As a series, Transformers often gets a bum deal when it comes to gaming. In recent history at least, the majority of the games made using the license have been functionally atrocious. However, much of this was down to the games being lead by the nose by the original intellectual property and, for the last few games, down to idiotic schedules on account of them being film tie-ins. Thankfully, games like Batman: Arkham Asylum have shown that if you use the framework of the IP to build a game at its own pace you can end up with something decent.
Activision did just that and between film releases decided to fund a dedicated Transformers game which wasn’t stringently bound to the narrative idiosyncrasies of a series that’s, to be fair, pretty mongrel at the best of times. High Moon have managed to tackle the challenge with a remarkable level of craftsmanship and for the first time in a long while I’ve been able to play a refreshingly good Transformers game.
War for Cybertron effectively tells part of the back story of what happened to the Transformers before they evacuated their planet and left for Earth. It features many familiar names as well as both Decepticon and Autobot campaigns. Set over 10 chapters, you can either start at the beginning (with the Decepticons) or halfway through (with the Autobots). What transpires is a linear narrative from both sides of the conflict. Due to this framing much of the origins for the major characters in the mythos, the game doesn’t have either Megatron or Optimus Prime square off directly. Instead, it opts to show how both these leaders found themselves in there respective positions on either side of the conflict.
From the off, High Moon have picked a shrewd starting point for the game’s narrative, as it not only sets up other elements in the canon backstory but also gives a huge amount of freedom to the team as much of what happened on Cybertron wasn’t overly documented. This also means that the designs of the Transformers themselves could be reworked to fit High Moon’s functional needs. As such, by forging an untold narrative path High Moon have been able to focus on making the game decent in the process.
Interestingly, the core third person shooter functionality is actually very standardised. Using the Unreal engine, the game plays like you’d expect much of the genre to operate. However, the levels have been built a bit differently as they’ve been made to work sympathetically with how each of the mecha transform. This is a major step forward in gaming terms, as the transformation has historically been overlooked as some kind of ephemeral gimmick and not something that’s crucial to how these mecha would operate. Now, we have each of the mecha transform at will but within an environment that encourages that.
To make matters more joyous, High Moon have used a modicum of physics to handle the mecha’s inertia. Whilst it’s not overly realistic in a technical sense, it’s actually far more accurate as to how the mecha would handle in the show. So whilst, in the past, I’ve often advocated the avoidance of physics based middleware for mecha gaming the caveat I gave at the time (as in “you need to know what you’re doing in terms of the mecha mythos”) definitely stands in the case of High Moon’s usage here. From being able to transform back from vehicle mode into mecha and still retain the momentum makes a huge difference at making these mecha functionally consistent, as well as affording a nuanced form of control to the player in the process.
All this adds a different slant on the core third person shooter framework the game uses and, once in the various multiplayer modes, also produces another functional layer to what is becoming quite a stale genre. That said, each of the transformers have to manage their ammunition quite fastidiously and it does take a while getting used to hearing Optimus Prime’s gun go “clickety-click” once it runs out.
This is probably the main issue the game suffers from; due to its functionally standardised core it is, on the one hand, more manageable and cogent but on the other quite monotonous. Admittedly the levels and mecha variance do help to break this up but the truth is that there’s nothing really new here. Being able to play a Transformers game that actually works is definitely a step forward but it ultimately plays like the vast swathes of games already available in the third and first person shooter genre.
Mecha gaming is unique in its attempt to functionally re-interpret a fictional ruleset from a multitude of viewpoints. From the customisation focus of Armored Core, to the fixed dashes of Virtual On and to the control of individual limbs in Gigantic Drive. These games are meant to offer something new and different in their approach. This is what has kept the genre fresh over the years and how it’s managed to carve out its own functional identity.
Just implementing a straightforward and obvious approach to transforming is definitely a welcome advance but it’s not enough. Considering the potency of the Unreal engine it’s a shame that the game doesn’t try anything really new, though we are relieved that the Gears of War cover system was left out so that’s at least something. We understand it makes sense to make this game appeal to as many people as possible but the license, to be fair, mostly limits that to Transformers fans so why not explore that further and make something new in the process.
The above may sound more damning than it actually is but in truth this is still an excellent and thoughtfully crafted game. From the gentle narrative references to the wonderful (though generic) mecha handling, it does finally hit the spot that the original TV series and movie all those years ago instigated. High Moon have finally picked up the baton that other Western developers have dropped. So much so that it’s a relief to say that this is the first decent Western developed mecha game we’ve played in long while. For that alone High Moon should be commended for their work and with any luck other Western developers will learn from their example.
[spoiler show=”End Game Credits”]