Thursday, August 2, 2012

Transformers: War for Cybertron

Transformers is a highly popular franchise that has been going on continuously for almost 30 years, so naturally a number of video games have been made based off of it. The success of these games has been mixed overall, from downright terrible to okay at the very least. In 2010, High Moon Studios, a developer previously known for the games Darkwatch and The Bourne Conspiracy, released Transformers: War for Cybertron, considered by many to be the best Transformers game ever made. This month, the company will put out a follow-up game, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. While I have played War for Cybertron before, I decided to play it again in anticipation for the sequel, and it's still as good as I remember it.

Throughout the many iterations of Transformers lore one aspect that has been prevalent is an event called The Great War, a civil war between the Autobots and Decepticons lasting for eons on the planet Cybertron prior to their arrival on Earth. In this version, Megatron leads the Decepticons on a mission to take Zeta Prime, then-current Autobot leader, offline and infect the very core of the planet with Dark Energon in order to make it his own. In response to this, an Autobot named Optimus leads a resistance in order to return Cybertron to its former glory. The finer details of the plot have some intriguing character development and twists, in addition to a great number of callbacks to the original 1980's cartoon, known as Generation 1.

Speaking of which, this brings up my thoughts on how this game relates to the Transformers franchise. In order to tie in with the newest iteration of the brand, Transformers: Prime (which I highly recommend), Hasbro has officially stated that this game takes place before the events of the show as part of the current continuity. However, the aforementioned callbacks seem to suggest that War for Cybertron was made with the Generation 1 cartoon in mind. For instance, the characters Rumble and Frenzy are blue and red respectively, much like the original cartoon (contrasting most other depictions where they are red and blue respectively). Other things that seem to enforce this are the visual aesthetic and the voice acting, both of which I will expand upon later.

What I like about the story is not only what’s being told, but also the way it is told. Usually in a Transformers game that has an Autobot and Decepticon campaign, the two stories share similar elements but go in completely different directions. However, High Moon has taken a more interesting approach in that, while there are still two campaigns, the Decepticon portion of the story takes place before the Autobot half, forming a more complete and seamless plot. This approach is improved upon in High Moon’s videogame prequel to Dark of the Moon.

While I don’t have much experience with third-person shooters, I enjoyed the gameplay of War for Cybertron. Before each chapter of the campaign, you are given a choice between 3 different Autobots or Decepticons to play as (depending on the chapter), each with their own set of abilities that can change your combat experience (and sometimes, by extension, what you experience during the narrative). Each character has two special abilities, each tied to a shoulder button on the controller; the one on the left can regenerate immediately, with abilities such as levitation or dashing quickly, while the one on the right, ranging from powering up allies to unleashing a deadly shockwave or siphoning enemy health, requires Energon Shards from fallen enemies in order to recharge.

You are also given a long-range weapon to match the character that you want to play as for that chapter. You are able to hold up to 2 of these weapons, excluding grenades, both of which can switched out at any point you find another one, some of which can be real life savers on the battlefield. Ammo and health are also plentiful at times, and when you get up close to an enemy, clicking the right analog stick will bring up a close-range weapon that can do the job (in the right circumstances of course).

Of course, what’s a Transformers game without the ability to transform? Thankfully, this is made easy by simply clicking the left analog stick, which frees up the rest of the controller for other actions. The transformation itself is a smooth transition between robot and vehicle form that is really fun to watch. The robot models also have some parts on them that organically move on their own, which may end up becoming a slight distraction when not engaged in battle.

On that topic, the visuals of War for Cybertron are amazing, especially in the designs of the robots. Aside from the aforementioned moving parts, the robot designs take several design cues from Generation 1, another thing that seems to tie the game to that continuity, while still looking fairly unique on their own.  Cybertron itself also looks rather impressive, though admittedly it could’ve used somewhat of a larger color palette. In any case, everything manages to stand out pretty well, especially the more brightly-colored robots, despite the fact that the game overall looks a little dark.

Praise also goes to the sound design of the game. All the proper mechanical sounds are the right places, including the iconic transformation sound, and the background music is simply amazing. During especially intense moments, the music can go from setting the basic tone to a guitar-heavy metal sound and even an epic drum solo. The voice acting also deserves special mention, including such names as Steve Blum, Nolan North, Liam O’Brien (Asura in Asura’s Wrath), and Peter Cullen (reprising his role as Optimus Prime) among others, all doing a fantastic job with their characters. Most of the characters that appear, with some exceptions, sound fairly close to their Generation 1 counterparts to good effect. Steve Blum also does a good job as the narrator setting up each chapter, seeming to channel Victor Caroli, narrator of the original cartoon, as he does so.

During my last experience with this game, I ran into a couple technical issues that ended up being mildly hilarious. At one point during the Decepticon campaign, if you decide to remain idle during a conversation on what happens next, there is a good chance that, if you’re not playing as him, Soundwave will inexplicably start floating upward until he hits the ceiling, only to go back to being grounded when you keep the plot moving. There was also a point in the same campaign where, during my first battle with a Destroyer, the giant enemy seemed to magically levitate off the ground, acting as if it’s standing on a flat surface, until it, like Soundwave, went back to being grounded as it went through its death animation.

However, there were also a couple technical problems I found that, while relatively minor, brought down the experience a little. There are some moments in the game where you have to wait for the textures to load completely, and not even the cutscenes are safe as this happens. It even got to where, during the Autobot campaign, as I got to the end of a corridor, the walls on either side of it just suddenly popped up out of nowhere, leaving me very confused for a moment. There was also another moment in the Autobot campaign where, during the flying section, the sound went out after I respawned, leaving me with nothing to work with but the rumble feature of the controller. Thankfully, this problem never repeated once I respawned again.

Transformers: War for Cybertron is perhaps one of the best Transformers games ever created. It has a great plot, the sound work is amazing, and transforming feels like a natural process during play. It may be somewhat buggy, but if someone was looking for a good Transformers gaming experience, I would not hesitate to direct them to this game. As a Transformers fan, I had a blast while playing, and I’m sure that other fans who have not played it yet will enjoy it much the same way.

Now I’m looking forward even more to High Moon’s next Transformers game, Fall of Cybertron.

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