Despite being one of the great “merchandise first, ask questions later” properties of the '80s, over the last three decades the Transformers have achieved an impressive pop cultural longevity via a steady stream of TV shows, movies, comic books and, of course, toys. Something about the Transformers mythology appears to resonate across the generations, but there has never been a Transformers videogame that has lived up to that legacy. Fall of Cybertron comes close, and while it is a fun, sometimes visually spectacular ride, there isn’t much more to this game than meets the eye.
High Moon has taken great pains to keep its version of the Transformers universe as faithful to the source material as possible. In a welcome continuation from its previous game, War for Cybertron, that source is not the recent movies, nor any of the multitudes of reboots over the decades, but the original “G1” Transformers of the '80s. Fall of Cybertron is one for old-school fans, and they will be thrilled with the little details and references that have been included. Peter Cullen once again reprises his role as the voice of Optimus Prime, classic power ballad “The Touch” is on the soundtrack, and a host of Autobot and Decepticon favourites fill out the roster.
In fact, players will have the opportunity to take control of around a dozen different robots in disguise, both good and evil, during the course of the singleplayer campaign, from Prime himself to Jazz, Bumblebee, Soundwave, Grimlock, Megatron, and more. Each chapter sees a new protagonist jump into the fray, and the levels are designed around making good use of their unique special abilities. Prime can call down devastating airstrikes from walking city Metroplex, Cliffjumper turns invisible for short periods, Jazz can swing on a grappling hook; the application of these abilities add variety to the levels and ensure that each character feels different from the last.
Fall of Cybertron looks and sounds good, too, for the most part. The characters have undergone redesigns while recalling their classic appearances, and the voice acting talent is top notch. Everything looks suitably shiny and metallic, and care has been taken to ensure that Cybertron’s machine-like environs are dynamic and interesting. There are some frame-rate issues, along with the occasional jagged edge or sound lag during cutscenes, but the game can fairly be called an impressive spectacle.
Unfortunately the game suffers from a problem far too common in many modern action games: an inability to leave the player alone. Progression in the campaign is a straightforward affair, but every step of the way the game drags the player by the hand, pointing out constant objective markers, issuing prompts to use special powers, and having characters spout repetitive lines about what they’re meant to be doing at any given moment. It’s infuriating, and it gives the game an “on rails” feel that extinguishes any sense of exploration that might have existed otherwise. Although some levels – such as Starscream’s level of high-flying mayhem – are more open too frequently it feels like the game itself is impatiently racing towards the next cool cutscene.
It’s not that the game is too easy – getting shot to pieces during a firefight is actually quite commonplace – but the difficulty seems to come from wrestling the awkward shooting system rather than clever enemy AI. Fall of Cybertron presents itself as a cover-based shooter, and indeed striding straight into a group of enemies is a sure-fire way to wind up a pile of scrap, but there’s not actually any cover system in the game – at least not for the player. Enemies are able to crouch behind objects and lean out from corners, but players are left to strafe clumsily back and forth behind obstacles, changing shooting hands as appropriate and occasionally running away for a bit when shields need replenishing. It’s not an elegant system, and many times a full health bar will be eroded in seconds as the player staggers about, trying in vain to find a spot that isn’t in the enemy’s line of sight.
These faults drag the game down, but one thing stands out as an extremely strange oversight: there’s very little transforming in the singleplayer game. The vast majority of the singleplayer game is spent walking around as a bulky robot, shooting at other robots. Most enemies actually never change forms at all, and there’s precious little reason for the player to do so either, aside from the odd occasion when a large stretch of open terrain needs to be quickly traversed so that the next battle can begin.
In multiplayer the the focus switches somewhat, and Fall of Cybertron becomes a much more satisfying run-and-gun romp. Tiptoeing around behind crates is abandoned in favour of the direct approach, and, gratefully, transforming actually becomes an integral part of the game. Peeling out in vehicle mode after respawning is a great way to get straight back into the action, and it’s equally handy whenever a hasty retreat is needed in the heat of battle. Multiplayer modes are bog standard – team deathmatch, capture the flag, conquest, and head hunter – and there’s a class-based character system that includes the typical scouts, soldiers, tanks, and medics.
The mode's standout feature is the ability to build custom characters out of the various parts available – heads, arms, legs and more, as well as colour schemes, weapons loadouts and names. It’s the sort of feature that any self-respecting geek should go wild for, but unfortunately it is hampered by the fairly slight number of parts available to choose from.
Online action also includes Escalation, the apparently-now-obligatory homage to Horde mode. Fall of Cybertron’s twist is to use a class system here too, although this one is fixed, so each member of the team is assigned one of the four available roles, be it medic, ammo-supplier, sentry-placement-dude, or guy-with-a-big-shield. It’s a perfectly competent variation on the tried and true formula.
High Moon's love for the subject matter clearly shines through, so it’s a shame that Fall of Cybertron stumbles in a few areas. Transformers fans will still have a blast with the game, but underneath the chrome chassis this is just another compentent shooter. Fall of Cybertron falls short of finally doing the Transformers universe justice, but although it may be faint praise, it is definitely the best Transformers game yet.