On a distant planet made of explosions and things going whir-ka-chow-kow-cheee and turning into hover cars or something, giant screeching robots fight even gianter screechier robots for control of robot souls, maybe? Transformers: War for Cybertron is the Brechtian epic theater of the Transformers products; its execution and trappings force one to reflect on the identity of the franchise itself. The robots-on-a-robot-planet setting of Cybertron frees players from the trappings of mammalian familiarity yet sparks insight into the nature of humanity via subconcious empathy with humanoid forms of the protagonist robots. Also there are EMP grenades, plasma rocket launchers, Gatling guns and sometimes guys can turn into jets.
Transformers: War for Cybertron takes players to the home planet of the robotic Transformers (giant machines who can change at will into various cars, jets, tanks, and pieces of home stereo equipment but sadly not, for the extra nostalgic of us, radical badass handguns) for the backstory on the destruction (spoiler?) of their planet, which is itself a robot. Evil Decepticons get their gauntlets on a corrupting power source called dark energon and proceed to battle good guys into the core of the planet. Once there they unleash this semi magic energy in a vaguely sensible bid for power. Good guy Autobots try to stop, fail to stop, then fight to survive this catastrophe. While the plot is as shouty and insane as the latest movies have been, there is real charm and panache in the archly delived dialogue of the various robots’ bombastic personalities.
Visually War for Cybertron can be overwrought. Picking out your robot from a background where everything else is a robot or part of a giant robot or a piece of a robot planet is a sciatic trial. In the brief moments when Megatron, Starscream, Bumblebee and Optimus (notably not yet called Optimus Prime) are cast against a bright light, the twitchings and flipping of their robotic forms even at rest are hypnotic. Pretty? Certainly. But the density of mechano-frippery and circuit gilding can be challenging to handle in a game where picking out your targets quickly and accurately is essential to survival.
Players choose from one of four breeds of Transformer each mapping their abilities to a battlefield role and associated vehicle transformation. Speedy scouts can turn into race cars while soldiers become tanks. Leaders take the form of trucks and dispense buffs to friendly units while Scientists can transform into jets and use their superior maneuverability to flank enemies and support allies. Targeting the array of guns, rockets and grenades can be sluggish at times, in part due to the supposed scale of the robots, but mainly depressingly true to form of third-person shooters. Without a hard lock onto enemies a la Uncharted 2, the robots, drones and enormous bosses you spend so much time blasting quickly slip out of your crosshairs amid the background clutter. While your robots generally feel like they are slogging through molasses, sometimes awkwardly clipping environs, their one-button transformations work hard to balm that. Driving off a cliff, morphing into a robot, blasting some fools and transforming back to boost away is a delightfully common experience. Ramming through a line of Decepticon drones as Optimus’ truck form or rocketing Starscream up to a sniping perch seemlessly integrate the transformation mechanic.
In addition to a two-sided single-player campaign (half Decpticon, half Autobot) War For Cybertron has a decent host of multiplayer offerings. Standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, point-capturing Conquest mode, bomb-delivering Countdown to Extinction and a tug-of-war-style melee brawl via Code of Power mode hold their own as far as third-person shooters go. The gems in the online mix are the co-op campaign option and the Escalation chalenge, where ever-tougher waves of robots bear down on your team. Each defeated wave earns you points that you can spend to heal, re-arm or upgrade. It’s a distinctly classic arcade gamestyle and reminds us how enjoyable the experience of overwhelming odds can be.
Transformers: War for Cybertron does right by the beloved and poorly managed franchise. Pining for artistry and highfalutin’ craft in a product specifically designed to market toys is silly and I won’t attempt it. Transformers are shallowly cool but ultimately disposable fun and War for Cybertron skews hard on the cool end of that scale. While the painful lack of cover mechanics so common and integral to other third-person shooters is uncomfortable, there is a great sense of reward to the single-player difficulty. When you get blown to robotic smithereens it is most often because the game is pleasingly hard and not because you tripped on a frustrating bit of geometry. The gigantic boss fights are a particular treat, especially for old-school shmup afficionados, and the mix of arcade elements into HD gaming is warmly welcomed. A bit better lighting and some more acrobatic flying would have put this game over the top, but as it stands it’s still the best Transformers game ever with a solid B. — Glenn Given