I loaded Transformers: War for Cybertron up with the intent to do my review from the perspective of a jaded 20-something who has watched various elements of his precious childhood dashed on the rocks like Macaulay Culkin in the Good Son and now no longer trusts anything based on intellectual property from those formative years where I was babysat by the television.
So my original intention was to find the exact moment in this game that it became better than the Michael Bay directed cinematic abortion and leave the review at that. I’ve just become so wary of adaptations of adaptations of any precious nostalgic memory that, even with fairly decent Transformers games in the past, I still did not expect much from War of Cybertron based on principal and Megan Fox alone. So I figured that it would take a while to get to a point where I could fully admit that this game surpassed my low expectations and became a better representation of the series than those god awful explosion-porn movies.
Ten seconds after starting the game, I realized I may need to think of a different angle. Even before the title screens faded it was already better than anything Michael Bay had ever done. Just the intro video alone was what the movies should have been- no annoying humans, no stupid jokes, just robots teaching us lessons about life and ourselves while they fight to the death while Stan Bush tells us that we have both the touch AND the power.
Okay, so the part about Stan Bush might have just been me playing the song on loop for the duration of the game, but the point stands that this brought forth nostalgia in a way that I can’t quite remember video games doing before. Ghostbusters got close, but in the end it just didn’t feel like it had much substance. It was fantastic solely from a nostalgia standpoint, but eventually you stopped enjoying the gameplay and just wanted there to be a Ghostbusters 3. Transformers: War for Cybertron does not suffer from this problem. Instead, it breaks into your house, drugs you, puts you in footie pajamas, and makes you eat a big bowl of Nintendo Cereal System in front of your television while you play it.
This is because High Moon Studios seemed to actually get what other entertainment adaptations of well supported franchise never seemed to quite grasp. The reason these companies, whether it’s a gaming company or a movie company, end up creating absolute garbage when they translate one media into another is because their constant view that the die hard community that surrounds the product is not as large or marketable as the broad community who watches movies. This is why seemingly important plotlines and characters, no matter how loved or important, get axed. They just didn’t appeal to the general public. Most companies would rather alienate the smaller but passionate group of fans to make things more marketable to the larger base. This generally makes sure the final product doesn’t look anything like GI Joe or Dead Pool or whatever has been pulled out of the ground and crushed under the heels of mediocrity.
They all seem to do this even though evidence constantly proves you don’t have to. Those movies that ignore the core base the hardest always end up being the worst. By trying to appeal to the large demographic, they only end up making a movie that nobody wants to see, or a video game that nobody wants to play, or a pornography series that strays too far from it’s BDSM roots and throws cuddling in there. High Moon Studios realized the secret- instead of making it unappealing to the people who want a strict adaptation, just cater to them while making sure the substance speaks to the rest of the crowd. This is how the Iron Man movies turned out how they did. All the best examples of remakes or adaptations of one property to a different medium prove that, and Transformers: War of Cybertron is no different.
Sure, you’ll be the burger patty in between two grilled cheese sandwiches of nostalgia the minute your brain can actually process the amount of detail paid to our beloved disguised robots through the fantastic visuals, or maybe it will take until you get to envelop your ears in the warm and familiar uterus that is the great voice acting (Peter Cullen as Optimus and the one millionth game Stephen Blum has appeared in jump to mind) but in the end you’ll really be playing because of how well the game stands on its own.
Transformers: War of Cybertron isn’t just a great Transformers game, it’s one of the best third person action games in a while. High Moon didn’t let themselves get complacent and decide to use their incredible attention to Transformers detail, they built a game you can play all the way through without ever really wanting to put it down. It’s the “good book you can’t stop reading” of video games. Sorry, I really couldn’t come up with a better analogy than that.
The story keeps you engrossed, and jumping from the Decepticons story line, which is filled with more vitriol and evil than the 2012 Republican National Convention, to the wide-eyed hopefulness of the Autobots campaign actually ends up creating a fantastic little narrative device that makes the story stand out even more. The best part is that you actually enjoy getting from one chapter to another, because the gameplay is so top notch.
Instead of attempting to wedge in a third person cover mechanic, High Moon decided to make things more more strategic in a different way. The well-done transforming mechanic gives you a few different ways to tackle any battle, and taking your chosen Transformers powers to give you an advantage can be a huge help- especially if you tackle the game on it’s hardest setting. This is a game that is unabashedly difficult, almost as much of a throw back to the 80s than it’s source material. It does tend to prop that high challenge up with frustratingly cheap environmental fatalities and bosses that might pack a bit too much power for your sometimes fragile health bar. Thankfully, the ability to transform from one form to another easily can help you get through these difficult parts by giving you the options to try a different type of attack.
Even better is that the levels actually seem designed to both of your forms, and designed intelligently. You’ll find yourself having to transform at important times in order to blast through a fortified position or flank an opponent in your jet form and rain down some energon death rain. I initially could have done with less linearity, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the action is so frantic and entertaining that opening the worlds up a bit might have actually harmed things. This is just a well paced game through and through.
Even more surprising than how well the story mode, which can be played both single and co-op, turned out is that the multiplayer is so deep and well done. Games like this, you almost always assume that the multiplayer will just be tacked on, because in this day and age everything needs a multiplayer. I’m looking at you Mavis Beacon, I want leaderboards. Instead, High Moon transmorphified some familiar influences into a deep online component. You’ll see everything from little bits of Tribes to a taste of Star Wars: Battlefront to just a hint of Team Fortress 2- a Game Pie, if you will. Except instead of duck or venison, Julia Child stuffed a whole heaping pan of awesome into it then put the pie crust on and cooked it at 400 degrees until ready to serve.
You play as a customizable Transformer that falls into one of four classes. Leaders, scouts, scientists, and soldiers. Each class, obviously, gives you different weapons, different abilities, and different transformations. Making your own Autobots and Decepticons is way entertaining, and it would be easy to complain about a lack of customization options because it would be impossible to actually give me enough options when it comes to building an enormous ass-kicking robot. You can be aided through Transformers: War for Cybertron’s usual suspects of gametypes by ranking up and gaining more experience in your class. These different 10-player playlists are where you really see what an alloy of the best things from other games War for Cybertron is. The Power Struggle and Code of Power types will make Unreal Tournament fans feel right at home, while the Countdown to Extinction mode will make you nuke-happy players, er, happy. As is the norm in recent history, there are some connectivity issues persistent, but it is to be assumed they will be worked out.
The single and multiplayer modes are both incredibly chaotic, and incredibly entertaining, representations of a hugely important thing from us ancient gamers’ childhoods, and High Moon should be given a ticker-tape parade for it. They’ve balanced nostalgia with substance and given us the deep and engrossing Transformers game we’ve wanted from the start, and they did it with a clear love of the product and a desire to give us the most excitement for our money.
See Michael Bay, you can have your cake and blow it the fuck up too.
Transformers: War for Cybertron was developed by High Moon Studios and published by Activision for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3, with different ports to the Wii and Nintendo DS. It was released June 22nd, 2010 in North America with a retail price of $59.99 on the consoles and $39.99 on PC. This review was made using the Xbox 360 version for the single-player and both the Xbox 360 version and PC version for multiplayer. The single-player mode was played to completion both because it was super mega awesome in every possible way and for the review, while 10+ hours were invested into the multiplayer across both platforms.