E3 2012: Transformers: Fall of Cybertron hands-on preview

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When I sat down recently for a pre-E3 2012 look at the upcoming Activision-published sequel, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, the rep from High Moon Studios asked me that most dangerous of questions: What did you think of our previous Cybertron game? That’s a red flag right there, a bad idea always since it opens the asker up to the possibility of receiving an answer that he or she doesn’t want to hear.

I responded honestly, explaining how I felt that War for Cybertron was a solid treatment of the Transformers license that was ultimately lacking due to its featureless level design and repetitive gameplay. Those two criticisms were common and entirely valid complaints about the 2010 release, as the High Moon rep readily admitted. The team set out in Fall to turn those weaknesses into strengths, he said, and while that phrase may smack of PR hype, it’s also undeniably true based on the sections of game that I was shown.

Vortex

The first section of the demo focused on the Decepticon Vortex. Unlike War, Fall of Cybertron follows a single, linear narrative that jumps back and forth between alien robots on both the Autobot and Decepticon sides of the conflict. Vortex is a Combaticon, one of the five robots that come together to form the colossal Bruticus.

In this chunk of game, a flying level and one of the largest environments in the game, I watch as Vortex jumps between his robot and helicopter forms as he takes on Autobot grunts in an effort to take out the supports on a towering bridge, The Autobots are transporting a discovered supply of Energon to their escape ship, and the Decepticons are trying to stop them by bringing down the bridge.

Vortex flits around the level easily in his helicopter form, raining down destruction on Autobot grunts and fixed artillery emplacements below. The bridge supports are too heavily armored for his weapons, so the goal instead is to clear out the Autobot opposition long enough for Brawl, in his tank form, to weak and eventually destroy the massive metal girders keeping the bridge aloft.

It’s clear even just in this area that there’s more variety to the environments in Fall of Cybertron. This is a big space that Vortex flies around in, with the bridge towering overhead while small valleys and platforms beneath offer roosting points and cover from Autobot fire. There’s a sandbox feel to the layout here; this is a corridor shooter no more. Vortex has complete freedom to fly around and wreak havoc on his enemies.

The next section of the demo shifted the focus to Bruticus, though this is the same “big robot” gameplay that Activision has been showing off since earlier in the year. The massive machine of destruction decimates tiny Autobot resistance forces as it stomps around war-torn Cybertron, using its spinning helicopter blades as a shield when it’s called for.

Cliffjumper

The focus in the next section shifts to the Autobot, Cliffjumper, who partners with Jazz in many of his levels. This particular chunk of game isn’t focused on robot vs. robot action, however. Instead, I get a glimpse of the game’s story as Cliffjumper explores an abandoned facility deep in the Sea of Rust, which is one of the locations that the game will visit. This journey leads to some major revelations, and it seems that they all start here with Cliffjumper.

As the Autobot explores the dome-shaped room it becomes clear that he’s in a planetarium or building-sized star map of some sort. It appears after he hits a button that also builds a set of stairs leading to the apex of the dome. As Cliffjumper ascends, he comes across a holographic representation of ancient Earth in its Pangaea state.

It seems that Fall of Cybertron will be re-writing G1 canon to a certain extent, bringing some things into line with the Transformers Prime TV series. The details aren’t entirely clear yet as they’re the stuff of spoiler territory, though those familiar with the original cartoon series should be pleased to learn that a space portal plays a major role in ferrying the Autobot refugees to Earth.

In fact, it is Shockwave’s discovery of Earth 80 million years ago that leads to the discovery of an energy source that could replace Energon. It is through this that he also discovers and comes to admire dinosaurs, which eventually leads to the conversion of captured Autobots into the Dinobots that we know and love.

transformers fall of cybertron cinematic vga trailer still

Optimus Prime

A Dinobot will be seen during this demo, but first I get to spend some time watching Optimus Prime. Each of the game’s robots has a unique power. In the case of Vortex, it’s a force push like power blast. Cliffjumper can go stealthy. Jazz has a grappling hook. And Optimus? He’s got the biggest, baddest power of them all: he can issue orders to the city-sized Autobot, Metroplex.

The Optimus Prime level demoed is set in the streets of a major Cybertronian city that’s been caught up in the ongoing civil war. This is a huge environment, and a markedly different one in comparison to the one Vortex flew around in. It’s a much flatter landscape, dotted with all manner of buildings of various shapes and sizes. There’s also the fact that, off in the distance, Metroplex is busy laying waste to Decepticon forces with his mighty fists and feet.

At one point, Optimus calls in an artillery strike on a large group of Decepticons, with the resulting explosion from Metroplex’s cannon taking them all out. The highlight comes later, however. After fighting through a large building interior, Optimus emerges on the other side and directs Metroplex to take down some sort of Decepticon-controlled tower. A giant foot steps into view from behind Optimus and then another. Metroplex strides right up to the targeted tower and shoulder checks the all hundred-plus stories of the structure into oblivion.

Sweet.

Grimlock

Now we come to the Dinobots. The Grimlock section of the demo is set in a Decepticon arena, with the brutish Autobot taking on wave after wave of Insecticon attackers. Grimlock is a surprisingly agile melee fighter through and through. He’s equipped with a sword and a shield, and he uses them both offensively to crush the opposition. Whenever he needs to attack something at range, he simply picks up the nearest enemy and chuck it at whatever he wants to make go “BOOM.”

Of course, Grimlock is only half of the equation here. There’s also his T-Rex Dinobot form. Unlock the rest of the game’s robots, Grimlock’s transforming capabilities are governed by a Rage Meter that fills up as he attacks enemies. Once the meter is full, players have the option of turning the riled robot into a giant, fire-breathing space T-Rex.

Grimlock in his T-Rex form is basically the Fall of Cybertron equivalent of picking up an invincibility star in Super Mario Bros., only here the difference is that you’ve got a mouth full of a sharp, metal teeth to tear enemies apart with. Seeing the Dinobot in action is truly a sight to be hold, a bit of ridiculously empowering fan service that Transformers lovers will go nuts for.

Multiplayer

Activision wasn’t quite ready to show off multiplayer play at the pre-E3 event, but an early look at Fall‘s online component shows off some of the enhanced customization features that players can look forward to. Like War of Cybertron before it, Fall of Cybretron‘s multiplayer is still a progression-based scenario in which the more you play, the more you level up and unlock for use with your customized classes.

The customization is what’s gotten the biggest makeover since the previous game. There’s now a full-fledged character creator in which players can tweak individual robot parts — all cosmetic — that are broken down into various classes: head, shoulders, chest, arms, legs, wings, and decals. You can also mess with your created robot’s coloring using a variety of sliders and palettes.

This is class-based multiplayer, so you’ll have the option of stepping into a match in a variety of roles. There are cars, trucks, tanks, and jets/planes… and that’s it. There no mention of how each class differs from the next in combat terms, but we should be hearing more on this soon, perhaps as soon as this week’s E3 2012.

Bumblebee

For the final portion of the demo I actually got to go hands-on with the intro portion of the game. Fall of Cybertron‘s story unfolds as a flashback, starting off with the Autobots’ near-capture by Megatron as they attempt to escape their homeworld in a ship. As Bumblebee, you learn the basic controls and fight your way through the ship as Optimus bellows out orders.

It is here that the game most closely resembles the corridor shooting of its predecessor, though there’s a great deal more detail in the halls of this escape ship than there was in the whole of the previous game. Bumblebee makes his way along, fending off Decepticon invaders with an assortment of different weapons. There are 18 in all to be collected throughout the game, and each one can be upgraded a total of four times, though you won’t be able to ugprade them all in a single playthrough.

Bumblebee’s advance through the ship eventually leads him to the scene of an Optimus Prime vs. Megatron showdown. It’s a vicious fight between the two mortal enemies. Just when it looks like Megatron gains the upper hand and is about to deal the killing blow, the faithful Bumblebee leaps in front of the blast and saves the Autobot leader. It is here that the tutorial level comes to an end and the flashback begins.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron does indeed look like that game that War for Cybertron desperately wanted to be, but wasn’t. We should be hearing more this week and in the months to come as the game’s August 28, 2012 release draws ever-closer.

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