The Transformers may be more than meets the eye, but Transformers: Fall of Cybertron has an obvious goal: to let you control numerous Autobots and Decepticons while filling the screen with as much fire and brimstone as possible. Developer High Moon strives for metal-on-metal sensory assault, which is both a strength and a weakness. When the game thinks big, your eyes and ears are treated to larger-than-life spectacles; gargantuan robots sprawl across your view, and you annihilate mechanical monstrosities with the touch of a button. But Fall of Cybertron's most exciting moments are those you watch, not those you play. It can be a lot of fun, but the visual thrills don't consistently translate into stimulating gameplay.
There is excitement to unearth, however--it just takes a while for it to come into focus. The first half of the single-player campaign never finds a groove. You spend several levels in control of the kingly Optimus Prime, who sounds more than ever like an elder statesman, morally incorruptible and in complete control of his emotions. As in Transformers: War for Cybertron, you can morph from robot form to vehicular form and back again, though shooting, driving, and shooting-while-driving aren't Prime's only skills. He also fires artillery, ducks under beams, orders air strikes, lifts heavy objects, comforts his subordinates, and pulls levers.
That's normal shooter stuff, of course, but Fall of Cybertron's first half has you spending so much time watching explosions, performing single-button tasks, and occasionally hitting a button to make things die, that the full-fledged action seems like an afterthought. There aren't many extensive shooting sequences here. Instead, you get tossed from one task to the next without any kind of rhythm developing. Battles heat up just in time for you to find another door to open or another scripted event to witness. Aspects of the flat early hours carry over to later hours as well. Every major showdown between main players is interesting to watch but boring to play. That includes the game's final encounter, which you conquer not by overcoming a challenging enemy, but by responding to button prompts. Prompts that involve only one button.
Yet even before you leave Optimus Prime behind for other Transformers, there are momentary pleasures that keep you invested. Some of these moments are power trips: you speed across a bridge, mowing down the nameless bots that dare cross your path. Others build atmosphere: a facility morphs around you as you walk through it, making you wonder what might be causing such an anomaly. All the while, you get a real sense that the planet of Cybertron has reached its expiration date. Environments are in various stages of collapse, and the skies burn with sparking metal and the blistering exhaust of Decepticon dropships.
From here, Fall of Cybertron cycles you through various Transformers, changing up the gameplay--and then changing it up again just when you get the hang of things. One mission encourages stealthiness, having you go invisible and sneak behind sentries for a one-button execution. As Jazz, you play as a sort of bionic commando, grappling from platform to platform, using your mobility to stay out of the sights of the foes that continually hound you. Aside from the levels in which you soar through the skies in vehicular form, careening about as Jazz is one of the most enjoyable things to do in Fall of Cybertron, in part because you must stay light on your feet if you want to stay alive. The controls are smooth and the animations are fluid, so zipping from spot to spot is never a struggle, just a joy.
Land battle sequences play out as a standard third-person shooter and are generally solid, though there is an odd disconnect between the mechanics and the level design. Most Transformers are glass cannons--that is, you might do a lot of damage, but you're also surprisingly vulnerable, considering you're a huge hunk of metal. The game even encourages you to use cover, and indeed, several areas seem ripped right out of a cover shooter. Friends and enemies regularly use cover, but you yourself cannot; you can't even duck. Wading directly into the fray is sure death, and more time than you'd want is spent trying to find a safe spot for your shields to replenish, rather than standing strong.
Larger levels fare better, encouraging you to morph back and forth from bot to vehicle. The best of these have you zipping through the air and dropping death on your foes in aerial form, and then landing on platforms and finishing off the survivors. Sadly, there are only a few such levels; others are more interested in sending you on a power trip than in making you earn your triumphs. In several instances, such as when you stomp about as Grimlock, you lose ranged weapons in favor of melee attacks, wreaking havoc on waves of foes by slashing, swiping, and breathing fire. There's little strategy involved--you just press buttons and view the dramatic display of death that ensues. It's exciting to watch, but you're not working very hard for the victory.
This constant flipping from one type of gameplay to another is a departure from the monotony that crept into War for Cybertron. At times, the game focuses so much on mixing things up that it loses focus: developer High Moon never deepens or strengthens any single mechanic before it moves to the next. But in the final levels, something miraculous happens: Fall of Cybertron weaves these disparate threads together into an exciting sequence that puts you in control of one bot after another so quickly that all you can do is ride this overcharged roller coaster and relish in its hyperactivity and visual excess. A boss fight featuring the agile Jazz might again be the highlight here, as it is one of the few times in which Fall of Cybertron puts a clever spin on mechanics it previously explored.
It's a shame that the PlayStation 3 version struggles to keep up with that excess. At times, Fall of Cybertron is a technical mess on Sony's console: square pixels sometimes erupt where there should be sparks, loading times occur in the middle of the action, and the game may even lock up and require you to restart the system. The resolution is noticeably lower than on the Xbox 360, and textures are so blurry that you could momentarily wonder if a higher-res texture has yet to pop in. The frame rate isn't perfectly steady on the Xbox 360, but it keeps pace better than the PS3 version, which chugs more frequently.
Amid all of this is a story that's as unfocused as its gameplay, which might be a given considering how often you change perspectives. The character hopping makes it hard to get invested in any one Transformer, each bot more or less living up to the simple characterization we've come to expect. The ongoing struggle centered on Cybertron's diminishing Energon supplies is a simple excuse to trigger Optimus Prime's platitudes and Megatron's humorless megalomania. The memorable developments involve a Decepticon power struggle and an unexpected Autobot ally, the rest of the storytelling mostly relying on dry battlefield commands (Shoot those big guns! Protect that door at all costs!) and cheesy banter. The few attempts to elicit an emotional response come across as laughable, though to be fair, there are enough tongue-in-cheek one-liners to suggest that developer High Moon Studios was in on the joke.
Concentrating as it does on being as much a scripted summer blockbuster as it is a game, Fall of Cybertron does not allow you to invite a buddy along for the ride; unlike in War for Cybertron, the campaign is for one person only, which is a disappointing loss. However, the cooperative Escalation mode is back, and it's an enjoyable take on the Horde mode formula so common in modern shooters. You and three buddies (or strangers) fend off 15 waves of progressively more powerful enemies, each of you in control of a single Transformer. Some maps have you playing as Autobots, and others as Decepticons, but the roles are the same. One bot has a healing beam, another can refill the team's ammo, and so forth. Among the four of you, you should be able to cope with the dangers, with a little ingenuity and battlefield control.
More intriguing is that you earn currency as you shoot up snipers and Insecticons, and then spend it in various ways--purchasing ammo, opening doors to expand the battle arena, buying new guns, and eventually buying upgrades. Pennies don't rain from heaven, however, so you must spend your funds carefully. If your teammates drop money into opening a doorway into a new area and you spend your portion on a scattergun, they might end up cursing your selfish decision, and you might wish you'd had the freedom the extra space would have offered.
Competitive play is more predictable, at least from a structural standpoint. Team Deathmatch and a variation thereof, Capture the Flag, and Conquest are the modes available, and so you shoot the competition, perhaps while capturing control points or defending your flag. The moment-to-moment gameplay is great fun, however, in part thanks to the transformations. In the single-player campaign, there's rarely a strategic need to flip between robot and vehicular forms. On online battlefields, however, being effective means using each form to your advantage. There are four classes available, and you can take to the skies and rain down rockets, use your considerable bulk to soak up bullets on the ground, or zip around for quick, decisive strikes. It's a good mix that favors constant movement over camping, the only sour taste coming from brief and infrequent bouts of lag.
The diversity of battlefield tactics is elevated by the customization tools available to you. As you play, you earn experience, ultimately unlocking different weapons, weapon upgrades, and cosmetic pieces. You can make yourself look like Starscream if you want, but why not concoct a Transformer of your own imagining? The more you play, the more varied the action becomes, and the more unique you look. The elaborate customization and entertaining battles should keep franchise fans interested long enough to adapt a few different classes to their own play styles.
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron's campaign is over in seven hours or so, some of its chapters hovering around 40 minutes, and others over in a quick 15. It's not as long as War for Cybertron, but it is more varied and more visually stimulating. Yet in leaving behind its predecessor's problems, it gained some of its own, sacrificing thrilling action in favor of noninteractive spectacle. PlayStation 3 owners don't get the full effect of such spectacle, their version of the game not rendering the fireworks in their proper glory. But owners of both consoles get a fun (if inconsistent) array of offline and online battles that scratch that action-flick itch.