Even working within a familiar framework, High Moon has created something that stands out from the crowd.
Transformers: Fall of CybertronPublisher: Activision
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Developer: High Moon Studios
Release Date: 2012-08-21
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is the sequel to 2010’s Transformers: War for Cybertron, both of which are canonical prequels to the original cartoon. The game takes the canon seriously, which sometimes clashes with its cartoonish sensibilities, but the story never becomes so insular that only a fan would enjoy it (in fact, the opposite may be true). As a non-cover-based third-person shooter with a big focus on vehicle combat, Fall of Cybertron seems like it wants to do something different, but it ends up playing like a typical cover-based shooter.
You can be shot to shreds very quickly if you’re not careful. The lack of regenerating health only makes you weaker, which in turn makes some of the larger battles very annoying. You may want to transform into a jet and speed into the heat of battle -- you’re a giant war robot after all -- but your brittle frame prevents you from doing anything like that. Instead, the jet just becomes a fast means of transportation, and most of your time is spent peaking around corners.
Which is not to say that Fall of Cybertron is a bad or boring game, just that it’s not as unique as it seems initially. The moment-to-moment combat is satisfying, and all the guns feel distinctive and useful. The game takes advantage of its large cast of characters, switching to a new one each chapter. Each character has their own special ability and the levels are designed around this ability, so in addition to the shooting, you’ll be grappling, smashing, hovering, or turning into a giant robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex. Which is crazy, but undeniably fun. All of this comes together in an incredible ending that has you switching between Autobots and Decepticons multiple times mid-level. You get an amazing sense of scale as you jump from one skirmish to another -- on land, in space, on foot, in vehicles -- and because the game does a good job building up each character, there’s genuine drama as all of them fight each other. This is a grand finale done right; a huge battle that earns its intensity through character, not empty spectacle. In its final moments, Fall of Cybertron puts all other shooters to shame.
In fact, most of Fall of Cybertron is shockingly dramatic, telling a very somber tale of civil war and how both sides keep fighting even as their planet dies. However, this tone might just stand out to me because of my odd relationship with the Transformers. My only knowledge of the franchise comes from the Michael Bay movies. I don’t know anything about the TV show that follows the events depicted here. So what seems to me like a death scene for an important character (and there are many), a fan might recognize as something much less dramatic. For me, the game seems willing to kill off named characters left and right, upping the stakes and drama significantly, making every fight more intense than I expected it to be. With that in mind, this might be a rare case in which being a fan actually lessens your enjoyment of the story.
There’s also the occasional, whiplash inducing shift in tone. The serious drama clashes with its cartoon sensibilities. In one scene you have to execute an unarmed Autobot, and the game stops and waits for you to hit the button prompt. As the bot begs for his life, his knees knock together accompanied by that classic cartoon chattering sound. It’s a bizarre moment, like God of War meets Looney Tunes. Thankfully these moments are rare, but they’re always jarring.
The class-based multiplayer offers similar highs and lows. You can create your own character for multiplayer games, but while the cosmetic changes are plentiful, the practical changes are severely lacking. As you earn credits, you can buy individual pieces of a character -- Starscream’s head, Optimus Prime’s body, etc -- which allows you to build a Transformer tailored to your own aesthetic sense. But for things like weapons and perks, your selections are left very limited in order to maintain class distinctions: the Scientist is the only one who can fly, the Destroyer is the only one who can drop a shield, etc. All the perks that you expect to be able to mix and match are locked to a class. It’s a frustrating limitation, especially when it doesn’t make sense (Why is the weakest class forced to use a shotgun, pushing him into fights that he can’t win?).
Once you get playing, these limitations become less of an issue. The ability to transform adds a significant thrill to the combat, especially with the Scientist class who can turn into a jet and fly. Like any good class-based shooter, each class demands a slightly different playstyle that helps keep the game interesting.
There’s also a wave-based co-op mode called Escalation. It follows in the footsteps of its peers with each kill earning you cash to buy the various upgrades and weapons scattered about a map. There are only 15 waves total, a very small number for this kind of game and that brevity makes the whole mode feel slight. The difficulty ramps up so slowly that the mode never has time to actually become challenging. I completed every game that I played, never once failing. The only time it gets tough is when a teammate refuses/doesn’t know how to play. In fact, the biggest challenges stemmed from internal conflicts within the team, not the bots shooting at us.
The concept of a shooter in which you can turn into a vehicle anytime you want sounds awesome, but unfortunately, Fall of Cybertron doesn’t capitalize on that grand idea. There are clear shooter levels and clear vehicles levels, but even working within this familiar framework, High Moon has created something that stands out from the crowd. It’s not directly copying any other shooter -- it feels like its own thing. With a surprising story, an incredible ending, and an engaging multiplayer, Fall of Cybertron succeeds as a good game, though it’s easy to see how it could have been much greater.