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.