I always find myself catching up on games that I’ve missed in December. With the industry’s demand that games release ad infinitum, it’s only natural that a few games get put on the backlog. The December-January drought provides much needed respite from the autumn flood of major titles, making the winter a perfect time to visit games we have neglected when they hit the marked. For me, one of those titles is High Moon Studios’ Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. Despite its lukewarm reception, I was quite pleased with High Moon’s 2010 War for Cybertron, so I bought its sequel knowing quite well what to expect: a decent game with appeal to people who can overlook its problems in order to find something to enjoy. Turns out, these robots are exactly what meets the eye.
When I was a kid, I loved the Transformers, though I never really ventured beyond the action figures and the cartoon. Since nostalgia is a tricky thing, I won’t pretend that it has in no way affected my enjoyment of Fall of Cybertron. The characters are familiar, the battles exciting, and the story appropriately operatic and overblown, reminding me of the stories I would invent for my action figures as I turned my living room floor into a battle-scarred planet. Picking up where its predecessor ended, the game does not require an extensive knowledge of Transformers lore to enjoy. The altruistic Autobots flee from their dying robo-planet, and the evil Decepticons pursue them relentlessly. It’s cheesy, it’s bombastic, and it’s mindless fun.
As fun as the story is, it sometimes seems to take itself a bit too seriously. Transformers fans are a curious lot in that love of the characters and their universe overshadows the fact that they were created to be sold to children. Nevertheless, fans vehemently defend the artistic merit and complexity of a world populated by talking trucks and kitchen appliances from the eighties, and this pseudo-seriousness seeps into Fall of Cybertron. Characters joke with each other in catch phrases amid orchestral scores that would not seem out of place in an epic war film. It’s really hard for the game to maintain tonal consistence when after a battle filled with characters shouting puns at each other, a giant robot carries his wounded comrade with all the solemnity of Christ’s climb to Golgotha.
When the story becomes overwrought, the visuals keep the game grounded in cartoon garishness. Fall of Cybertron is by no means an eyesore, nor is it completely awe-inspiring. Whereas War for Cybertron’s palette was limited to varying shades of metallic grays, its sequel moves from war-tor cityscapes to hidden temples buried in arid deserts of rust to spectacular space battles. One sequence has Optimus Prime commanding an Autobot the size of skyscraper through a battlefield. Moments like these have a grand sense of scale, and the game’s visuals carry them well with few frame rate hiccups.
These visuals work well in conjunction with the fast-paced, explosive gameplay. There’s something undeniably gratifying about tearing apart giant pieces of metal with smaller pieces of metal, all the while watching your enemies disintegrating into piles of scrap. Fall of Cybertron eschews cover mechanics for a more movement-based third-person shooter. Seeking shelter behind bombed-out structures provides brief respite from intense firefights, but lingering too long leaves you vulnerable to your highly mobile enemies.
Mobility, of course, comes in the form of the characters’ abilities to transform at almost any time during the game. Morphing from a bipedal warrior to a four-wheeled or airborne vehicle injects some much-needed variety without feeling like a gimmick. The fast-paced battles necessitate fast tactics, and switching from vehicle to robot form becomes almost second nature, and it leads to some really gratifying gameplay scenarios. There’s a lot of fun to be had by swooping down on top a group of enemies, bombard them with missile fire, and transforming to robot form to finish the job.
Yet for all its entertaining gameplay, the campaign is as disjointed as its seriocomic narrative. To put it bluntly, Fall of Cybertron never finds its footing. The campaign has you switching characters throughout with each chapter starring a different Decepticon or Autobot. These different characters possess varying abilities, ranging from Jazz’s grapple beam to Starscream’s cloak, and the constant change in gameplay scenarios walks a thin line between engagingly varied and hopelessly jumbled. Though I never got tired of playing the campaign, I never settled in comfortably either. I felt like more of a tourist in Cybertron than someone with a real presence.
It does not help that the most impressive moments of the game come from the cutscenes. Attacking an Autobot cruiser atop giant tow cables sounds like an excellent scenario, except that all of the action happens outside the player’s control. Even when I was controlling the sword-wielding, dino-morphing, flame-spewing Grimlock, I found the cinemas much more interesting than when I was directing my character across the stage. The one exception is a brilliantly designed (but far too brief) final stage that has you switching between characters in ways that highlight that their unique abilities. It’s a great way to bring together the skills you learn throughout the game; it’s just a shame that the game only hits its stride at the end.
Though the main campaign has its ups and downs, the multiplayer just plain works. I’m not a fan of multiplayer in any capacity, but War for Cybertron hooked me with its robo-vehicular combat and clever level design. Fall of Cybertron builds on what made its predecessor so much fun. The Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes provide intense competitive experiences, and the team-based Escalation (read”Survival”) mode provides a fun cooperative experience that the campaign lacks.
One of the main draws of Fall of Cybertron’s multiplayer is the much-improved customization system of your characters. Four classes (Infiltrator, Destroyer, Titan, and Scientist) provide different playstyles, and each can be tweaked with paint jobs, chassis, heads, limbs, weapons, special abilities, etc. Unlike that of the previous installment, this game’s deep customization options make every multiplayer battle seem different, and the varied, well-animated characters sell the dynamic bombast of each battle.
In all honesty, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is not a game I find interesting, provocative, complex, or any other of those terms in my critical lexicon I so often like to brandish. The game is just big, dumb fun. The melodramatic and overwrought plot will charm fans of the series and undoubtedly annoy most others. It’s a structurally flawed but ultimately enjoyable ride featuring robots that turn into cars (and occasionally dinosaurs), but, really, what could you hope to expect but flashy explosions and bare-bones narrative? I couldn’t recommend it in August, on the cusp of the autumn game floods, but in the relatively quiet month of December, its a worthwhile distraction for those of us catching up on game we may have missed.