War for Cybertron symbolized a turning point for Transformers-based video games (excluding last year's atrocious movie tie-in). High Moon Studios proved a competent license could breach the line of mediocrity hanging over the metal automatons, and with better marketing by Activision, perhaps the sales numbers would reflect that fact. War for Cybertron restored my waning faith in a franchise that pays tribute to the Generation 1 cartoon, so you can predict my excitement that surrounds the buzz of a more polished sequel. Fall of Cybertron hits the nostalgic high notes its predecessor played so well, with a coherent story, recognizable faces, detailed visuals, colorful ruins, addictive multiplayer, and ample character customization.
Unlike the cartoons, the rivalries laying waste to Cybertron cannot be solved in a 22-minute episode. Cybertron is dying, its core extinguished by the hatred burning within its citizens. And without a replenishing Energy supply, the Transformers can no longer inhabit the world. The Autobots intend to seek new life among the stars, but the foolhardy Megatron would rather see Optimus and his weak-hearted subordinates destroyed. The campaign’s beginning echoes the cartoon pilot, where the Decepticons board the Autobots’ Ark as they fly towards the wormhole to Earth. Fans may remember a similar sequence in the 1986 movie when Autobot favorites like Ironhide were killed off as an excuse for Hasbro to manufacture a new toy line, but the desensitized violence of video games makes this experience far less traumatic. As the conflict comes to a head, a foreseeable flashback rewinds the action six days before the eventual clash.
Starscream enjoys the scenic view while plotting to overthrow Megatron.
High Moon expels the faction-specific campaigns of War for Cybertron, which let players to begin the game fighting for the team they most identified with. On the contrary, this freedom presented an unfortunate problem for Autobot sympathizers: fans could complete Optimus' story without any background knowledge of Megatron’s dominion over Dark Energon, Zeta Prime’s death, and Starscream’s loathing of the Decepticon leader. Instead, Fall of Cybertron flows smoothly between acts, automatically switching Autobot and Decepticon perspectives to show both sides of the war. Although the Dinobots factor into the brewing hostility, the developers revise their origin stories to coincide with the series’ continuity.
Nearing the final act, however, both parties chase a similar goal: escape. So why bother with the pointless struggle? Because drama. The narrative ends on several cliffhangers involving Starscream, Bumblebee, Optimus, Megatron, and Grimlock, leaving these multiple character threads open to interpretation, or until the sequel releases at least. The storytelling nearly falters because of this oversight, but the enticing eight hours prior alleviate potential disappointments. While Players that care little for the robots in disguise may waive this problem with a carefree hand gesture, the main demographic finds itself cheated with a hasty ending and no closure.
The Lightning Strike Coalition (Dinobots) gathers one final time.
The shift towards a more personal story also comes at the cost of three-player co-op. Despite War for Cybertron’s dozens of easter eggs and inside jokes, no particular Autobot or Decepticon had time to shine when sharing the limelight with two equally iconic characters. Now you will be undergoing the journey solo. To make sure you never feel alone, Fall of Cybertron spawns more than enough robot combatants on-screen (leading to periodic frame rate stutters) while ridding controllable Transformers of regenerative health (due to low Energon reserves).
Heavy weapons will become your best friends. Miniguns, acid launchers, and health harvesters bring down opposing battalions in showers of sparks and scrap metal, but minibosses require more tact than just dumping photon rounds into their towering chassis. Luckily, transforming makes a great traversal and getaway tool. Getting backed into a corner as Starscream? Morph into a jet and rain missiles down from the sky. I still wished for the aid of two bots/friends when checkpoints could best be described as rare, but efficient use of the character abilities should result in fewer restarts.
Without cooperative campaign play, High Moon Studios can focus on the skills inherent to each character, too. The varied level design owes itself to this change. Cliffjumper’s exploration of a Decepticon base meshes well with his cloaking technology, stealth, and silent executions, while Jazz’s ascension from the depths of Insecticon ruins requires his grappling hook when scaling vertical ledges or ripping down doors. The occasional power trip also strengthens the story’s production values once players harness the unstoppable powers of Bruticus and Metroplex, who dwarf their robot allies.
Giving away Cliffjumper's position will force you into drawn-out duels against the toughest of Decepticon creations.
An issue I took with War for Cybertron’s story, however, returns in this sequel. Instead of the fights between Autobot and Decepticon regulars that dominated children's bedrooms in the ‘80s, many confrontations force you into fights against nameless drones. The enemy composition includes an assortment of grenadiers and snipers, but the game never provides distinguishing characteristics beyond color swaps (red/blue for Autobots, purple/green for Decepticons). The final level offers the one exception. Here the gameplay changes on the fly, from Autobots to Decepticons back to Autobots, as each force vies to repair or destroy the crumbling Ark.
With each faceless drone dismantled, players collect shards for use at one of the many Teletraan 1 stations spread across Cybertron. Here players unlock perks, from increased health capacity and lower shield recharge times to one-time-use items like heat-seeking mines and floating sentry bots. Weapons may be upgraded too, though I deemed a boost in movement speed more valuable than faster firing rates. Enhancements carry over between Autobot and Decepticon factions as well. That Riot Cannon with more energy missiles in the barrel may be equipped by Optimus, Starscream, Jazz, Vortex, and so on. The constant progression hardly makes sense, but define the logic surrounding transforming, bipedal space robots.
I don't think Bruticus appreciates Jazz's witty insults.
Despite the planet's fading core, Cybertron sustains a fresh color palette. (High Moon Studios replicated the sleek look of massive metallic cities in War for Cybertron, but the environments contained little differentiation beyond 50 shades of gray.) Featuring more metal tones, copper walls bare a nice faded patina that results from frequent salt water exposure, and each Transformer’s primary yellow, red, and blue matte hues reflect the burning rays of the midday sun. The characters’ wheels and exhaust ports constantly shift about their two-legged forms while they soldier across the battlefields, translating into more believable machines, but Cybertron is as much a living space as its inhabitants. Spinning cogs, industrial lasers, and other metal assemblies carry out their prescribed functions regardless of the disease slowing enveloping its surface.
Players hung up on the lack of cooperative campaign play should be glad to hear High Moon’s Horde-derived Escalation mode returns in greater force. True to the single-player’s focus on character abilities, Escalation features a class system. Teams select from less popular Transformers, like Perceptor or Brawl, who wield flak shields, heal beams, sentry turrets, or power cores that refills an ally’s ammo. As players progress through each map’s 15 waves, they earn credits for opening additional parts of the map, purchasing weapons, activating automated defenses, and upgrading firearm tiers (more ammo, faster reloads, etc.). Unlocking access doors to new areas requires the coordination of the entire group, as the cost requirements usually exceed the amount of money that solo players accumulate.
I'm crossing my fingers for cooperative Dinobot DLC missions.
Multiplayer pitches a more comprehensive class system, including familiar archetypes like the Scientist (medic) and Infiltrator (sniper) that determine each automaton’s speed and health. But more exciting than any balanced class competition is the prospect of building your own Transformer. Players select from a virtual junkyard of heads, arms, legs, chests, decals, and shoulders. The chest piece decides the style of your creation’s vehicle form, but only the Scientist can fly, and if you don't jump in the air before transforming, you're doing it wrong. I guarantee you'll look 20% cooler in ten seconds flat. References aside, each class levels independently, so you cannot outfit a Titan class with an Infiltrator’s Nucleon Charge Rifle. With a surplus of 50 unlockable parts, credits gained from experience points fed my desire to construct the machine of my childhood dreams.
On the gameplay front, players square off in four separate modes centered around killing opponents, capturing nodes, stealing flags, or collecting sparks. The action constantly shifts from one side of the level to the other via the intelligent respawn mechanic that revives you near your teammates or an objective, yet players must know their roles. The Titan and Destroyer should lead the charge with their Whirlwind and shield powers while Infiltrators and Scientists provide sniper support or heal wounded squad mates. However, the campaign's frame rate problems loom over the mayhem. With a full clash of six Autobots and six Decepticons contesting a single Conquest node, the frames shudder under the gaze of a domineering scrap pile.
The nostalgia flows strong with this one. Listening to Grimlock and Slug (originally Slag) argue over Cesium Salami and Beryllium Bologna is a great head nod to old-school Transformers fan, but the blight of the narrative's haphazard conclusion does the set pieces and character development an injustice. Escalation revives interest in standard wave-based survival modes with a focus on class cooperation, and players tired of the boilerplate multiplayer progression may find something to love as their personalized automaton lumbers about the arenas. Most importantly, Fall of Cybertron still beams with High Moon's love of the franchise and emphasis on fan service, and sometimes, that's all the service gamers need.
Developer: High Moon Studios
Release Date: August 21, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative), 2-12 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC