Thanks to and because of Michael Bay’s cinematic monstrosities that just so happen to feature hyperrealistic depictions of the iconic characters, the Transformers are bona fide icons of “cool” in 2010. If you like Bay’s movies, you acknowledge that simply watching the robots is typically the best part of those movies. If you don’t, part of the reason for your disdain toward the current incarnation of the robots is almost always the high regard with which you hold the original cartoons. Regardless of the differing opinions, the Transformers are a part of pop culture in a way that they haven’t been since the mid-‘80s.
Big, giant robots that can turn into cars and trucks and planes and tanks are kinda badass. That’s all there is to it.
As such, it shouldn’t take much to turn a game featuring the big, giant robots into an entertaining experience. Honestly, even a poor game turns decent when you get to control a Transformer, and a decent game turns fun. Thanks partially to the fact that it’s not tied down to a specific movie, Transformers: War for Cybertron is a decent game. And it’s seriously fun.
The design of the game can leave you reeling at first glance. The highly recognizable Unreal Engine and the over-the-shoulder perspective ensure that Gears of War will be the first reference that comes to mind. The lack of a distinct cover system other than “get behind this crate and wait for the shooting to stop” gives it more of a Halo feel gameplay-wise, however, and the “progress to a checkpoint amidst heavy gunfire from respawning baddies” thing that never fails to frustrate the hell out of the Call of Duty rookie makes a few appearances as well. Competitive multiplayer play actually owes a lot to Call of Duty (as does, I suppose, just about any decent multiplayer experience since Modern Warfare), with its ranking system and prestige options, while a now-standard “horde”-style mode (à la Gears of War 2) is included as well. It’s a hodgepodge of successful shooter mechanics, pulled at will depending on the whims of the developers.
And it works. This is what’s fascinating.
Given that the human world is nowhere to be seen—that’s right, no Shia LaBeouf, no Megan Fox, and only the most recognizable of the transformers (meaning no insulting caricatures and no testicle-bots)—part of the reason that it works is simply the refreshing, decidedly retro window onto the Transformers that we are given. Michael Bay’s, uh, “innovations” are nowhere to be seen, and that’s refreshing enough in 2010 to give this game a head start on any of the current generation’s other Transformers games so far.
This particular theory of the game’s success is particularly appealing when you start to notice the game’s flaws. The level design in the campaign is particularly appalling at times, usually consisting of giant rooms in which you defeat wave after wave of enemies connected by tunnels in which you refuel your ammo and your health. It’s a very, very repetitive mechanic, entirely bereft of puzzle solving or exploration (aside from the “collectible hunt” of two of the achievements), and while the levels seem incredibly long at first, the realization that they are only so because some excuse is made to throw group after group after group of enemies at you in a single room makes it feel like a cheat. It even features the even-less-fun cousin of the escort mission: the “keep the sitting duck alive” mission. This is not a fun mission. Developers: never ever do this, ever again.
Still, any character will only go so far in an average game, and War for Cybertron is actually pulling an audience with the sort of devotion usually reserved for all of the games that it pulls all of its most notable traits from. The control feels perfectly adequate, the buttons are mapped in a way that makes you feel like you’ve played this game before, and the multiplayer competition is skilled and passionate, but that’s still typically not enough to separate a game from the pack.
It could well be a simple matter of timing. We are in a summer during which we are awaiting the next iterations of the major franchises—the hype trains for Halo: Reach, Gears of War 3, and Call of Duty: Black Ops have just started rolling, and gamers are more than happy to play something new in that vein until those huge releases finally arrive. It’s a change of pace from the slowly-growing-stale stalwarts that have dominated online play since they arrived. It’s a stopgap, a perfectly timed release that capitalizes on a fantastic known quantity of a universe to appeal to the fickle taste of the so-called “core gamer”.
I’m almost ashamed that it works, but it does. Transformers: War for Cybertron, despite doing almost everything it does in an utterly average way, is a fun diversion that’ll keep multiplayer gamers busy until the next big thing arrives. At the very least, it’s the best way to inhabit the Transformer of your choice on the current generation of consoles.