Wot I Think: War For Cybertron (Singleplayer)

By Alec Meer on June 28th, 2010 at 11:27 pm.



I’ve been waiting a while for this, despite myself. While the PC version of this self-evidently console-orientated third-person shooter doesn’t seem to have been given all that many developer/publisher cuddles, it exists, and I’m glad. I’m also moving house, so this first chunk o’opinion concerns just the singleplayer. I’m aware the multiplayer’s a major component of it, and I have played some of that, but I’m not comfortable passing judgement on it just yet. So, more next week. Meantime, here’s a collection of words reflecting a personal sentiment about the singleplayer.

I liked the bit where the robot punched the other robot.

I really did! I’m not being facetious.

And that, basically, is War For Cybertron. It isn’t anything more and, realistically, it didn’t need to be anything more . After two truly dreadful games based on two truly dreadful movies, Activision turns its Transformers license to something that harkens back a little more to the robots in disguise that 30-somethings grew up with.

Except it also turns its Transformers license to something apparently committee-designed to appeal to teenagers, something that offers a gritty, flinty screenshot* that doesn’t look too out of place alongside Gears of War or Killzone. From the very start, War For Cybertron falls between two stools – one kitsch and playful, one scowling and cold. It’s a miracle that it isn’t an unmitigated disaster.

It really isn’t. It’s not very clever and it looks drabber than a sack of decepti-potatoes, but it is most definitely about robots turning into things and smashing or shooting each other, and that element of it rarely feels especially wrong.

Whether it feels right… well, that’s another matter. It feels Quite Right on a gamepad, but Not Quite Right on a keyboard and mouse, thanks to some strange tracking and keys which can’t currently be reconfigured (edit – except they can. For some people. Maybe. Boxed copy/DD split?). This is one of those very rare cases where I swallowed the loss of accuracy in the name of overall control feeling more fluid and punchy.

Sniping isn’t where the game feels most Transformery, anyway – wildly inaccurate blaster fire and desperate close-quarters thumping somehow suits it much better, and certain evokes the hopeless cack-handedness of the old Sunbow cartoon’s robo-cretins.

There’s also a lot of complaint that the game’s capped to 30 fps, but I’d be a massive stinky liar if I said I’d even noticed. Not one for technical gamers, certainly, but I suspect most fly-by-night purchasers won’t have the foggiest sense that Optimus isn’t rolling out at 60+ frames per second.

That said, it’s rarely a fast-feeling game. In singleplayer, the robots that turn into cars suffer the most, denied all the open ground they need to really get going and lacking any facility to crash through or over tiny obstacles/enemies.

The planes generally do better, even if their forward motion is rarely less linear – they have airspace to dart around, ledges to dramatically turn into a robot over and dramatically crash onto, and all-told much more of a sense of speed and power. Speed and power is what being a robot who can turn into a vehicle should be about, but the ground transports by and large feel a bit more lumbering and frail. That said, Soundwave has a surprisingly deadly rocketlauncher mounted on his – heresy! – truck mode.

In either case though, transforming is easy, unlimited and well-animated. Apart from the issue of not being able to map it to your preferred button, it pulls off that crucial I Am A Transformer Yes I Am glee.

Transforming, bashing, a simple-but-convuluted good vs evil plot, voices that sound like the old days – it’s got ‘em, and it’s got ‘em in spades. That’s all it needs to make a serviceable Transformers game.

Which is why the decision to make your transforming and bashing robots tediously press a switch every couple of minutes is absolutely baffling.

It’s the old issue of in-game progress: unless the developer has the budget, time (and inclination) to create a slew of bespoke battles and puzzles, the most logical way to encourage (and impeded) forward motion is to stick a locked door in the way. Doors mean switches. Switches mean corridors and guards. You know the drill.

It’s merely a problem of repetition, of opening up the next area always involving a near-identical switch and a near-identical animation. This paucity of interaction variety is a terrible, disjointed shame, as underneath the drab colours, this Cybertron is a surprisingly diverse-looking place – sweeping chasms, claustrophobic corridors, trashed arenas, not-so-gleaming spires…

Sorry to keep banging the same drum, but with vibrancy it’d look incredible. This isn’t just a matter of whining “but the robots were so much briiiiiiiiighter 25 years ago” – it’s about wistfully observing that this maudlin mechanical moon (yeah, I know it’s not a moon, but I do like alliteration) would be a spectacular place if the artists had lightened up. C’mon guys, even Michael Bay included a lime-green robot! It was a bit of a racist robot, though.

Anyway, the switches. Just not very interesting, basically, and, to make the ever-critical mistake of being a back-seat designer, surely there’d have been some way to make accessing new areas about smashing rather than switching. It kills the flow and the violence. It is not, as Kieron might say, “robo-crazy.”

Largely speaking though, the game does attempt, as I’d hoped it would, what Batman: Arkham Asylum did: to distill its characters/license to their core abilities and thus core appeal. They punch, they shoot, they transform, just as Batman punched, bataranged and hid. The game doesn’t waste too much time and energy trying to overcomplicate that core fantasy.

While there are bonus abilities such as invisibility, temporary sentries and shield walls, these mostly come into their own in multiplayer, where things get a lot more tactical than the happy-smashing of the two campaigns. Due to time/moving house issues I haven’t been able to get in deep to the multiplayer as yet, but I hope to have follow-up Wottage on that soon.

To return to singleplayer, it’s fairly solid on the plot – the nefarious schemes, in-fighting, noble sacrifice and pantomime voices any good manchild could hope for. It stumbles in terms of enemies, opting sensibly for disposable drones rather than the canon-messing alternative of murdering slews of familiar faces, but in throwing clone-drone after clone-drone after clone-drone at you, it robs most of its fights of much importance. Who was that, what did he turn into? Don’t care. It’s not a Transformer, it’s just a red/green/off-purple thing in my way.

It’s somewhere in between the original cartoon and the grimness of the current IDW comics – no, not the frayed sci-fi braininess of the vintage UK comic, but frankly that was too gloriously weird to ever happen to Transformers again.

Solid/silly/suitable: that’s War For Cybertron in terms of its particular document of the Autobot/Decepticon war. A lot of the more familiar characters are absent (Shockwave nooo Shockwave – even the DLC characters are denied to this blatantly rudimentary PC port), and many recognisable names turn up in fairly forgettable forms, but there’s more than enough fan service lurking up Cybertron’s bum.

So, to use another dirty critical term, I err on the side of potential. War For Cybertron gets Transformers back on the right track, but right now that track doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting. If Activision are invested enough in this to make it a series – and I suspect those franchise-loving buggers will do – there’s a reasonable chance it can head off until more colourful waters, and more colourful challenges.

The writing’s not bad, the characters look pretty good, the smashing’s a smashing time, the shooting’s an OK time, the transforming presses the right nerd-buttons: that’s about as good a platform to build upon as robots in disguise could ever wish for, and enough to just about make this effort worthwhile.

It is, however, a deeply ordinary third-person shooter in the all-too-modern mould and, if you’re immune to the charms of quarter-century old plastic toys, you will probably sneer at it. If you’re not – well, you’ve bought it already, haven’t you? Yes, to compound my regular use of cliche in this piece, I’m finishing on an If You Like This Sort Of Thing You’ll Like This Sort Of Thing line. However, the reason this game exists is precisely to serve that line of thinking.

WFC’s indecision about whether to chase the elder geek or the younger shooter-fan means it doesn’t wreck and rule, but it’s certainly not Transformers’ darkest hour.
(Oh lord, I just wrote that, didn’t I?).

* Oh yes – I should point out that the images in this post are of the official variety, due to my posting this from a hotel room in Newcastle. I don’t feel they’re 100% reflective of the muted tones and sometimes blurry textures of the real-life product.

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40 Comments »

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  1. Wulf says:

    (Can’t be arsed to login at the moment.)

    Why do people keep saying that keys can’t be reconfigured? In Options > Controls you’ll find a section for keybinds, which has separate binds for robots, wheeled vehicles, and winged vehicles.

    It’s there, honest! Go look.

    • ZIGS says:

      Clearly you didn’t try to remap any action

    • Wulf says:

      Aaaactually I did, I also changed my mouse sensitivity, and generally tweaked things to my liking.

      Would’ve enjoyed more graphics settings, though.

    • Grunt says:

      Hmm. I’m unable to remap keys in my DVD version.

  2. ZIGS says:

    My review: gameplay is dull and gets boring fast

  3. Javier-de-Ass says:

    the keyboard controls and everything works fine for me. very good work on the pc port, feels great. except the game is dull and.. shit really. :(

  4. Jake says:

    Is this the sort of game that people can likely mod? It would look a lot better with the coloured/painted parts of the textures simply made more vibrant, the graphics are so unsaturated, even the glowy neon lights look washed out. It would look even better with new cell shaded textures.

    Has anyone played the co-op? Is it any good with just 2 or do you need 3? This looks like the sort of game you play through only once, so I want to get the most from it.

    Multiple pre-order perk characters is just ridiculous by the way. I want a Shockwave and I don’t feel I should be punished just because I assumed the game would be crap!

    • ReV_VAdAUL says:

      Generally with the Unreal 3 engine you have to pay more to have modability turned on, I don’t think Activision bothered to turn it on.

    • Miker says:

      I wish this game didn’t have encrypted (REALLY, devs, REALLY!??!?) .inis — then we could go and bind a key to remove the desaturation of the game. I remember you could do the same for Unreal Tournament 3 — bind a command to F12, hit it in-game and boom, CTF-FacingWorlds was beautiful.

      Also, this will never be above a bargain bin purchase due to the 30 fps cap. After playing the vast majority of my games at a solid 60, going back to 30 is a slap in the face.

  5. HarbourMaster says:

    I loved Shockwave. I really did.

  6. Kid A says:

    Game screenshots + Sharpen Tool + Glow Tool + increased colour vibrancy = OFFICIAL PROMO SCREENS 100% ACCURATE HONEST GUV

  7. Dominic White says:

    It’s decent, but in terms of gameplay, it’s a straight-up third person shooter, just like everything else on the market. Transformers (JUST ‘Transformers’) on the PS2 did a much better job of making me feel I was playing as Optimus Prime, in all his enormous stompyness and trucky-smashyness. If they combined the setting and writing of War for Cybertron, with the gameplay and art-style of PS2 Transformers, it would be the perfect TF game.

    But it isnt.

    So I shall lament, and look forward to my next PC upgrade so I can run PS2 Transformers emulated at super-high resolution and a higher framerate.

  8. malkav11 says:

    Ultimately I’m not enough of a Transformers fan to settle for merely average punchiness. A shame.

  9. Wednesday says:

    …probably showing my relative youth here, but does anyone remember beast wars?

  10. 1nightStand says:

    This game made me realize I really need the human angle in my games- I would much rather have it set on earth… large cities to destroy…wild chases in the grand canyon… ant-like people to squash or save… well… maybe that’s just me- an old, sentimental, anthropocentric fool who just needs to see that red red human blood to have some fun in his favorite hobby.

  11. Grey! says:

    Ah, the King Kong-like Optimus… I remember…

  12. Thants says:

    Encrypted ini files (apparently?) + capped FPS + wonky mouse controls = No Sale.
    It’s baffling how developers can get the most basic obvious things wrong.

  13. Fathom says:

    I’m about 2/3’rds of the way through and honestly have been bored to tears for most of it. Anyone who said Alan Wake had repetitive combat needs to give this a whirl. It’s really just an absolutely simplistic shooter that’s being forgiven for a lot of boring gameplay just for it’s well done licensing.

  14. Grunt says:

    While I enjoyed every moment of the two campaigns I’m hoping this puddle-shallow iteration of the license, with it’s often frustratingly treacly gameplay (cars that don’t go anywhere near fast enough, or have enough room in a level to move around in), is but the first step on a road to something truly special. Many game series evolve over time, starting from a basic point and adding more with each successive version – GTA 3 onwards springs to mind – so I’m hopeful some of the complaints we have here will be addressed.

    Heresy of the first order, but if we were still in the mold of applying numbers to scores this would rate a 7, and would be generous at that. Very polished, fun, full of spectacle (I love how there’s a whole button to make you focus on key scenes, as if the designers don’t want you to miss ANYTHING) but sadly also full of repetitive, unimaginative gameplay that only hints at what real Transformers can do without actually letting you experience that to it’s full extent. Further, some terrible design decisions – locked frame-rate, inability to remap keys, lack of graphical tweakery, no offline mode for multiplayer (in the game engine designed for the series that pioneered it!) make this a frustrating piece of software for many, clearly designed with console-kiddies in mind.

    Good, but not great. C’mon, High Moon, the sequel could – and should – be something magical…!

  15. Bret says:

    Never again?

    I dunno. I mean, some of the same spirit was in Last Stand of the Wreckers. Seriously, best Transformers comic in a couple decades, easy. Worth a look.

    • Grunt says:

      Last Stand of the Wreckers is an amazing piece of work. Definitely the best out of IDW in a while and the first graphic novel I’ve pre-ordered before release. But of course the trouser-shatteringly talented Nick Roche grew up on the UK comic; hence the very European slant to the character roster and the re-emergence of a slew of old Marvel UK creations (even an Emirate Xaaron cameo)!

  16. Dawfydd says:

    Yes, and it was most excellent

  17. Brulleks says:

    I was a fan of the UK comics rather than the cartoon, and the less said about the current moving pictures with the boobies and the screeching and the blurry-what-the-fuck-is-happening combat the better.

    That said, it sounds like this game has still done enough to stamp all over the legacy of what Transformers meant to me, so I’m passing.

    Soundwave as a truck? OH COME ON!

    • Grunt says:

      Would you prefer he was the roadside lamp-post thing from Arrival from Cybertron? At least this way we get something playable. with guns. Transformers are all about adaptation, mein freund, not pedantry.

    • Chevluh says:

      Soundwave as a truck has precedent. It started in the War Within comic (well, IIRC that was more of a tank), and the prototypes for at least three lines used that idea, which was finally realized in the most recent series, Transformers Animated.

      That being said, he does use a boombox-like mode for his boss battle.

  18. Catastrophe says:

    I actually really enjoy the game, I think the writing is brilliantly done to emulate the original and the vehicles are good Cybertronian versions of their old forms.

    Though I have enjoyed Singleplayer mostly due to the story I find the Multiplayer Escalation and Team DeathMatch (especially the Team DeathMatch) is where it “becomes Transformers”.

    Driving into a pack of enemies while cloaked >> appear with a sword through one of their backs, machine gun a second one while they all turn towards you, quickly jump and transform into a car try and finish the second off while speeding away jumping over and small hill and going straight through a small opening while transforming back into Robot form to land on a Healthup, looking rather calm and collected.

  19. 7 Seas says:

    Boy, contrast this piece to the Alpha Protocol piece…

    Transformers: I liked it, I mean sure it’s a piece of shit but….

    Alpha Protocol: It’s a piece of shit, I mean sure I liked it but….

    Makes a huge difference in tone, especially how you talk about the bugs and limitations, and how the reader feels about your overall thumbs up/down.

    The worst part is that Transformers is a “a deeply ordinary third-person shooter in the all-too-modern mould” while Alpha Protocol was a brave and innovative game trying to break from that mold. Which gets the benefit of the doubt, right the one with the existing license for you to be nostalgic/emotional for.

    A pity for Obsidian then, that you didn’t watch Alpha Protocol cartoons when you were 12.

  20. Noct says:

    After playing the multiplayer for a bit (which is surprisingly solid), I went back to the campaign for some co-op and found the game brightens up considerably if you think about it as a bit less of a shooter and a bit more of a third person action game. With the mobility of vehicle mode, dashing around, a powerful melee attack, and secondary abilities that actually recharge pretty fast, there’s actually more variety in the ways you can take out enemies than in something like gears of war. This also has the added bonus of helping to alleviate some of the ammo problems I hear people complaining about.

    The level design is still pretty primeval, but ramming into a group of enemies as a truck, unleashing a shockwave, and then chasing down a straggler to sword him in the face is quite satisfying.

    Also, I’m not usually much of one for competitive multiplayer, but this is the most fun I’ve had shooting dudes on the internet since TF2. In fact, cloaking and backstabbing people as a scout is way more fun than I’ve ever had as a spy in team fortress.

  21. id says:

    Hey, Batman doesn’t hide! Batman LURKS.

    • Clovis says:

      When I played Batman:AA he did a lot of running away and screaming like a girl.

      And dying.

  22. Mman says:

    This is exactly what I hoped to hear; playing as a Scout in the demo and then dashing and sneaking around at high-speed taking people out left and right is some of the most immediate enjoyment I’ve had from a multiplayer mode, and one of the very few times a demo has made me consider purchase of a game I otherwise probably wouldn’t. If that goes for the SP too (and nothing about the MP sabotages that later on), I’m definitely checking it out.

  23. Chevluh says:

    Regardin the DLC characters, their data’s still present in the PC version, along with three other as-of-yet locked bots. So all’s no lost.

  24. Gorgeras says:

    I was excited until I saw a gameplay video of a Cybertronian strafe-shooting.

    Cybertronians don’t strafe. One thing Michael Bay got right was to not have the big doofs strafing.