I’ve never been as consistently interrupted while playing a game at the office as I was while playing through High Moon’s Transformers: War for Cybertron. I would put on headphones and play for ten or fifteen minutes, and I would suddenly feel a tingle in that weird lizard-brain proximity sense we’ve all got that says “someone is in my personal space bubble.” I’d turn around and see another IGN editor standing behind my shoulder, staring at me with pleading eyes, and I always knew what they were going to ask before they asked it: “is it good?” It’s the look of someone afraid of getting their hopes up.
Which is why I was happy to report to those asking that Transformers: War for Cybertron is actually very good. Fantastic, even. High Moon has taken a fun, fast, third person shooter foundation, crafted a well thought out transformation mechanic on top of it, and designed combat situations around that. The end result is a shooter that has an identity all its own, and leverages its license to make something very cool for fans and newcomers alike.
Set millenia before the original cartoon series that fans have taken to calling G1, Transformers: War for Cybertron tells the story of the final days of the Autobot’s and Decepticon’s civil war on the surface of their homeworld, Cybertron. Officially sanctioned as canon by Hasbro, War for Cybertron fills in some gaps in fans’ understanding of Transformers lore, explaining things like Starscream’s defection from the Autobots, Optimus’s succession to the position of Prime, and more. High Moon’s storytelling is generally good, and feels well situated in the Transformers fiction — it’s a good modernization of the original cartoon while remaining true to the characters and stories that fans have placed on a pedestal for decades — but there are points where the narrative jumps sloppily from one event to the next. It feels at times as though we’re watching a show with episodes missing, and though there’s a pre-level text crawl that does a decent job of filling in some of the details, it’s still jarring cutting so quickly from triumph to despair and back again without in-game exposition.
However, while the story occasionally stumbles, High Moon’s love and attention to detail with regards to G1 Transformers remains vitally palpable throughout. High Moon covers all of their bases and more in establishing their Transformers cred, as it were, even while making minor changes here and there in the interest of gameplay and plausibility. While some fans might rankle at the prospect of Soundwave transforming into a sort of Cybertronian truck, there’s a point a couple of hours into the Autobot campaign that should provide ample compensation. Their redesigns of well-known Transformer archetypes like Bumblebee and Soundwave feel current and cool while remaining instantly recognizable. With the many small details (like constantly moving pistons and gears on each Transformer in humanoid mode, as well as some great transformations), High Moon does a great job of straddling a line between fan service and respect that other games referencing revered properties often trip over. While I could have lived with a little less “BLAM!” from Warpath, it’s hard to argue with Peter Cullen’s contributions as Optimus.
Surprisingly, though, the story and treatment of the Transformers fiction isn’t where War for Cybertron sees the most success. In interviews leading up to War for Cybertron’s release, Executive Producer Matt Tieger stressed that the team at High Moon prioritized strong gameplay fundamentals. Rather than contriving a reason for cover based shooting in a Transformers title, High Moon has instead gone with a more immediate third-person dynamic that emphasizes up close melee combat just as much as shooting, with great results.
Transformation in War for Cybertron isn’t just a gimmick; levels and encounters are designed around the ability to shift at will between vehicle and humanoid forms, and from early on, a mastery of both forms and knowing when to use them is practically a requirement. High Moon has created a shooter that rewards both strategic thinking and heavy experimentation. From double-jumping into a dash to melee a jet in mid-air, to using a detachable turret on one group of enemies then quick turning 180 degrees as a tank to take out another, to kicking into the air to transform into a jet to use flanking tactics on an enemy position, combat in Transformers: War for Cybertron is more satisfying than any third person shooter in recent memory.
While most players will most likely jump immediately into the cooperative campaign mode in Transformers: War for Cybertron, competitive multiplayer is where the game will find its legs. Marrying aspects of Unreal Championship with Tribes and the class-based finesse of games like Team Fortress 2 and Bad Company 2, War for Cybertron leverages its transformation mechanic to create something that feels shockingly new. The same combat scenarios that make the singleplayer campaign of the game so much fun are present in fast-forward online, as Scientist-class jets scream overhead and Soldiers, Scouts, and Leaders mix it up on the ground. While matches are capped at 10 players, in practice this expertly skirts an almost-too-frantic vibe from games that support far more combatants at once. Conquest mode is a particular favorite, as the momentum between the Autobot and Decepticon sides can change abruptly at the drop of a hat, making for matches that stay interesting.
Is War for Cybertron perfect? No, of course not. The framerate can take a hit at a few points, and some boss battles occasionally devolve into exercises in avoiding instant or near-instant death to shoot the red flashy thing. Transformers nerds will love the character customization for each class with multiple chassis and customizable paint jobs in multiplayer while simultaneously lamenting its limitations.
After a few days, the PC version also has a perilously small player base online, ranging from 450-700 players total, with certain playlists consistently empty. Also, the dedicated servers that PC players expect are nowhere to be found, as War for Cybertron appears to use the same peer-to-peer code employed by the console versions of the game. The multiplayer remains excellent when you can find a game though, and PC players in particular will likely appreciate the various PC shooter influences War for Cybertron draws from. The game is also likely to run well on a variety of systems, though customization is sadly absent in the graphics department. In now typical Unreal Engine 3 fashion, you’re limited to texture detail settings of “low,” “medium,” and “high,” and a resolution and v-sync setting. For those of you that care, the framerate is also hard-locked at 30FPS. My Core i7 Win7 system with dual Geforce 260s kept everything super-playable at 2560×1600 with settings “maxed.”
High Moon has been very good at saying all the right things with War for Cybertron leading up to its arrival in stores, but many licensed titles have talked a great game before falling apart when all was said and done. Thankfully, War for Cybertron impresses with an excellent single-player campaign with full co-op support, the included Horde-alike Escalation mode, and surprisingly deep and inventive online multiplayer component. Transformers: War for Cybertron has taken the magic of playing with plastic and metal toys that turn into cool s**t both alone and with friends and have distilled that into something pretty special. This is a surprise, dark horse contender for best way to spend your time online this summer.