The premise of two factions of massive, shape-shifting, robots stuck in eternal strife like some sort of cybernetic Capulets and Montagues seems like a near-perfect premise for a game. Yet, as titles such as 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and last year’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon have demonstrated, when the Autobots and Decepticons are rushed to match the release date of a corresponding film, the outcome can be woefully middling. Overwhelmingly, the property’s best interactive adaptation has been War for Cybertron- a game which freed developer High Moon Studios from the responsibility of delivering the obligatory movie tie-in title.
Hoping to duplicate the critical and commercial success of the 2010 game, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 release of Transformers: Fall of Cybertron retains many of its predecessor’s potencies. From the compulsory collaboration needed to persist in Escalation- the Cybertronian take on Horde mode, to an engaging single player component and distinctive ‘Bot-on-’Con conflict found in multiplayer, the game’s virtues are nearly powerful enough to transform licensed game skeptic into Optimist Prime. Save for some distressing performance issues (especially on the PS3) and erratic campaign trajectory, High Moon’s title delivers a succession of explosive spectacle that upholds the IP’s high-concept.
The game opens immediately after the events of War for Cybertron, with the conflict between Autobot and Decepticon withering away the planet’s supply on energon- the nutrimental commodity used by Transformers. With the fate of Cybertron in peril, Optimus Prime’s team takes refuge aboard a vessel called the Ark, but the Decepticons soon revive their devastating attack. As Megatron is poised to deliver the coup de grace to Prime, Bumblebee jumps in, accepting the force of the blow- before the game shifts to the events leading up to this fateful moment. Satisfyingly, a sense of urgency permeates the game, whether players are assisting the Autobots in survival or leading the Decepticons toward malevolent domination. Noticeably, Fall of Cybertron tries to tackle some weighty subjects such as the honorability of retreat and the ethics of war with its robotic characters. Despite being undermined by mundane in-mission chatter, the title’s cinematics and sporadic pre-canned events help lend the game gravitas.
Deviating from War’s structure, which allowed players to select a character before hitting the battlefield, Fall of Cybertron assigns specific Transformers through the game’s thirteen chapter journey. Although this might prohibit players from controlling their favorite Autobot or Decepticon (effectively eliminating the option for co-op play) it’s a necessary tradeoff given the game’s new direction to level design. Instead of offering generic stages accessible to any character, environments are now designed around specific abilities. Jazz, for instance, has a grappling hook allowing the traversal of levels not unlike the protagonist of Bionic Commando, while Cliffjumper’s cloaking capacity adds a bit of stealth to Cybertron’s repertoire. While players are bound to find the variety invigorating, there is a significant downside to the character swapping- a sense of progress is diluted. Alternating between the Autobot and Decepticon prevents players from identifying with either alliance; in effect, it feels like you’re reversing any attainment amassed from your previous battle. Ideally, the single-player game would have been split between the two divisions, mirroring the structure of War for Cybertron’s campaign.
Of course, this quibble likely wouldn’t exist if Fall’s levels weren’t engaging; mercifully, most of them are. When players take the helm of Optimus Prime in the game’s opening level, using homing weapons to demolish suppressed foes or giving Metroplex the clearance to unleash a devastating aerial bombardment feels gratifying, thanks to the intensity of each weapon. Agreeably, even Prime’s pedestrian arms pack a punch- with the ability to down lesser foes after a few hits. Coupled with the ability to upgrade your arsenal at in-stage kiosks and pick up misplaced weapons scattered around each battleground, Fall of Cybertron’s third-person shooting segments feel sufficiently tense, thanks to the fragility of each Transformer in robot form. Although the game forsakes a traditional cover based system, players are encouraged to seek protection behind structures, shifting firing arms to eliminate hostiles. Changing into alternative form is useful for the hasty retreat or to utilize a second set of weapons, while confronting foes head usually spells disaster.
If there’s a downside to the action, it’s that the ambitions of High Moon Studios often surpass the capabilities of their game engine. On the PlayStation 3, Fall of Cybertron exhibits a consistently low resolution output and succumbs to frame rate drops when more than a few antagonists or explosions are rendered on-screen. Regretfully, that happens with reliable frequency, such as when players are given the reins to Grimlock, who can unleash an Autobot-sized assault when engaged, as he claws and emits scorching flame. Despite the jaggy output and stuttering refresh rate, it’s evident that the development team went to painstaking lengths to craft environments that are as distinctive as they are tragic. A far cry from the homogenous milieus of War for Cybertron, this title offers vistas overlooking war-torn battlefields, safehouse interiors with huge defenses, and metamorphosing metal passageways.
Considering the absence of campaign co-op, the return of Escalation mode is an imperative offering. Agreeably, the game’s fifteen waves of robotic raiders are no push-overs, requiring gamers to work in methodical collaborative teams. With matches mandating the four character classes are split between players and obliging teams to spend their collected currency with prudence, the component is an accurate measure for the cohesiveness of a group. If even a single-player starts putting their individual needs over the ambitions of the collective group, the friction can be felt.
For players more interested in competitive play, Fall of Cybertron brings back its well-liked multiplayer battles. For returning players, the mode’s expanded character creation component, which bestows a cornucopia of parts as well as providing the opportunity to tweak your loadouts has been thoroughly augmented. For better or worse, the game’s selection of classes remains largely the same, offering opportunities to play as healing Scientist, stealthy Infiltrator, devastating Titan, or a Destroyer, who is adept and head-to-head encounters. Capabilities have been tweaked to have each Transformer adhere to their role, now. Since, War for Cybertron experienced an exodus of players following release (compounded by a sluggish rate on game-equalizing patches), it will be interesting to see if Fall can retain its userbase.
Building on what made War for Cybertron an essential purchase for Transformer fanatics, Fall of Cybertron offers a more engaging campaign as well as a thoroughly tuned Escalation and multiplayer modes. Although the lack of cooperative play during the game’s main storyline as well as technical issues mar the title’s impact, it’s easy to be forgiving when you’re in command of a fluidly controlling, all-metal, killing machine.