Few things are as inherently associated with nerds as gaming and giant robots, so one would think they naturally fit together quite well. Despite this, Transformers and video games have traditionally been a recipe for mediocre gameplay and poor representations of franchise favorites. Finally, Transformers: War for Cybertron is here: a Transformers game not related to any recent licensed movie or cartoon series, but rather built as a tribute and prequel to the original cartoon.
Megatron is rising to power, and in the ongoing war between Autobots and Decepticons he’s ready to turn the tide through the use of corruptive dark energon. Meanwhile, a new leader, Optimus Prime, is rising through the Autobot ranks, uniting and inspiring the Autobots to save their planet. The plot fits snugly into the continuity of the cartoon, although it retcons a bit of the cartoon’s original story of the Transformers before their arrival on Earth. More importantly, it feels like a story arc from the cartoon, and fans will be right at home. Those who don’t care for or aren’t familiar with the franchise, however, will most likely find the narrative a bit silly and simplistic.
Of course, much of the appeal of the Transformers franchise comes from its distinctive cast of characters, and this is where the campaign of War for Cybertron really shines. Every personality is perfectly replicated in the game, and the dialog, abilities, and relationships are everything you could hope for. It’s hard to not crack a smile the first time Megatron puts the ever-ambitious Starscream in his place, and Optimus nails the hope-inspiring and confident leader. Again, those who aren’t familiar with the franchise are not going to feel much connection to these characters, as they are not developed much. It’s expected the people playing this game are already generally familiar with them.
The place where past Transformers games have really fallen apart is the gameplay, and War for Cybertron’s solution to this is to fall-back on the established gameplay of other games. War for Cybertron is mostly a by-the-books third-person shooter. Corridors and large, cover-filled rooms abound as you advance through the Cybertronian war, and almost all of your time will be spent exchanging fire with the opposing force. The weapons, while somewhat “futuristic”, are nothing new, and all the shooter staples (grenades, 2-weapon loadouts, and mounted turrets) are present. Gameplay is linear, and there’s very little to be discovered through exploration or places to explore for those interested.
The action is good, and reasonably challenging. If the goal was to replicate the feel of a Cybertronian war, the game is successful, but it’s too bad it plays like any other war. One shooter feature noticeably missing, and sorely missed, is any sort of cover system. This is even odder because there is plenty of cover present in the game already. As this is Transformers, you can transform into vehicle form at any time, but they are only useful in rare situations. Interspersed among the shootouts are a few purely vehicle sections, where you’ll need to drive quickly while dodging obstacles and enemy attacks. These are enjoyable, and it’s too bad the levels weren’t designed to feature the vehicle modes more prominently.
There are two areas where War for Cybertron really felt unique, and these were the flight levels and boss fights. In flight levels you control one of a squadron of three transformers with a flight mode, and large portions of the level will require you to fly and fight in this mode. These were a great change of pace for the game, and the best uses of the vehicle mode in the game. While they don’t really feel like “dogfights” in the traditional sense, they do offer unique air-to-air combat while you hover, lock-on, dodge, and boost away as necessary to take down fellow aerial opponents.
The boss fights are the shining beacon of the campaign, and truly challenging and interesting. Bosses range from titular characters from the series, to massive robots of incredible scale. These fights not only were challenging and satisfying, but they almost all required efficient use of the vehicle mode, whether they were flying or land-based bosses. Giant beams which quickly vaporize, massive transformers with small weak-points and devastating weaponry all create an intense experience, and one that feels genuinely unique to the Transformers universe.
Clearly, Transformers: War for Cybertron was designed with a large focus on multiplayer. The entirety of the campaign can be played through in 3-player co-op, and this doesn’t change the campaign, so if you plan to play co-op there’s no reason not to do it your first time through. The competitive multiplayer modes are all taken straight out of other shooters. “Deathmatch” and “Team Deathmatch” are of course present, as is “King of the Hill” (called “Power Struggle”). “Escalation” pits you against waves of AI enemies, ala “Horde Mode” from Gears of War, “Conquest” has players capture and hold strategic points, ala Battlefield, and “Countdown to Extinction” has teams competing to take an active bomb to the enemy base, similar to Halo’s Assualt Mode. "Code of Power" has teams competing over a devastating melee weapon placed in the map in very short rounds.
Of course, before delving into any of this you have to make your character. War for Cybertron offers four classes, with different vehicles, weapons, and abilities. These are Soldier (tank), Scout (car), Leader (truck), and Scientist (jet). The soldier has heavy armor and health, with heavy weapons, while the scout is light and fast. The leader is a pretty good balance between them, and the scientist can heal (and is also an excellent sniper due to the ability to fly to good sniping points). When you create a character you pick a character model from one of the transformers in the game, customize the color scheme, abilities, and weapon loadouts. The classes are all pretty balanced, and support a variety of play-styles. A leveling and perks system is also present. This boils down to an enjoyable, if not particularly unique, multiplayer.
With most of the game derivative of other shooters, War for Cybertron relies heavily on its presentation to set it apart. Thankfully, it mostly succeeds. The graphics aren’t technically impressive, but nice, and there’s great detail in the level design and character models. Clearly a lot of care has gone into crafting the robot home-world. The Transformers blend perfectly in their environment, and the way they interact almost organically with the machines on the planet makes it all the more believable. Unfortunately, the world could still use more variety, but it’s understandably difficult to add a lot of variety to a mechanical world. The voice acting sounds like it’s been taken straight out of the cartoon, and the music is appropriate for the game, although not memorable.
The campaign will last you about 10 hours, and it’s divided into two parts, one for each faction. It is playable in either singleplayer or three-player co-op in its entirety. The multiplayer has a solid variety of maps and game modes, but doesn’t stand out among an oversaturated genre of multiplayer shooters, so the amount of hours you get out if it will be based entirely on how devoted you are to the source material.
Transformers: War for Cybertron is a quality game in almost every way, and a great tribute to its source-material. In general the game plays well, though it could really use a cover system and certainly should make better use of the vehicles in the campaign. The biggest problem it faces is it stands out in only a portion of the campaign, and doesn’t really stand-out at all in online multiplayer. While nothing in War for Cybertron is actually bad, it’s hard to recommend it above any of a number of other shooters to anyone but long-time Transformers fans.