Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Transformers: War for Cybertron

War for Cybertron is to the Transformers universe what Arkham Asylum is to the Batman universe: a licensed work that tries its best to hit all the bases for fans without the constraints of being based directly off one specific source material. The result is a game that feels, at its core, like the original 1985 Generation One Transformers, but certainly has an influence from both the IDW War Within comics and Michael Bay's films. And though it tries its hardest to be a love-letter to Transformers fans, it's no stretch of the imagination to say that this game could just as easily ring in new fans to the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons.

The game is split into two campaigns, and while technically the Decepticon campaign takes place first, players are free to choose either story from the moment they pop in the disc. Each mission gives players the option to play as one of three characters, all of whom have different loadouts. The story sets up the break between the two factions of Transformers with Megatron's lust for Dark Energon as he storms a research facility orbiting Cybertron. Led by then-neutral Starscream, the defending forces do their best to stop the Decepticon intruders, but ultimately fail. Impressed that Megatron is actually able to control Dark Energon, Starcream swears his allegiance to the Decepticons and aids Megatron in his assault on Cybertron.

The Autobot story opens with Bumblebee delivering a message to Optimus (who is not yet a Prime). The two hatch a plan with Sideswipe to infiltrate the Decepticon-controlled Kaon prisons to rescue VIP figures in the Autobot forces. Ultimately, this campaign story is about Optimus' reluctant rise to the status of Prime, as he valiantly defends his homeworld along some of the most iconic Autobots in existence.

The campaign gameplay is very linear, requiring players to shoot their way through levels, with sections of vehicular travel and defense of areas interspersed. A three-player online cooperative mode is made available, though no local coop is included. Playing solo through campaign is still enjoyable and challenging, as enemies and the environment both prevent a run-and-gun approach, instead demanding some level of strategic approach. The game's enemy A.I. is pretty well-balanced, considering they generally attack in groups of varying classes, but the ally A.I. leaves something to be desired. It isn't downright terrible, but can prove frustrating on the off chance that the game demands you play defense, as the A.I. partners will tend to stick to one area and chase down enemies with subpar accuracy rates.

Boss fights are presented in a very smart manner. Not only do they dish up a variety on par with the likes of a Legend of Zelda title, they also flow quite naturally with the progression of the story. There are a couple that feel a bit on the easy side, while others present a significantly higher degree of challenge, but never do these feel cheap nor mind-numbingly frustrating.

Competitive online multiplayer presents a variety of modes, all of which are pretty standard for an online shooter (team deathmatch, territorial control, king of the hill, etc.). But just because they cover familiar territory doesn't mean they are any less fun. Players can choose one of four classes, and earn experience points the more they use a class, which in turn unlocks new loadout weapons and abilities. However, players do not have to set loadouts if they wish to be able to use a specific weapon, as these can still be found in strategic locations around any given map. A cooperative mode called Escalation sends waves of enemies that increase in difficulty. Players gain a set number of points for each type of enemy killed, and can spend this on ammo, health, weapon upgrades, and unlock new areas of the map.

There are a lot of weapons at players' disposal, ranging from more traditional assault rifles and snipers to the acquired tastes of the heavier launchers and charge weapons. Each class is also granted secondary abilities, which include the likes of a projected shield barrier, whirlwind melee attack, sentry turrets, and cloaking (to name a few). Not all of the abilities are useable in campaign and multiplayer, but each different one is assigned to a distinct character in Escalation mode, which prove to be quite balanced.

Graphically, there are some shortcomings. Up close, it is quite obvious that some details were shirked on, and the occasional bump-in of textures at a checkpoint can become annoying. The artistic direction of the game demands that levels reflect the mechanical nature of Cybertron, and because of that, players might get sick of seeing varying shades of silver and bronze as they battle their way across the Transformers homeworld. Different classes of enemies are designed to look different so that players know what exactly they are fighting. Brutes are hulking and carry a shield and hammer, snipers are small and scope out the area with long visible laser sights, and cloakers are thin and wiry, charging up their weapons and lighting the area around them. While all this is good with regards to making them stand out from the environment more, the generic soldiers do become boring to look at after a while. The major characters, however, bear designs that pay homage to the 1985 series while maintaining a very alien look that displays the creativity of the team at High Moon Studios. The soundtrack also meshes well with the darker tone of War for Cybertron, though the fanfare it carries across acts as a reminder of the game's Generation One roots.

The events that started the war between the Autobots and Decepticons is largely a grey area, having only been explored in great detail in the IDW comics. So for longtime fans of the franchise, traversing this alien homeworld is a real treat. With regards to the characters, there is quite a variety of personality, and the voice actors really nailed them down to be both entertaining and strong representations of their Generation One counterparts. Longtime Transformers fans will no doubt recognize Peter Cullen as Optimus, and voice actors including Johnny Yong Bosch as Bumblebee, Kari Wahlgren as Arcee, and Steve Blum as Barricade and the narrator all fit the mood of the game perfectly. Plenty of one-liners and scripted conversation on missions keep the classic Transformers atmosphere. Admittedly, though, these can be a bit cheesy at times.

While this game will undoubtedly find its most die-hard of fans within the Transformers community, it leaves itself flexible enough to cater to gamers who may not be as big into Transformers. The campaign will probably last players around ten hours or so, depending on the difficulty setting, but the multiplayer modes present plenty of extra hours of play. A nice balance of things new and old in the franchise, War for Cybertron could certainly teach other developers a thing or two about how to make a good licensed game.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

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