There was a time when Transformers ruled toy chests everywhere. Little metal-and-plastic robots that, with a few deft twists and spins, could be turned into some other, less sci-fi like piece of technology. A car. A fighter jet. A boom box. It’s one of the more delightful products from the ’80s, and one that’s been sustained over the years with additional toy lines, TV shows, movies, and the like… with varying degrees of success (we’re all still looking at you, Michael Bay. Please. Just stop it).
High Moon Studios came along a few years ago, fresh off the middling success of its uneven, but well-conceived, The Bourne Conspiracy, with Transformers: War for Cybertron. The transforming robots game was imperfect as well, but much like the classic cartoon show’s memorable theme song, it offered “more than meets the eye.” A surprisingly pitch perfect treatment of the story and characters was weighed down by repetitive and overly simple gameplay.
High Moon took the criticisms gracefully and hunkered down to develop a follow-up to War. The key focus, as the PR script has stated since the new game was first revealed, was to turn those shortfalls into the new game’s greatest strengths. That sort of thing is often just talk, but High Moon delivered. And then some. Not only is Transformers: Fall of Cybertron a better game, it also delivers an “Ah ha!” narrative that speaks directly to fans of the series’ G1 (Generation one) era.
G1 Is Reborn
Fall of Cybertron picks up immediately after the events of War for Cybertron. The Autobots are still duking it out with the Decepticons on their home planet of Cybertron, a world that is slowly dying as its life-giving Energon reserves near total depletion. Amidst the ongoing struggle, Autobot leader Optimus Prime sets out to save his followers by finding a way off the planet and carving out a new home elsewhere in the galaxy.
The game actually opens as the final stage of Prime’s plan are coming together. The Autobots are aboard their massive escape ship, The Ark, as pursuing Decepticons try to prevent them from reaching a giant space portal that will take them to points unknown. The Ark almost makes it, but the enemy forces, led by Megatron, catch up and board the fleeing ship. A pitched, desperate battle breaks out as both ships hurdle toward the portal. The tutorial then concludes and multi-chapter flashbacks to the events that led up to this climactic moment begin.
If some of these story points sound vaguely familiar, they should. The overarching narrative pushing Fall of Cybertron forward mirrors the earliest moments of Transformers‘ G1 era, and the events that led the two warring factions to the planet Earth. High Moon’s story delivery is a more mature one, a story that honors the past while injecting some added complexity in an acknowledgement of the now-older fanbase.
The result is fan service at its finest. Fall of Cybertron amounts to the best Transformers story that we’ve seen since the earliest days of the franchise. It’s entirely a G1 reboot, right down to the cackle-inducing music that plays over the game’s end credits. If you have fond memories of running home from school to catch afternoon episodes of Transformers, this is a walk down memory lane that you shouldn’t ignore.
Robots In Disguise
Players will jump into different Autobot and Decepticon personas over the course of Fall of Cybertron‘s 12 chapters, every single one of them a name you know, and probably know well. The controls are generally the same across the board, though each robot possesses a special ability — anything from a grappling hook to ordering around the city-sized Autobot, Metroplex — that injects every new chapter with a different, and unique, feel.
The result is a potpourri of gameplay that jumps between run-and-gun action, stealth, story development, vehicular mayhem, and more. The variety can be a bit too much at times, with a change occurring just as your settling into a groove. This becomes even more pronounced in the latter half of the game, with shorter chapters and a finale that carries a strong “best of everything you’ve played so far” sort of vibe.
The character shifts ultimately serve the story, but they sometimes come at the expense of enjoyable play. The earliest chapters start to drag after awhile, lasting more than an hour apiece and summoning up memories of the previous game’s many corridor runs. The environments are much richer this time around, with more detail and variety bringing Cybertron to life. The pacing is simply uneven, making some parts feel too long and others, too short.
The corridor run sensation is also diminished by the addition of some cool unlockables and collectibles. Scattered throughout the game are audio logs that serve to fill in the larger story and blueprints for new, more powerful weapons. You’ll also earn credits to spend in the game’s store on those new weapons and their associated upgrades as well as passive perks. It’s all relatively simple and light on choice, but it gives you something to reach for in addition to the unfolding story.
It should also be mentioned that, while the pacing is uneven, the different transformers offer some exceedingly enjoyable gameplay opportunities. An early level starring Optimus Prime follows players through a war-torn city, eventually introducing the Metroplex character and delivering some epic-scale “HOLY CRAP” moments. Later on you’ll play as Grimlock and witness the birth of the Dinobots while you take on swarms of Insecticons.
The only real shame here is that there’s not much in the way of surprises for anyone who closely followed Fall of Cybertron‘s preview cycle. High Moon tipped its hand with nearly every cool feature in the months leading up to the game’s release. It’s still a fun game and you’ll still have a blast discovering those great moments of fan service, but the “wow” factor of these reveals is definitely diminished. There’s something to be said for High Moon having something to prove after War for Cybertron, but it would have been nice to see some of the cooler elements kept under wraps.
The Continuing War For Cybertron
Multiplayer was the big win in War for Cybertron that turned it into a more popular item than might be expected based on the single player campaign, and High Moon went even bigger this time around. On the adversarial multiplayer side you’ve got an expanded class-based progression system that now allows players to build and customize the look of their own robot within four different general classes. You earn credits as you advance and then spend those credits on customization items as well as weapons, weapon upgrades, and the like.
Once you’ve got your transformers set up, you can immediately roll out into one of several competitive modes that pit Autobots against Decepticons. It’s always tough to properly assess a multiplayer from pre-release online sessions, but the maps offer up some varied terrain and feel like they’re laid out well. The new Headhunter mode involves collecting the “spark” of downed transformers and returning them to designated collection areas, but overall this is all familiar stuff, only better now than it was before.
Then there’s the Escalation co-op survival mode, which plays out over a series of maps that each offer a fixed quartet of either Autobots or Decepticons to choose from. While the previous game’s take on Escalation was compared with the Horde mode in Gears of War, this revised effort takes a page from the Zombies mode in Treyarch’s Call of Duty games.
You’ll spend credits you earn in-match at a variety of different stations, unlocking new weapons, opening doors to other parts of the map, and pooling your resources for team-wide weapon upgrades. Each of the four characters offers a different buff to the team, things like health and ammo restoration, with the goal of ensuring that a full team works together to topple each map’s 15 waves.
High Moon really delivers in its encore turn with the Transformers franchise. The mistakes of the past have been corrected, and while these might make way for some new problems, the overall execution here is exceptional. Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is a fun game first, but it’s also a return to glory for a fallen franchise. It’s light on surprises and treads an uneven road from beginning to end, but there’s definitely — to paraphrase certain beloved theme song — more here than meets the eye.
Score 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Activision)