The Transformers franchise has been in questionable hands lately. Michael Bay pumped out two movies that had all the style and class of a typical college frat party (which, incidentally, he included in one of the movies). The videogames released with the movies didn't do much to support the franchise, let alone break the stigma of bad movie-game tie-ins. Low review scores and a lack of interest from my friends certainly didn't motivate me to pick them up.
Naturally, when I heard that Activision was publishing a new Transformers game, I was initially skeptical. Although it wasn't going to be based on one of the awful Michael Bay movies, it still had the potential to be just another milking of the franchise name. One of the earlier interviews with developer High Moon Studios didn't help my opinion. When they said their strategy was to start out by making a good game first, rather than trying to make "a Transformers game", I was afraid I would see a generic shooter with Transformers skins, maybe some transforming abilities shoehorned into the gameplay.
As more and more interviews and preview videos came out, though, my opinion changed. High Moon set out to make a good game, and rather than shoving the Transformers universe into it like a square peg into a round hole, they took the franchise seriously as well, carefully molding the characters and the story. They decided to tell the backstory of the '80s cartoon series, and apparently they did such a good job with it that Hasbro adopted it as official canon.
The ultimate result, Transformers: War for Cybertron, is a Transformers fanboy's dream. The story fits in perfectly with the cartoon, showing the introduction of Megatron, his rise to power over the Decepticons, and how he gains Starscream as an untrustworthy second in command; and how Optimus (voiced by the one and only Peter Cullen) becomes Optimus Prime, bearer of the Matrix of Leadership and leader of the Autobots. The characters talk like an '80s cartoon, including Soundwave's classic synthesized voice and Omega Supreme's overly-dramatic two-word sentences. There are also more than a couple references to the 1986 animated film.
The campaign takes place on Cybertron, a mechanical world. It is very detailed and very robotic, very true to the source material. The Transformers geek in me was very happy with the look and feel of the world. Although, from a more generic, videogame-player analysis, it does make a lot of the environments look the same. It's something that, if you're not expecting, may disappoint you.
The gameplay works very well with the transforming characters. Transforming is handled very simply by clicking the left thumbstick (by default). The levels are crafted in ways that encourage using both modes (many wide open areas and ramps) so that many times, one might think, "I want to drive across here," and then, "I need to walk around here for a more tactical maneuver," and it is very easy and natural to flip back and forth from vehicle to robot mode to get it done. The levels are a little on the large side, but the ability to transform to a vehicle at-will and race across any distance means nothing ever feels so big that it's a chore to get through; so the world ends up being at once vast and manageable.
The game's difficulty curve is rather jagged. I found that there were many times the game would just decide, "You are going to die now," and in two or three shots, it would be so. I found that the final bosses were most often not the hardest parts of the game. This ended up working to my advantage, as there's a small glitch to the "complete the game on the hardest difficulty" achievement — if you've played through the campaign on a lower difficulty level, you can load up the last checkpoint of each chapter on the hardest, play just that, and get credit for the whole chapter. I didn't learn about this until I played through the entire Autobot campaign on Hard first, so I had many times where I had to pound through some very difficult encounters. Even on the easier difficulty levels, though, the game didn't make it too easy.
Health and ammo are not auto-replenishing. Some have said that auto-restoring health makes games too easy, but I've found the lack of it to be rather frustrating — one mistake, or one lucky shot from the AI, puts you at a considerable disadvantage not just for the rest of that encounter, but for every future encounter until you are blessed to find a health pack. Transformers WFC isn't too bad in this regard; energon cubes are frequent enough (and in plain sight) to limit the impact of a setback, but it's not overly-generous such that you'd never have to worry about health. Ammo is about the same. Although I rarely found myself out of ammunition, I often found myself low. It is more often that you'll find another weapon than you will a generic ammo crate, though, so you may find yourself forced to toss empty weapons a lot. On the plus side, this encourages you to try out all the different weapons; but on the minus side, it means if you have a favorite weapon, you might find yourself forced to choose between holding it empty and picking up a less favorable one that actually has ammo in it.
Co-op is done fairly well. The campaign features drop-in, drop-out, up to three players. (There are always three players on your team; the AI controls any non-human Transformers.) I've found, though, that it's actually easier to play the harder difficulty levels alone. Although your AI buddies don't provide much support, they also never die, meaning you only have to worry about keeping yourself alive. Also, all the energon cubes, ammo crates, and weapons are yours to pick up, as the number of random items does not seem to increase with more human players.
The game features an "Escalation" mode, rapidly becoming a new standard mode in videogames. You and up to three partners start a match (no drop-in allowed, which makes sense for the game type) and face wave after wave of progressively harder enemies. You earn energon (not health) by killing enemies, and this energon is spent at kiosks spread around the map. Kiosks dispense health, ammo, and weapons; and there are also doors that can be unlocked by spending energon. While each person earns energon independently, they can share their resources by depositing as much energon as they have — so, if a door takes 400 energon to unlock, player 1 has 200, player 2 has 150, and player 3 has 75, player 1 can deposit his 200 in, player 2 can deposit his, and player 3 can finish paying it off to open the door. Once a door is open, the path beyond often leads to kiosks with better weapons or items.
Multiplayer matchmaking has many different modes available. There are free-for-all, team deathmatch, king-of-the-hill, territories, assault, and capture-the-flag style modes. The game features a customizable class-based system similar to Call of Duty, where you can pick your basic class (scout, scientist, leader, or soldier) and attributes (specialties, starting weapons, even chassis and colors). Experience points earned in multiplayer games level up your class and unlock available weapons and "perks".
Multiplayer is, unfortunately, easily the most frustrating part of the game. The network code is not the most robust, so it's not uncommon to find your party split for no apparent reason. Although the game will claim to be "waiting for balanced teams", it doesn't seem to do much "balancing", as it tends to throw many high-level players together on one team. After a match, even if it is severely lopsided, it will often keep the players on the same teams, rather than splitting them up. Also, rather unfortunately, the online gaming population for Transformers WFC as a whole is extremely small. The game often reports an online population of less than a couple thousand players, and less than a hundred playing any one given mode. So the gamers you see are the "real fans", the ones who play the game a lot. You'll start to recognize their names by sight after just a few sessions. There is no host migration, so if the player chosen as the game host decides to quit, you are dumped unceremoniously back to the multiplayer selection screen (not the game lobby) — the message saying this happened "because the host quit" confirms this, different than a message suggesting a network issue ("connection to the host timed out").
Now, I've never claimed I was a good player. In fact, I often just plain suck. One of the reasons I stopped playing Call of Duty 4 was because I grew tired of kill:death ratios of 1:3 or worse. Unfortunately, Transformers WFC seems to take this to all new levels, as I consistently lead both teams in deaths and have kill:death ratios as low as 1:6. There are times I'm convinced the game has it out for me, when I will observably do twice as much with the same equipment to another player, fail to eliminate them, and have them kill me with half the effort. But whatever the cause, the result is the same: I'm dead, he's not, and I'm frustrated.
The rest of the game is stupid fun. When I'm playing Escalation as Jetfire (one of my favorite Transformers from my collection when I was a teenager), hit the afterburners to rocket away from a bunch of Decepticons, transform, and skid to a stop in robot mode in front of a kiosk to replenish my ammo before jumping back out to fight some more, I'm grinning like a thirteen-year-old geek playing with his toys. It really never gets old. If I can just suffer through the multiplayer to get my experience points (which, fortunately, you can earn without the kills, just not as quickly) to get the last few achievements and satisfy the achievement completionist in me, then I can get back to the fun parts of the game.
That is, before Halo: Reach comes out and dominates my game time….