Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: "Transformers: War for Cybertron"

Thank Primus You're Here!

Review for Transformers: War for Cybertron (PC)

Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC - 1 to 3 player third-person shooter, Out Now

Transformers joins Sonic the Hedgehog as part of the super-star tag-team of entertainment properties everybody is really nostalgic about and fond of that I totally missed the boat for. With Transformers I have an excuse - I was a generation too late, being born in 1992 (thus landing me in the cusp of Generation Y). But that's not a great excuse. I had internet access by the time I was ten years old, and YouTube was a thing by the time I was twelve years old. I could have been "into" Transformers before now if I wanted to.

What's baffling is I can't fathom why I wouldn't want to. As a kid, I was massively into Hot Wheels, Thunderbirds, jets, spaceships, boats, trains... and Transformers is basically that, but the vehicles turn into and are giant robots. Giant goddamn robots! Y'know how a lot of people criticize Transformers as an entertainment property because it was designed to sell toys to kids? Well if I hadn't missed the boat on Transformers, it would have worked on ten-year-old me. There is nothing about "giant robots that can turn into cars and planes" that does not appeal to me. Yet somehow I missed it. It's peculiar.

At any rate, it doesn't really matter, because, little known fact: I never actually grew up in my head, so I have the mental age of a ten year-old. So since I'm acquainting myself with the nostalgic remnants of other people's much more interesting childhoods - from Ghostbusters to Sonic - it might as well be Transformers' turn, starting with the well-received prequel-videogame War for Cybertron. How do I find it? As a non-Transformers fan, will it sell me on the property? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. ...okay, spoiler alert, it totally does.

A Good Game in Disguise

I think everyone is slightly cautious when approaching anything with Transformers on it after Michael Bay's horrendous trilogy of films. That, and licensed games just aren't often any good when the conditions are completely in their favour, either. It's with those standards towards licensed titles in play that saw Arkham Asylum - possibly the first good Batman game - catch unanimous positive acclaim. And War for Cybertron has a lot of elements in play that make it something of Transformers' answer to Arkham Asylum.

By taking cues from every good element of Transformers incarnations past - everything from the initial "Generation 1" cartoon series to the Bay-directed films - War for Cybertron feels like a product made with real dedication to its fans. It's obvious that the developers spent production with a big banner over their heads that said "MAKE GOOD GAME," as apposed to most Transformers-licensed games that were made in the spirit of the cash cow. High Moon Studios - under the direction of Activision - were obviously lead by a passion to produce a great product first, and to spin money out under the Transformers brand second. Granted, they did take a rather "safe" route to "AAA good game design 101," but there's no denying it works.

So it's a third-person shooter, essentially. Gears of War-style (though without cover mechanics, which is a blessing), built in the Unreal Engine. There's a pretty neat gimmick that occasionally shines as a unique core mechanic in that, being Transformers, every character can instantaneously... y'know, transform. Into any variety of vehicle - be it a truck, or a jet, or a tank, or even a racecar. First thought is, "how do vehicles fit into a third-person shooter?" The answer is through amazing level design. These linear maps have been planned out in a way that you'll get equal use out both vehicle and robot modes, and since transformations occur on-the-fly and instantly anywhere in the level at the press of a button, that's a fairly impressive feat. Vehicle mode may seem odd at first - you can still strafe and jump - but once you find the boost button you'll be gripping the road and drifting around enemies with gusto.

While linear, each level is nice and open and provides good opportunity of exploration and experimentation. The game was built with a three-player co-op mode that runs through the main campaign, so there's lots of variety in mission objectives - from wave survival modes to chase sections through miles of speedway - which is amplified by a character class system which provides extra replayability, with three characters available for each chapter. The shooting itself is pretty tight - not as satisfying as, say, Vanquish's perfection of robot murder, but certainly consistently entertaining - and there's plenty of unique sci-fi weapons to pick up and play with, too. Everything from laser beams to healing rays to anti-gravity grenades to nuclear-powered fission missile launchers - it's all here alongside genre staples of shotguns and machine guns, and it's all enjoyable and easy to use. It's not the gameplay itself, though, that really makes War for Cybertron special. It's the set dressing.

Getting Over the Speedhump

Okay, so Transformers isn't exactly brilliant fiction. The core concept - robots transform into vehicles - is about as deep as even the game runs with its plot. Well, I say "plot." It's really more of a scenario. Big Bad and series mainstay Megatron is really evil and wants to take over Cybertron - the home planet of the Transformers - and make everyone his slaves, or something. He has a faction called Decepticons. The Autobots are the good guys and they don't like being taken over. So they fight each other. Pretty simple shit, but it's not the core of this game that is exceptional - it's the flair in its presentation and characterization.

While no doubt more out of necessity than creative inspiration, each and every Transformer is incredibly well-characterized. Back in the G1 days, this would have invariably been the result of having characters who have little to no apparent visual emotional range. These characters couldn't act with their faces, and could barely act with their body language - they were big, hulking, and blockily-designed machines; they lacked subtlety. So instead, their voices and personality have been amplified to the point where every Transformer is unique and memorable based on the tones of the vocal performances alone. A by-product, I'm sure, of marketing executives needing to sell more and more toys to more and more kids, there are also fuckton of Transformers.

The point is that, thanks to to show and toy line's character design and breadth of characters respectively, there is a ton of variety in the cast of this game; but most impressively, each one of them in War for Cybertron is perfectly characterized, animated and voice-acted. The cast of this game is varied and fun, and with an air of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of the silliness of its core concept, pretty funny, too. From the booming Megatron who is every 80s cartoon villain ever, yelling about world domination and how dare you question his wrath and such; to Bumblebee, a zippy little new kid with untold enthusiasm; to Soundwave, a Decepticon scientist who coldly and logically goes about his job with the haunting manner of a man possessed; to everyone's favourite Optimus, a heroic leader thrust into a position of power he didn't want, taking up the mantle of "Prime" and doing what he must to protect his allies from harm.

Though... bizarrely enough, Optimus Prime is one of the few voiced by their original G1 actor and is also, at least I think, one of the least well-acted. I mean, don't get me wrong, his vocal tones sound phenomenal and series old-hat Peter Cullen puts on one hell of a show, but next to the likes of Steve Blum, he does seem less... enthusiastic. But that's just me. Yes, every character has been worked on until they both gel well with their G1 counterparts, and bring an unbridled new excitement and freshness to the property. It's all backed up with beyond solid dialog writing which, as I mentioned, is often genuinely funny. The game has a sharp wit on it, I tell you that much.

The world the Transformers live on, Cybertron, really feels alive and real. This is a planet in which everything is a robot. And every robot is a thing. It's pretty incredible really, and made better by a Transformers lore that, while not exactly super-serious, is at least Warhammer 40k-level scratch-your-head what-the-fuck intricate. There are deities, wars, worlds... countless eons of history to Cybertron as a planet and to the Autobots themselves, and the way High Moon has built Cybertron really shows that the place has a history. The dedication to creating a likable cast of characters inspired by the cartoon show, and placing them in a war-ravaged, ancient world, really is something quite special to behold. What gets to me particularly, though, is a few moments - not key moments, just... moments - in which you really get the feeling that, "you know what, these aren't transforming robots - these are sentient mechanical aliens."

A New Coat of Paint

The cast of Transformers is bought to life perfectly with a pretty damn excellent graphics style. It's unfortunately also the point in which the game starts to get some serious marks against it. Let's run down some of the pros and cons that this game's aesthetic and graphical style deliver.

The first pro would be the animations. They are good. There's a slight lack of weight to some movements - unlike Gears of War, the Transformers are rather agile - but it's hardly a dealbreaker. All the weapons have serious kick to them and when Transformers die there's a wonderful moment where they realize they're going to explode and they stagger around a bit shouting and screaming. It provides a really nice flourish to the otherwise fairly vanilla third-person shooting, but that's all mere child's play - child's play, I tells ya! - compared to the transformation animations.

I will guarantee you, you will find a quiet moment in the game and mash the transform button over. And over. And over. Just to watch the smooth-as-silk, logical, perfect transformations take place. Robot. Tank. Robot. Tank. Robot. Tank. Oh yes, and "the noise". That perfect robotic "chk-chk-chk". It's... oh my god. You could make a game with one button that turned a robot into a tank and back; and if you used the animations these guys do, I would give it ten out of fucking ten. They're that good.

And different characters have different transformations! They're personalized! Even though six characters turn into jets, each one of them has a separate transformation! And you can transform anywhere, too. While running? Hit button, transformed seamlessly. Standing? Seamless. Jumping? Seamless. Falling? Seamless. Jumping while melee killing a dude in the face? Seamless hollycrapeARGLLAWBAWyaydsyauidAHSgahs seriously JUST SERIOUSLY. SERIOUSLY. SERIOUSLY. ...they're fucking brilliant.

The first con would be the colour palette. It suffers from most Unreal Engine games' problems, so incessant and unnecessary bloom fill dark, grey, murky corridors. There are some moments that really flesh out the use of the engine - in particular scenes set in outer space - but for the most part, it's bloom-filled, dark, muddy metallic corridors. Luckily there's an excuse - Cybertron is bloom-filled, dark, muddy and metallic. But it's still a darn shame.

The art design is pretty fantastic though. While rendered in-engine in a way that fails to innovate, the actual design of the Transformers and Cybertron is top-notch. It feels like all the "realism" from the Bay film's designs has been meshed with the simplistic, easy-to-read mech designs from G1, and the result is pretty spectacular. It feels a lot like an 80s cartoon bought up-to-date, and I know for a fact fans of the show will find themselves utterly enthralled. Every character has obviously been paid a lot of attention, with everything from overall silhouette to finer detail polished to a mirror shine. And same with in-world assets. It's mostly the little details, I think. Small lights and insignias, particle effects, subtle vehicle parts on the robot forms and such. Oh, and the tiny details in the transformations. HEY GUYS DID I MENTION HOW FUCKING COOL THE TRANSFORMATIONS ARE??! HUH??!


Also, when called upon to deliver a cinematic set-piece - whether it be a high-speed chase or some kind of epic non-boss-related shootout, often involving the flight-sim-lite-controlling jets - there really is an amazing flair to the visuals. Portions of cities whiz by at a rapid pace, things explode all around, the lighting temperature changes at intervals... it adds spice to something of a spiceless visual atmosphere

Bypassing Logic Circuits

So I mentioned that this game has made me interested in Transformers at long last. Personally, though, I think it's less that it's a well-made, polished product made by a dedicated team (though that is certainly the case), and more than my inner ten-year-old squeals with delight every time anything happens. Yes.

It's utterly perfect. It really does make me feel like a kid playing with toys. Toys I never even owned! And yet, here I am, jumping up and down and relishing in pure unadulterated awesomeness of these robots that turn into vehicles. It's... amazing. Better yet; every negative thing I could say about the game is almost instantly countered by the joyish squeals of my inner child. "Eurgh, it's a third-person shooter." "But you can turn into a tank!" "There's not a lot of weight to these characters. Aren't they meant to be twenty foot tall, giant robots?" "Yeah, but they can turn into tanks!!" "Man, these corridors are so grey, muddy and bloom-filled." "Who the fuck cares you can turn into a goddamn tank!!!" It's absolutely uncanny.

Not to say all the game's problems can be alleviated by simply remembering what an absolutely, joyfully amazing fun time it is to, you know, be a robot that can turn into a tank. There are quite a few issues here and there that crop up and seriously hammer the game's quality. Which is a damn shame, because it was that close to being pretty much perfect. ...a big issue is that the boss fights are a little boring. They all tend to be that very lame giant-enemy-sitting-out-of-reach-and-aim-at-weak-spot hackneyed boss fight scenario, which can be entertaining, no doubt, but feels less dramatic than they could have been - especially when planet-sized Transformers are introduced.

The campaign is split into Decepticon and Autobot missions, but you can start with either, so the difficulty curve spikes in the middle of the game and then glides back down to a second tutorial and up again once you gain control of the Autobots. And, most unforgivable, with the exception of a brilliant end credits sequence, the game kind of ends on an... anti-climax. I understand that the game is meant to lead into the G1 cartoon, but it's still kind of flat. Arkham Asylum did this too - status quo restored, everything in place for more of the same to occur... even with the massive revelation of Cybertron now a dying planet, it feels disappointingly underhanded.

It's all kind of for naught though, in the end, because the sequel - Fall of Cybertron - promises (and looks set to deliver) improvements on all of those fronts. It's a game that, thanks to the excellent job High Moon did with this game, I'll be watching with great interest and anticipation. And High Moon as a studio in general - recently announcing that they're working on a licensed Deadpool game - just seems like a great, dedicated bunch of people; truly knowing what fans want by way of being fans of the properties they're making games of. Much like Rocksteady, who made Arkham Asylum, I feel High Moon is pouring a lot of love and passion into these projects - which goes a long long way to making me sit up and pay attention. Luckily, it all shows in War for Cybertron. 

It also shows in that, while certainly the game is a cheesy, light-hearted, fun, 80s-cartoon-vibe'd epic space opera, it also occasionally flashes brilliance in pulp sci-fi. The multi-faceted lore, the way the Transformers do, in fact, seem like aliens as well as just robots... it shows that someone at High Moon thought very highly of the series potential. And I think that's why War for Cybertron has sold me, finally, on Transformers - it realizes, even if fleetingly, the property's true potential. The Michael Bay films, the original cartoons... great concept, let down by either poor (or, in G1's case, aged) execution. I feel like this is the true culmination of the efforts of the comic books, Prime, and other such post-G1 series to make a Transformers story that is both gleefully, childishly awesome, and more than meets the eye in terms of what's under the hood. In a way, that really is befitting the name of Transformers, isn't it?

Recommendation: This game is so well-made, and made with such passion to its subject matter, it's hard not to respect. That it's such a well-designed and tightly-playing third-person shooter, with a fucking amazing transformation gimmick I mean ohhmygod ohhmygrgrgrglrlrlrlrwebfabfbwbfw ...yeah, no, this game is amazing, you should play it at some point before Fall of Cybertron comes out.