moon Studios with something of a blank slate. They don’t take advantage of this as thoroughly as BioWare did in Knights of the Old Republic, but the results are surprisingly solid.

It Is a World Transformed

The campaign covers ten levels, five per faction. The Decepticon campaign is chronologically first, although you can start with either. The Autobot campaign is noticeably better, with a greater variety of settings and more fights against familiar named boss characters. The Decepticon half is rather bland until the awakening of Omega Supreme. In part, that’s because none of the primary Autobot characters are established in the story yet, so you spend your time blasting drones and nondescript soldierbots. It doesn’t help that, being a planet made of metal, Cybertron looks much the same everywhere you go. The Autobot campaign avoids this pitfall by taking you to a rainy prison colony and launching you into space, but the Decepticon sections are all Iacon, all the time. Both campaigns finish strong with tremendously epic boss battles, and three-player co-op makes many of the flaws less noticeable.

There’s clear influence from the Dreamwave War Within comics, which share the setting and premise with War for Cybertron, but High Moon has made the characters their own. Tons of old characters have been reimagined to fit the game’s art style but remain recognizable as themselves, and the voice actors even do their best to replicate the voices of the original cartoon. The one person who doesn’t have to do this, of course, is Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime. His commanding and familiar vocal presence lends tremendous legitimacy to both the character and the game.

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Fight! Super Robot Life Form Transformer!

Old fans will find a lot to like in the story and writing. Tons of obscure references are thrown in, from movie quotes circa 1986 to character references to explanations of long-lingering mysteries. Those include Starscream’s first meeting with Megatron and the reason for his continued existence in the Decepticon ranks, how Optimus became a Prime (in this continuity, anyway), and the exact origin of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership. The one disappointment in the explanation department is, oddly, the war itself. Megatron is after Dark Energon as a kind of superweapon to convert Cybertron into a giant war machine, but it’s never really stated what started the war to begin with or why Megatron wants to do this. Clearly the war has been going on for some time when the game starts, so what was the original catalyst? If it was always to steal the Dark Energon, it seems like a quiet commando raid on Starscream’s facility would have been more efficient than starting a planet-wide genocidal war first.

Transformers: War for Cybertron is a direct descendant of Gears of War in many ways. The basic gameplay feels very similar, and the third-person running and gunning is solid and satisfying. Instead of a cover system, you can transform to vehicle mode at any time with the click of the left stick (this can optionally be switched to the Y button), which can serve as a quick getaway option or a more powerful assault mode, depending on your character. High Moon has come very close to nailing what Transformer controls should be. Hopefully future games using the license will follow its lead.

I’ve Got Better Things to Do Tonight Than Die

While the campaign is solid but not especially remarkable, the multiplayer is above and beyond anything offered in a Transformers game before. A mix of Gears of War, Modern Warfare and Unreal Tournament, the online play is unquestionably the star of the show. The tight controls are seemingly designed for competition against other humans, and it’s to the game’s credit that it manages to make every class and mode feel useful in one way or another. You can create custom Transformers in each class: Scout, Soldier, Scientist and Leader.

The options here are limited in that while you can change a model’s colors to a reasonable extent, you’re stuck with each class’s established mode which defines the character models that can be included in a given class. This leads to odd situations like Megatron’s model being a Soldier class due to its tank alt-mode, while the Autobots only get one Soldier chassis due to only having Warpath on their side. In turn, Soundwave is the only Decepticon with a large truck mode, so he is their sole Leader class option, while the Autobots get three. The Autobots even get three jet character models to the Decepticons’ two, which just seems wrong.

Model gripes aside, you can assign weapons, abilities and perks to your created character, many of which must be unlocked by earning experience points during online play, Modern Warfare style. Much of the strategy in the online play comes from the participants’ choices of abilities, which are well-balanced to counter one another. It’s like Rock, Paper, Scissors, as a spy-like Scientist can be busted by a cloaked Scout, but the Scout might be left exposed by a cloak-destroying turret. That’s just one of several examples of how each class strength and weakness can be augmented or exploited.

The action is fast, furious and would be fun even without the Transformers license attached, although the ability to transform is definitely a key element of success. A wide variety of gametypes offers scenarios to make every class stand out in one way or another. Modes include permutations of conquest, bomb runs, and capture the flag, although at the time of this writing Team Deathmatch is definitely the landslide favorite of the Xbox 360 community.

No Matter the Cost

For those looking for a more cooperative challenge, Escalation is the four-player equivalent to Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode, with some added twists. Ammo, health and weaponry do not simply spawn in Escalation. You earn points from kills and then must spend those points, Counter-Strike style, to keep your Transformer fueled, firing and functional. Security doors can be opened using large amounts of points, so teamwork and point pooling at opportune times is essential for survival. Endless waves of enemies pour in until your team is overwhelmed. This is the only multiplayer mode that allows the use of established Transformers characters, as well as preorder bonus characters. It actually manages to be a more cerebral take on Horde Mode, demanding teamwork or death on a level beyond surviving firefights.

If You’re Gonna Ride, Ride in Style

Transformers: War for Cybertron is a pleasant surprise on many levels, but it truly shines in multiplayer. The campaign is easy and fairly short, but will attract fans due to the setting and co-op. The star of the show is unquestionably multiplayer, which is as addictive as any quality online shooter in recent memory. Anyone with an interest in Transformers should at least give it a rental, and non-fans who enjoy shooters could do much worse than to give it a try. This is right about where the cheesy “for a licensed game, it’s more than meets the eye” joke should go, but the thing is, in this case it’s exceptionally accurate.

Want to play it? Why not rent it at Gamefly?