Developer: Highmoon Studios / Publisher: Activision / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Teen (Animated Blood, Violence)
It speaks to the quality of High Moon’s modernized treatment of Transformers that I came out of Fall of Cybertron caring more about the franchise than I have in probably 18 or so years. See, I don’t have a fondness for Transformers like many of my peers. I was at about the appropriate age when the cartoon hit its stride in the mid-90’s and, naturally, had my fair share of Transformers action figures. But while many childhood interests survived through to adulthood, Transformers lost my gaze some time ago. But the appeal of Fall of Cybertron isn’t cemented in nostalgia. Smart design decisions create an experience that’s both mechanically sound and loyal to the feel and universe of Transformers.
Cybertron, the Transformer home world, has been ravaged by civil war. Its one life-sustaining resource, Energon, is all but depleted. This bleak situation is where Fall of Cybertron picks up. It follows the days leading up to the attempted departure of the Autobots to Earth via their spaceship, the Ark. Predictably, the Decepticons will do whatever they can to prevent this from happening.
There’s never been anything particularly nuanced about Transformers. The evil robots do evil stuff and the good robots do good stuff. They often punch each other in the face and it’s awesome. Fall of Cybertron doesn’t cover any new ground here; it’s clear the narrative elements are steeped in fan service. But as someone who isn’t totally dedicated to the franchise, I still found interesting hooks in Fall of Cybertron’s story. Instead of two separate campaigns like in War for Cybertron, FoC jumps back and forth between Autobot and Decepticon perspectives, putting you in control of A-Tier Transformers like Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, and Starscream. The unexpected effect of this structure change is that I felt conflicted about my actions. I’d work toward a goal on the Autobot side only to try to undo it from the Decepticon perspective. It’s a unique story-telling device that should satisfy fans on both sides of the robot wars.
Fall of Cybertron is grounded in a combat experience that’s an interesting contradiction; I never felt safe while always being a badass, which I suppose is in line with what being an actual Transformer must be like. There’s no cover mechanic like most modern third-person shooters. Instead, Fall of Cybertron requires you to be mobile; it puts you out in the open and keeps you there. So mastering the mechanics that are at your disposal becomes necessary for survival, the most obvious of which also separates Transformers games from non-Transformers games: the ability to turn into a vehicle.
It’s not always clear-cut when you should be in robot form and when you should be in vehicle form, which is good. This means it’s up to you to develop strategy. Vehicle form means you’re moving faster and are more heavily armored. But robot form is when you’re dealing out the most damage. Start taking into account the game’s new dash-and-roll maneuver and the various weapon loadouts you have to pick from in the single-player campaign and you end up with a fair amount of choice about how to approach the game and you’re always rewarded for picking intelligently.
The core experience of Fall of Cybertron comes close to what I would call “repetitive” but special abilities provided through the single-player campaign help vary the action, though some are better implemented than others. An early, half-baked stealth section with Cliff Jumper had me concerned that multiplayer abilities were just slapped into the campaign without much thought. And at the eleventh hour High Moon turns the game into a third-person hack-and-slash with Grimlock. His sluggish movement speed and lack of lock-on ability don’t really lend themselves well to this style of gameplay. Despite making a big deal about his presence in the lead up the game’s release, his sections are probably the least mechanically interesting. That said, Jazz’s seemingly straightforward grapple hook gets used in some pretty interesting ways that highlight the importance of verticality and positioning in the game’s combat.
There’s a scale to the action in Fall of Cybertron that out-does just about anything seen in War for Cybertron. Early on Optimus Prime has the ability to guide the gigantic, city-sized Autobot Metroplex. And a Starscream mission toward the end of game provides a pretty huge area to jet around in while dropping EMPs on Autobot equipment. These memorable moments ended up being my favorite parts of the campaign.
It’s worth noting that Fall of Cybertron isn’t immune to framerate slowdowns when there’s lots of action on-screen and the Unreal Engine’s now infamous texture fade-in can occasionally be distracting.
Multiplayer takes many of the mechanics and systems you’ll get a taste for in the single-player and distributes them among four different classes. The result is often a close quarters, chaotic, but extremely balanced experience. For example, the Infiltrator class is fast and has access to temporary invisibility while the scientist has a heal beam and can transform into a jet for ultimate mobility. Just like in the single-player, the ability to turn into vehicles provides an additional strategic layer on the multiplayer encounters and really emphasizes the importance of having big, vertical maps.
The class-based dynamic also carries over into the game’s Escalation mode, High Moon’s take on wave-based survival. As you destroy enemies you gain Energon, which can be used to purchase advantages like weapon upgrades and environmental traps. You pick one of four Transformers, each filling a role in the archetypal RPG party: tank, healer, DPS. This class breakdown really forces teamwork since surviving on your own isn’t much of a viable option after the first few waves. The solid mechanics found through the rest of the game are just as present here.
The craziest part about Fall of Cybertron is that I’m appreciating it not out of some overly indulgent childhood nostalgia but rather for what it’s doing right now. It’s been way too long since the Transformers property has been this good but High Moon’s take on the universe is shaping up to be the modernized reboot the franchise desperately needs.