Wot I Think: Transformers Fall of Cybertron

By Alec Meer on August 22nd, 2012 at 6:00 pm.

Might have to submit that one to Viz

Third-person shooter Transformers: Fall of Cybertron was released yesterday in North America, but due to a last-minute bait and switch is still a couple of days off in the UK. I’ve cannoned my way through the singleplayer campaign, which I can tell you about below. A multiplayer report will follow, by the way – at the moment, the staggered release date and attendant timezone issues are styming me from being able to get any games in, but that will change very soon.

There are two reasons why eternally lost, childhood-locked souls such as I retain a deathless fascination with Transformers. One is the fiction, built up and embellished over decades: the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, the many, many long-standing and instantly-recognisable characters waging it, the comic and cartoon’s rapid escalation away from ‘robots in disguise’ to ‘robots doing really weird shit in space’.

The second is the transforming, the mini-puzzle and raft of moving parts that each toy represents, and the feats of high-concept engineering by artists in plastics, comics and cartoons alike. A Transformer is the ultimate Something That Does Something, and for no purpose other than just because, but that it changes into something recognisable with a clear function spares it from being an abstract collection of shapes.

Fall of Cybertron is all about reason one, and not too much to do with reason two. That’s the root of why it doesn’t feel quite right, and also the reason why I can’t help but thrill to it (occasionally to the point of actually clapping excitedly) regardless. As a piece of narrative it’s almost inconsequential, creating an 8-10 hour story within the microscopic gap between the mass exodus of a dying robot planet at the end of the last game, War For Cybertron, and the beginning of the familiar crashed-on-Earth / disguised as human vehicles Transformers tale that we’ve know since the mid-1980s.

From the off, it can only end one way, with all the named characters still alive and on their way to our solar system. That’s no kind of problem at all, because what Fall of Cybertron really does is shine the spotlight on a series of big-personality Transformers based heavily on their three-decade-old ‘Generation One’ representations. It’s a chance for massive fights, it’s a chance to make jokes and it’s a chance to offer special abilities as well as the constant gunplay. It’s not a chance to nod solemnly at the gravitas of it all, despite what the ridiculously overblown soundtrack might have you believe.

FoC is a big fat Transformers nerd-out, and in many ways a joyfully unrestrained one, although there are a couple too many moments where its rampaging enthusiasm charges headlong into the unyielding walls of what was possible either in this project’s budget or its designers’ imaginations. So it is an absolutely linear affair with obvious, fixed boundaries, even in those apparently enormous levels where you get to be a flying machine of some sort, and even in those levels where you play as the near-indestructible gestalt Bruticus, formed from five combined Decepticons.

That’s not an enormous problem, as this is a roller coaster action game of the sort that has proven perennially popular for good reason, but it does mean that some of the feeling of being a towering hulk of articulated metal is diminished. Go that way, psychopathic iron giant, and only that way.

Similarly, transformation isn’t particularly important to Fall of Cyberton. There are contrived sequences where the game will place a long stretch of road between two battles, or levels where you’re required to be in aircraft mode as Starscream, Vortex or Jetfire, and the speed and scale definitely does the trick, but the act of changing between forms is almost inconsequential.

The camera, with a robot bottom forever in the way, is perhaps partly to blame for this, as there’s rarely a chance to appreciate the transformation animations, but the more significant problem is that there are no challenges in the game created with transforming in mind. It’s ‘just’ a shooting game with little bit of vehicle action and some Hulk Smash setpieces, and that narrow focus necessitates ignoring an awful lot of what makes Transformers Transformers.

It doesn’t much help that, outside of Grimlock’s T-Rex mode, the restriction to Cybertronian rather than Earth vehicles means every character turns into an indistinct shape that can either drive or fly. So there’s no ‘oh hey cool, I’m a Lambo/F-15/articulated lorry/etc’, just ‘oh now I can move a bit faster.’

A note on the PC version appearance/performance, by the way. It doesn’t appear to suffer the 30FPS lock of War For Cybertron, and generally looks and feels sharper and faster. I played through on mouse and keyboard happily enough, but that keys can’t be rebound – instead you can choose from different default sets – is going to upset a whole bunch of people, and some of the clearly gamepad-orientated menus are lacking proper mouse support. It’s definitely a better PC effort than WFC, but you won’t kid yourself it’s not a console port.

Happily, if taken as purely a straight-up action game rather than one about transformation, FoC puts its predecessor in the shade. War For Cybertron’s campaign was a little too obviously based around multiplayer classes put into sometimes perfunctory scripted missions. It didn’t much matter which robot you played as (each level gave you a choice of three, with the unchosen two becoming not terribly lethal AI companions) because they all did pretty much the same thing. FoC for the most part switches to a one-character-per-level focus, with the level themed around that character’s abilities or a particular gimmick, rather than being a generalist shooting structure.

So Cliffjumper gets an invisibility power, creeping around Cybertronian caverns while trying to evade or stealth-assassinate skeletal scanning ‘bots that shift into heavily-armoured tankmen if they see him. Jazz and Swindle have grappling looks, though they’re heavily restricted in terms of where they can use them. Optimus can order a devastating artillery strike from the living city Metroplex (who is sadly not controlled directly). Soundwave – in possibly my favourite sequences – can launch his minions Rumble and Laserbreak into the fray. Grimlock smash.

The use of these abilities won’t stand up to much scrutiny, as half the time you’re being told exactly when and where to use them, or they’re conveniently deactivated in places where their outcome isn’t pre-determined, but this is not a game that should be scrutinised. Just enjoy the fact you can press Q to turn invisible, fire a grappling hook or make a robot bird tear open a door for you. With War For Cybertron’s foggy, dreary lighting replaced the game looks that much more colourful and bombastic to support its steady stream of visual excess. And while freedom of movement rarely goes much beyond finding secret ammo/collectible stashes, the sights beyond the pathways you run or drive along are legitimately spectacular.

Cybertron looms, vast and ruined, and while there’s no coherent sense of the geography of the place FoC’s adept at making you feel like you’re in the middle of something much bigger, generally preferring outdoor spaces to corridors. On top of that are the openly indulgent, all-too-brief sections where you play as monstrous Bruticus or the raging Dinobot Grimlock, which throw plenty of the game’s existing logic to the winds in favour of dramatically living out those destructive play fights we had with our Transformers in the 80s.

Slightly surprisingly, given he was treated as a run of the mill shoot-o-bot in the last game, the greatest power fantasy comes in the level played as Megatron. So often an easily-humiliated naughty child in other Transformers fiction, here he gets to relish in his Emperor of Destruction status as he seeks vengeance for some characteristic Starscream treachery. Whoever you’re playing as, there’s almost no call to upgrade weapons (with Energon Shards picked up in their hundreds from every kill) as the pace the game moves at, the littering of the battlefield with high-damage pickups and the regularly changing focus means there’s rarely the risk of getting bogged down anyway.

The last couple of levels escalate further still from the familiar, ramping up the devastation, offering more and more setpieces and bringing in a giddy succession of rapid-fire character switching in a frankly fairly successful attempt to out-dramatic everything else ever.

In other words, FoC does a fine job of finding variety within the apparently limited confines of Robot Shoots Lots Of Other Robots and that, I think, is testament to how genuinely enthusiastic about Transformers its devs really are. The raft of references and homages – particularly to the 1986 animated movie, but also lore stuff such as justifying why the bloody hell there would be robot dinosaurs and insects – will ensure it’s a fan-pleaser regardless of any other failings, too.

It’s surprisingly funny when it wants to be, in a more universal way. While any interaction between Optimus Prime and Megatron is almost crushed under the weight of self-importance and the end-of-the-world orchestral score, the interplay between the supporting cast is often light-hearted and quiptastic. Jazz and Cliffjumper have a happy bromance going on (they even brofist in the credits), Grimlock and Slag Slug bicker about metallic processed foods and Starscream’s a preening coward who inexplicably orders the Combaticons to retreat when they’re on the cusp of victory. Despite all the explosions and looming disasters, it’s often a merry game.

So, as an act of interactive tribute to Transformers’ long-running, maximalist science-fiction, Fall Of Cybertron is pretty much unbeatable. I’m vaguely surprised it got made, so meaningless will much of it likely be to anyone who didn’t grow up with the Generation One comic/cartoon, but I’m certainly not going to argue with the love letter. As a game about transforming robots it’s a different matter – there’s a curious deficit of imagination below the surface, or at least too much market fearfulness to depart from straight-up bangbangbang.

Like the hated Michael Bay films, it too rapidly abandons robots in disguise in favour of spiky things relentlessly going at each other. Unlike the hated Michael Bay films, it has well-sketched characters and charisma in spades, and a clear respect for just why so many men of my generation can’t quite let Transformers go.

So hey, did you guys hear about that Japanese-only miniature Fortress Maximus model kit? Gotta get me one of those.

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54 Comments »

  1. bachepoloGR says:

    too bad multiplayer is broken right now

    • Feadpool says:

      Yeah I’m having multiplayer issues too, I can’t seem to find a match, but Escalation works fine

      • Alec Meer says:

        Oh, that’s the problem I’m having – thought it was cos I’m a Brit tying to join US games, but guess not.

    • Prime says:

      Multiplayer was generally broken in the last game (ho ho). Or maybe just naff. I wouldn’t be expecting too much from this one.

  2. mondomau says:

    Great review, Alec.

    My biggest complaint (I didn’t have many) about the first one was that it didn’t take advantage of the transforming mechanism enough – it felt utterly superfluous to the gameplay. Shame they haven’t really addressed that here, sandbox-like maps where you can power around in your vehicle form, smashing up decepticons would have been awesome.
    I’m also quite (pleasantly) surprised they didn’t just use the Dreamwave version of Grimlock (big 50′s cadillac looking tank/tractor thing).

    Still, reckon this is definitely on the list. Once I finish Witcher 2…

  3. Sakkura says:

    Grappling looks, eh? These transformers have/are all the best toys!

  4. Cooper says:

    “It doesn’t appear to suffer the 30FPS lock of War For Cybertron”
    Is it that difficult to run FRAPS or something similar and actually verify this? Unless you did check, in which case “appear” seems like holding back from veification.

    The number of screen refreshes within a second is about as close as reviewing can get to a bit of that hated positivism…

    • flib says:

      It’s capped at 60FPS, even without vsync. Which is fine for anybody who doesn’t have a 120Hz monitor.

      • clippa says:

        If you have a 60hz monitor and you don’t like vsync/input lag, having a game capped to your refresh rate will give you horrific screen tearing.

        Is there anyone here who’s played the game and can give a quick report on how good the pc version is? Is it as bad as the first game? Does it have console fov, negative mouse acceleration or any other silliness?

        • Sparkasaurusmex says:

          Having a game capped at your refresh rate PREVENTS tearing

          • clippa says:

            Without vsync turned on, capping to your refresh will actually accentuate tearing rather than prevent it.

  5. Ragnar says:

    This remind me that I should really watch The Transformers: The Movie animated movie. I had transformers as a kid, certainly, but now feel like I missed out by never having seen the film.

  6. pixelpusher says:

    Looks mighty solid for a license game.

  7. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    As someone who’s interested in getting into the comics, does anyone have any recommendations where to start?

    • PatrickSwayze says:

      Not trolling… but issue 01?

      But if you pick mid way through or something just remember Autobots good Decepticons bad and you’ll be fine.

      • flib says:

        Because comics are just that simple.

        • Zombie Jesus says:

          Not sure if you’re trolling or not but yes, the Transformers comics are very simple, but there are many comics, such as Watchmen and The Sandman, which are more deep and complex even than most “regular” books.

      • Phasma Felis says:

        Counting all the miniseries and crossovers, there are more than two dozen Transformers #1s.

    • Kirjava says:

      Anyone wanting to get into the comics would be well advised to check out IDW’s current G1 line-up. Start with the ‘ations (Infiltration, Escalation, Devastation and Revelation), then plough through All Hail Megatron. Suffer through the subsequent Mike Costa-penned 31 issues and you are rewarded by a reboot- two new ongoings that started about eight months ago penned by continuity wizard John Barber (Robots In Disguise) and Transformers virtuoso James Roberts (More Than Meets The Eye). They’re both ridiculously solid, and they come out of the one-shot The Death Of Optimus Prime. Check them out on Comixology if you can.

      http://www.comixology.com/Transformers-Death-of-Optimus-Prime/comics-series/7152

    • icupnimpn2 says:

      I can make recommendations. First a background of why the series is pretty messy to get into.

      IDW took over the Transformers comics license when the publisher Dreamwave went bankrupt. Rather than continue the Dreamwave stories, IDW opted to start over altogether. They’ve been going on for years now. Unfortunately their series numbering is all over the place. They had one volume of the series, plus a bunch of miniseries, then when the main series ended they continued with a bunch more miniseries, then restarted with a second volume of their numbered series. When that finished they started up a couple more series with colon: subtitles. On top of it all, they had a slew of one-shot comics focused on individual characters that benefit from being read in particular order with the rest. Further complications arise when you consider IDW has also published comics based on the Michael Bay movie continuity, a new continuation of the original Marvel Comics toy-based continuity from the 80s, and some odd steampunkish continuity.

      That said, there are a few possible jumping on points. The current ongoing series. Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye and Transformers: Robots in Disguise are about eight issues in to each. They’re fantastic and deal with sort of a new status quo. I think you could enjoy them even without knowing all of the history and characters because the action is tight, settings are unique, and dialogue fairly humorous. The only problem is if you do decide to go back to the earlier series some of the outcomes will be spoiled.

      You could pick up some of the Transformers Spotlight issues in nearly random order, instead, to get a feel for the characters and background stories. While they do take place during specific times relative to the main storyline, they are primarly self-contained. If you enjoyed those you’d probably enjoy some of the main series.

      And yes, you can start with IDW Transformers volume 1 issue 1, but the starting series there is fairly weak. I think it didn’t all pick up steam until much, much later in volume 2 and with some of the intervening miniseries.

      Finally, there’s Transformers: Autocracy, while not my favorite does serve as a prequel for most of the other series and so can be read mostly in isolation. I prefer my Transformers comics with a little more humor, honestly, and Autocracy is played a bit straight.

      I was a huge fan of the Marvel comics when growing up. I dabbled with Dreamwave’s version but wasn’t sold. And I stuck with IDW. I have to say, some of what IDW has put out is utterly fantastic and some is pretty naff. But the highs are high, my friend, and worth digging out, with the current series not just some of the best Transformers comics ever but some of the most enjoyable comics period being published today.

      Go to Wikipedia for The Transformers (IDW Publishing) article as they have a good reading order guide that can also help. Best of luck!

  8. Jahandar says:

    Knowing that I can’t rebind keys to my preferred non-WASD layout is good to know, and reason enough to pass on this game as I did the last one.

    • flib says:

      What other layout could you possibly prefer?

    • Urthman says:

      I used to feel this way, but AutoHotKey works so well and is so useful for all kinds of things that I don’t even care whether games allow me to rebind keys anymore.

    • Polmansol says:

      You can use AutoHotKey to remap the keys, and there’s another program that gets rid of the 30fps cap.

  9. Flank Sinatra says:

    I hope this game sells enough copies to warrant a third game in which they finally get to Earth and can cruise around a massive open world map in their classic G1 forms. I’ve been waiting for a TF game like that all of my life. To actually control my favorite toys from childhood! And really, isn’t that what action video games are about? Controlling our action figure toys from childhood? Now we need just need He-man and G.I. Joe games based on the 80′s toys.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      Yes! Currently the only game like this is Lego… but I never had Lego Batman or Lego Star Wars when I was a kid.

      But yeah, a cool GI Joe or Transformers based on the old toys would be awesome.

    • Rivalus says:

      As I recall, I had a lot of fun roaming city in Nintendo DS game Transformer The Game. Too bad the PC version is not the same.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      As an adult I sure wouldn’t mind proper rule34′d He-man and G.I. Joe sexgames, either.

  10. Feadpool says:

    Hey does anyone who hasn’t really played wanna get a group together because i keep getting put in multiplayer matches where the other team has like 3 more people than my team and have level 20 classes. I can’t get into the multiplayer part because i keep having an awful time in games like this.

  11. jonfitt says:

    Do you think there will be another sequel set on Earth? It sounds to me like that would be the one to play. I’m not that interested in the pre-Earth models going at it on Cybertron. I always preferred to think of Cybertron as the Krypton/Thundera planet that sets up the scene and not a place where the key action happens. I know the comics go into the origin more, but to me Transformers starts when they crash on Earth.

  12. Sunjammer says:

    Once again my dreams of playing an articulated lorry are dashed to pieces :(

  13. Utsunomiya says:

    Huh? The coop is no more? :(

    • Phasma Felis says:

      Apparently they wanted to give the different characters significantly different abilities and levels (Grimlock is slow with no vehicle mode but can take on small armies by himself, Jazz spidermans around with his grappling hook, Starscream can fly, etc) so they’ve ditched the “squad” concept entirely.

  14. NegativeZero says:

    some of the clearly gamepad-orientated menus are lacking proper mouse support.

    And yet, when you play with a gamepad, you’ll find those menus are also lacking proper gamepad support and have to be clumsily manipulated with a mouse.

    • Tiller says:

      This. Upgrade menus are impossible with the controller alone.

  15. Tiller says:

    Multiplayer is entirely broken for US too. I played one game that only decent, the rest I can’t even get to playing. The lobbies are incredibly buggy, where the countdown timer goes into the negatives and then kicks you out or doesn’t even start.

  16. Symbul says:

    “you won’t kid yourself it’s not a console port. ”

    That’s kind of all I needed to hear. I’ve had it with shitty, obvious ports.

  17. KikiJiki says:

    Soundwave – in possibly my favourite sequences – can launch his minions Rumble and Laserbreak into the fray

    OH GOD YES. Soundwave was always my favourite Transformer, and the fact that it’s Rumble and Laserbeak is icing on the fanservice cake.

  18. Frosty840 says:

    “Slug”?

  19. Supereor says:

    I loved the original version, I hope this sells well.

  20. Dances to Podcasts says:

    “market fearfulness” Interesting term, though not very catchy. Sounds like the sort of thing Starscream gets when on the cusp of victory.

  21. zebramatt says:

    Just finished playing my way through the War for Cybertron campaign on hard today. Loved it; can’t wait to play this new one!

    It always seemed to me there was a gorgeous game hiding under all the murkiness in War and you could just about bring it out with a bit of tweaking (RPS article on that a few days ago, I think?) but I had to set up a separate colour profile on my display just to bring some colour through the lighting engine – so the changes there I’m particularly stoked about.