I played through several single-player and multiplayer levels of the game during a recent press event at High Moon Studios' offices in Carlsbad, Calif., and it was apparent that the developer has brought all of its Unreal experience to the fore. There are some very cool gameplay ideas at play that should make for an entertaining romp, especially when experienced with a friend or two. (Hey, if a 50 Cent game can pull it off ... )
War for Cybertron's story mode is divided into two campaigns: the Decepticon campaign functions as a Megatron origin story, while the Autobots campaign follows chronologically; though they can be played in either order -- or even simultaneously.
Each level offers you three different Transformers to choose from, each equipped with two typical weapons (from pistols to rocket launchers), as well as two separate combat abilities. In the first level I played, from an early section in the Autobots campaign, I did what anyone who knows anything about Transformers would do: I chose Optimus (not yet a "Prime"); and the AI took control of the other two robots, Bumblebee and Ratchet. I should note here that War for Cybertron features drop-in/drop-out co-op with support for up to three players, who control all the playable Transformers in a given level.
Transformation from robot to vehicle, and vice versa, can be performed at any time with the click of the left stick, and while you can stay in either "vehicle" or "robot" form throughout the game, each mode has its advantages and disadvantages. While in robot form, some Transformers, like Optimus, feature a dash ability as one of their special moves, which is a faster means of moving around than "driving" -- they also gain an armor bonus in robot form. But in vehicle form, that character's weapons might be more powerful. So, transforming becomes a game of balancing speed, defense and offense.
The level opened as a hologram of Megatron taunted the three Autobots, entreating them to "follow the Decepticons or face destruction!" My AI allies and I soon faced the first wave of enemy 'bots, and they went down quickly. There are no cover or reloading mechanics. Instead, the robots' special abilities are what distinguish the gameplay, which is otherwise similar to Gears of War in its somewhat clunky, slow-moving action. (The hulking Marcus Fenix and company are perhaps not so far removed from giant robots.)
I steered Optimus and friends down into a destroyed part of Cybertron, discovering on the way that "Megatron has weaponized Dark Energon!" -- yeah, there's a lot of that kind of dialogue. Still, the lines felt authentic to the Transformers brand and hearing Optimus as voiced by the distinctive Peter Cullen brought me right back to the beloved, original series. During one segment of the level, a big Decepticon attacked us and, after turning him into scrap metal, I was able to obtain his unique weapon, a powerful minigun. You can carry just two weapons at a time but can acquire bigger, temporary weapons. Switching into vehicle form forced me to abandon the minigun.
As I arrived at the level's boss, Optimus remarked that he'd "seen this in the Archives -- it's a Decepticon War Machine!" The machine was a big tripod drill, filling up the circular room of the level -- an impressive show of the game's manipulation of scale. Shooting out its legs while avoiding missile barrages opened up a precious weak point on the machine's main body. I targeted this spot, while now avoiding a rotating death ray, and eventually the boss came a-tumblin' down.
The second level of the campaign that I demoed was located on Iacon, the Autobots' capital, currently under attack from Decepticon forces. Ratchet was my bot of choice this time. While Optimus is primed (sorry) for destruction, Ratchet is a support bot: his primary gun is a healing device; and one of his abilities allows him to throw up an energy barrier for cover, while the other gives him a stationary overhead turret that targets any threatening forces.
This second level played out as a large-scale showdown against the Decepticons. Various AI Autobots remained in support roles behind stationary positions on one side of a wide battlefield, as my team and I made our way across to take out the Decepticons on the other side guarding an unidentified building. A cover system would have been useful here -- but the developer overseeing my preview explained that it wouldn't have worked with the vehicle forms being available. So, I used what cover objects I could, poking out and taking enemy robots down one by one with grenades and abilities. After cleansing the battlefield, the Autobots and I burst into the building we'd fought up to ... and the demo ended.
It was a short preview, and in fact, my biggest question about the campaign following my demo was concerning its scope. I didn't get any answers from the High Moon crew about how long either of the campaigns would be. And while having three different roles to try out in each level, as well as the ability to bring in real-life buddies, adds to replay value, it remains to be seen just how much gameplay the War for Cybertron campaigns will provide.
Fortunately, multiplayer adds quite a bit to the overall package. In multiplayer, however, you're not playing as one of the famous robots. Instead, you choose your somewhat generic Transformer from four different classes: Scout, Scientist, Leader, or Soldier.
Scouts, as you'd expect, are quick on their sports-car wheels, and able to stun other robots with an EMP. Scientists are jet-bots, and serve as the healers of the group; able to equip a repair ray and heal grenades, drain energy from enemies, and even disguise themselves as members of the other team. Leaders are larger vehicles like trucks, and bring big weapons and ability modifiers to a team, buffing their allies or debuffing the opposing side (forcing opponents to transform into the alternate mode, for example). Finally, Soldiers are true heavy hitters, packing the biggest guns, laying down ammunition for other players, and making use of a "hover mode" that lets them float in the air while in robot mode with boosted defense and offense -- an excellent ability for quickly clearing an area full of enemies.
I played as all four classes across a series of matches in two different game modes. Team Deathmatch was the first, and it was the standard kill-or-be-killed gametype. What you quickly discover in multiplayer is that it's important to not only rely on your special abilities, but to stack them as well. I started out as a Scientist and developed a strategy for ambushing lone opponents that incorporated all of my abilities: Flying down to surprise an enemy while in jet mode, I quickly transformed into robot form as I touched down, targeting my opponent's backside and activating my Drain ability -- to steal away the last of his health -- just as he turned to face me. As I continued playing, I added my Sentry ability to the tactic for extra firepower, along with a heal grenade just before triggering my Drain. So, I would ambush a lone enemy, with my sentry, heal myself, and drain his life -- all in one stringed attack.
Of course, not every opponent was detached from his squad, and many battles quickly escalated to team warfare -- the deciding factor often being the side that best used its various powers in devastating combinations.
The other match type I played was dubbed Conquest, and it played out very much like Call of Duty's Domination or similar team-based shooter modes. Both teams attempt to capture and hold three different locations on the map, each earning points as they do, until one team hits the win limit. Conquest is much more about positioning than is Team Deathmatch, and most matches begin with teams racing to control points in vehicle forms.
Spending so much time in vehicle form in Conquest revealed a serious issue with War for Cybertron: the vehicles don't control particularly well. While I found flying around as a jet to be a blast, all of the ground vehicles are basically hovertanks. Instead of moving on wheels, they float slightly above the ground, allowing for the ability to strafe and rotate while in place. The reason for this is clear: It would be extremely hard to control a wheeled vehicle in the tight spaces of the game maps. (One developer joked that the team had tried a more traditional set of driving controls, and called that failed experiment the "Austin Powers mode.") But the drawback to the hover vehicles is that their controls feel disconnected. They're just not cars and are subject to a dissatisfying "floatiness" as you slide around the gameworld. While the joy of jumping into the air and transforming into a jet is definitely there, flipping yourself into a "concept VW Bug" (or whatever that thing is) as Bumblebee doesn't feel right. I often found it easier -- and faster -- to stick with the dash ability in robot form than to actually transform into a vehicle, and that doesn't bode well for a game called "Transformers."
Still, I found multiplayer entertaining, and the inclusion of some character customization, challenges, unlockables, and experience points suggest that there's some incentive to keep playing. I also spotted "Prime mode" in the menus (which might be something like Call of Duty's "Prestige mode").
What I played of Transformers: War for Cybertron seemed to indicate, as game director Matt Tieger told me, that High Moon Studios puts gameplay first and the Transformers license a close second. The game played as an above-average third-person shooter, and the Unreal Engine rendered some sharp graphical touches, as the quality audio design -- man, that Peter Cullen voice! -- fills in the backstory and presence of the Transformer homeworld. There are a few control issues that will hopefully be addressed, and with just the short segments of the campaign that I played to go on, it's not clear if the story mode will succeed as an engaging experience.
Still, if nothing else, the unique abilities of the Transformers will make for a few good co-op levels with friends and some entertaining multiplayer matches. War for Cybertron doesn't look to be the licensed game standout that was Batman: Arkham Asylum, but it seems capable of providing a respectable experience for shooter and Transformers fans alike. At the very least, it should hold up better than a Michael Bay storyline.