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Wot I Think: War For Cybertron (Singleplayer)

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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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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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