In the interests of full disclosure, I'll get one thing straight as I begin this review: I am a Transformers addict from way back. I had dozens of the toys as a kid, and as an adult collector, hundreds of Autobot and Decepticon robots line shelves in my home office and fill boxes in my closet. I read the comics, watch the original cartoons repeatedly, and though I'm not a huge fan of the new movie series, I was still there for each opening night. So, it's very difficult for me to set aside my feelings for the franchise in order to be as objective as possible when reviewing Transformers: War for Cybertron.
But as a video game fan, I have only to think back to the abominable game based on the 2007 movie the bring my lofty, idealized views of Transformers games crashing down to reality. That game still makes me wince, as I remember hours of excruciating repetition and laughable design choices. Last year's game, based on Revenge of the Fallen, was light years better but still just a short distraction with little lasting value. War for Cybertron would appear to have it all: gorgeous visuals, a compelling robot-centric storyline, and finally, cooperative gameplay in both the campaign and in Escalation mode. Could War for Cybertron be a great game that happened to feature Transformers, instead of just being the best Transformers game, which isn't really saying much?
I believe it is a great game, apart from my fondness for the license. There is much to love in War for Cybertron; the designers borrowed heavily from successful co-op franchises like Gears of War and Call of Duty, then added in a well-integrated transformation mechanic to create a title that is truly worthwhile in and of itself, notwithstanding the iconic robots.
During the storyline campaign, you can co-op online with up to two other friends. I'd have preferred couch co-op, but there is so much going on all the time it would have been very difficult to play on a smaller shared screen. Drop in and drop out isn't supported, but the host can load from a wide variety of checkpoints, which makes it very easy to keep everyone together, or find another fill-in if someone has to leave. There are two campaigns of five levels each, one Autobot, and one Decepticon. The Decepticon campaign takes place first, but Autobot fans like me can skip to that later campaign to begin if they wish.
Each campaign level features a different team of predetermined Transformers. More popular characters like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee appear more than once. Each character in the campaign has a class: Leader, Soldier, Scout, or Scientist. Optimus Prime, a Leader, has a nice "War Cry" buff that can affect nearby teammates. Ironhide is one of the Soldiers, built for war and resilient to damage. Scouts like Bumblebee are quick and nimble, while Scientists like Ratchet can actually heal other robots, an invaluable ability. The interactions between the characters are enjoyable; each one plays very differently from the others and this adds greatly to the feeling of cooperation.
The campaign isn't quite as good as that of a Halo or Gears of War. It is fairly well structured, yet with a merely adequate level of variety. There are escort missions, and a few "defend the area" sections, but for the most part you are wading through small enemies and sub-bosses in order to get to an objective. Each campaign has one chapter devoted to flying Transformers, and these levels are quite unusual and play very differently, really standing out from the rest. I'd have liked a few more sections like these that required the use of vehicle mode. The boss battles are generally well designed and satisfying; there is a particular battle in the Autobot campaign that will bring a smile to the face of fans of the old cartoon. The last boss in each campaign is colossal, making the giant Akrids of Lost Planet 2 look like ants, and each takes multiple save points to defeat.
Due to the technological nature of the environment, there's a bit of sameness to the surroundings in War for Cybertron, which gives you a feeling of deja vu every once in a while. Though things look similar throughout, the graphics are quite good, especially the robots themselves, who have hundreds of moving parts, constantly twitching even when standing still. This visual complexity adds a level of difficulty, as it can be tough to tell what's hostile and what's not. The transformation animations are particularly well done, very clean and fluid and yet complex at the same time.
The transformation mechanism is a not an afterthought, but instead is a key aspect of gameplay. My initial impression of the game was that there was a severe shortage of ammunition, but then I realized that I was staying in robot mode too much. Weapons and ammo in each mode are distinct from one another, and can be combined to great effect. This alleviates the ammunition issues considerably. It's also wickedly impressive: for example, Optimus Prime can transform into truck mode, accelerate into a pack of Decepticons, while shooting missiles all the way, before ramming them, knocking them aside like bowling pins. The surviving bad guys can be picked off after transformation with short bursts of gunfire, or taken out with a sweep of an energy axe at close range. The flow of combat with transformation added in is visceral, brutal, and incredibly fun.
The level of difficulty in War for Cybertron is a bit daunting. There are some points when it feels as if the game is almost unbeatable. Granted, I played most of the game through with only two human players, but still, even on normal difficulty, some chapters took what I consider to be an inordinate number of reloads. The final Autobot battle, for example, took us three hours over two sessions, and we finally had to turn the difficulty down to easy in order to complete it. It has been quite some time since I saw one hit kill attacks, but most bosses have at least one. Even with the ability to revive fallen characters, the campaign can be quite unforgiving at times.
Once both campaigns are finally complete, which will probably take you between 8 and 12 hours on average, there's still plenty of game left. Escalation mode is offered alongside a particularly robust competitive multiplayer suite. Escalation is a variant of the Horde/Survival modes that are so popular in co-op games today. Up to four players online can team up to defeat waves of enemies. All of the characters playable in the campaign can be selected, plus there are a few unlockables like fan favorite Arcee. Slain enemies drop energon chips which can be used at the Cybertronian equivalent of vending machines to heal, reload ammo, get new weapons, or even unlock doors on the map. Sadly, there are only two levels to choose from, one for each faction. The cap is supposed to be wave 18, but I never made it past wave 8 in any group. I'm sure with a good team, working together and planning effectively, 18 is quite possible. I do wish the custom Transformers and level up system of the competitive multiplayer were available in Escalation. Hopefully, those features, as well as more maps and a higher wave cap, will be added in at a later date.
Considered as a total package, War for Cybertron has a lot going for it. A solid third-person action template, combined with a good variety of characters with varying abilities, would be enough to make a good game. But add in the transformation mechanic, slick visual style and online co-op campaign, plus Escalation mode, and you've got a great game. It isn't flawless, particularly in mission variety and the overly strict difficulty, but Transformers: War for Cybertron is definitely a title that fans of co-op should check out, particularly those with a fondness for robots that change into spaceships, trucks, tanks, and other cool stuff.