The tagline for the Transformers cartoon boldly claimed that there is more to these robots than meets the eyes. Unfortunately, the latest game in which these ever-changing aliens star offers much less than its shiny exterior promises. This flashy third-person shooter draws heavily on the notable license on which it's based, seamlessly bringing the characters and world into the digital realm. But beneath that nostalgia-rich shell hides a draining shooter in which fighting off waves of monotony is a greater challenge than defeating the relentless horde of robot soldiers. The transformative abilities that should separate this from other shooters are poorly represented, resulting in a by-rote, gun-spraying adventure in which it's difficult to remember where you are or what your objective is, because everything blends together. The cooperative and competitive modes do offer more memorable encounters than the drab campaign, but it's impossible to shake the feeling that this would be another quickly forgotten shooter if you were controlling a random assortment of robot warriors instead of Optimus Prime and his crew of do-gooders.
The story in Transformers: War for Cybertron is little more than one megalomaniac robot's dream for ultimate power and the shining heroes' attempt to stop his evil ways. It's not particularly entertaining, but there are a number of clever touches that do a good job of bringing the source material to life. The campaign is broken up into two parts, one in which you control the decepticons, and the other where you man the autobots, and it's interesting to spend time with the morally opposed factions and see the differences in their demeanor and the manner in which they treat each other. For example, Megatron is a surly, eyes-on-the-prize leader who doesn't take guff from anyone and thinks joking is beneath him. But he is always being opposed by the upstart Starscream, who doesn't much care for taking orders and openly mocks his leader. On the good side, Optimus Prime continually dishes out "please" and "I'm sorry" like a guy desperately trying to make people like him. It's ultimately a lot more entertaining to hang around with the cantankerous bad guys, but no matter which side you're aligned with, you can count on authentically cheesy Transformers dialogue.
The 10-level campaign stretches for more than 15 hours, but because the majority of the game entails walking through similar-looking corridors gunning down waves of mindless robots, it seems to drag on far longer than that. The core mechanics are certainly well done--jumping around the environment is responsive, and it's easy enough to swing your sights onto a fast-approaching foe--but there are too many small issues that continually get in the way of the action. For instance, the cramped level design and quantity of enemy fire forces you to take cover often, making the game play like a cover-based shooter. However, you cannot actually snap behind objects, which means it's easy to have a body part exposed when you thought you were safely hidden. More troubling is the ammunition, or lack thereof. Every gun you fire in your humanoid or vehicle form (except for jets) requires ammo, but your bullets are depleted far too quickly, forcing you to spend time scouring the environment for replenishment rather than busting up bots. This is compounded by an incredibly slow reload process that continually interrupts the flow of combat. Every time you get in a groove, you have to spend precious seconds either reloading or searching for more bullets, continually pulling you away from any of the fun you could be having.
These small problems become a serious thorn in your side because the repetitive campaign does little to distract you from them. There are only a handful of different enemies to battle with, and other than a shielded bot that needs to be shot in the back, none of them require a tactically different approach. The bulk of the game entails shooting down AI-deficient foes in similar-looking areas, making it difficult to distinguish one section from the rest. Unfortunately, the few moments of reprieve from this drudgery conjure new problems. During one excruciatingly long escort mission, you must defend Ratchet from a swarm of snipers, jets, and other robots, but the computer's unwavering focus on eliminating you rather than your AI-controlled allies, coupled with the painfully long time it takes to resurrect Ratchet when he dies, makes this drag on long after the fun has run out. In another laughable scene, you're taken prisoner and stripped of your weapons--every weapon, that is, except for the battle axe you carry with you at all times. Any tension is eliminated when you bash through the prison wall with your melee attack and find a cache of guns waiting for you on the other side.
A Transformers game would be pretty silly if you were stuck in humanoid form all the time, but thankfully you can change into a vehicle whenever you want. Small sections of each level are built specifically for your vehicular form, and it's fun to cruise down cylindrical roadways or glide across asteroid belts and let the Cybertron atmosphere wash over you. These are the best moments in the game, letting you ignore the monotonous combat for a while and soak in your circuitous surroundings. Sadly, only two levels in the game allow you to play as one of the jet characters, which is a shame because there is nothing better in the campaign than dive-bombing your foes and laughing at the gravity that's holding them to the ground. Unfortunately, even though you can transform on demand, it's not integrated well with the core gameplay. There are few instances in which you must strategically flip between forms to stay alive, and the brief pause between transformations makes hightailing it away from a bad situation rather awkward. Instead, your vehicle forms are just slightly more nimble versions of your humanoid bodies, and the lack of clever implementation makes this feature feel tacked on to the standard shooting.
The entire campaign can be played with up to two friends, which is a wise decision considering the laughable intelligence of your computer-controlled allies. These moronic robots frequently get lost in the elaborate corridors, lagging far behind even when you're surrounded by Cybertronian thugs, and don't have the decency to revive you when you fall in battle. This lack of war zone instincts is especially noticeable in boss battles. During one encounter against a towering menace, the AI soldier stood smack-dab in the middle of the battlefield, firing valiantly into the sky with no regard for his own life or the enemy's weak point. And though boss battles are certainly better with a friend by your side, they are still extremely tedious. These multistage foes have inflated life bars, staving off death even after you pump hundreds of rounds of ammunition into their heads, faces, and chests. Almost every boss battle is exhausting, dragging on for a half hour or more as you desperately hope your next shot will finish it off. And except for the final boss in the game, none of them are particularly difficult, so you need to be only slightly more stubborn than your enemy to be victorious.
The world of Cybertron is fully realized, bringing the planet of robots to life. The purple-hued atmosphere feels like an alien world, and the odd structures and twisting pathways add to this idea that you are not from around these parts. The visuals may elicit a feeling of awe when you first fire up the game, but that sense of wonder is quickly lost when you trudge through the same environments for a dozen or more hours without any variety. Cybertron is not an inviting land, and stomping through its bleak vistas makes the already monotonous combat even more suffocating. It's not until the last couple of levels that you are finally treated to a unique view, which feels like a well-deserved vacation after putting up with the dreary sights for so long. It's not surprising that these alien robots eventually flee to Earth. It's easy to empathize with Megatron's quest for power when you see the depressing world he was stranded on for so long.
Thankfully, there is more to War for Cybertron than the forgettable campaign. Escalation is an additional way to play cooperatively, and though it shares a commonality with Gears of War 2's famed Horde mode, it's distinct enough to give even Locust-blasting aficionados something new to tool around with. The most noteworthy twist to the tried-and-true formula is the currency you earn for blasting down foes. Waves of enemy robots mercilessly hunt you and your friends, but you can buy upgrades between and during rounds to ensure your survival. Buyable goods include expected things, such as more powerful guns, but you have to make sure your basics are covered first. You must purchase health and ammunition, which gives Escalation a strategic element instead of just gunning down waves of enemies. Figuring out the most efficient ways to dispatch foes is one of the keys to success, and trying your hardest to avoid being shot is imperative since each blow takes its toll. This is a clever overhaul to the formula, and though it can be frustrating when your teammates are not up to your skill level, it's a lot of fun when everything clicks.
The competitive offering is not as novel as Escalation, but it provides its own draw that makes it difficult to put down. The reward and perk systems popularized in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare have been transported to Cybertron, and it's just as addictive to shoot robots and watch your experience points soar as it was to shoot human soldiers back on Earth. The levels are large enough that you can breathe between fights and take your time to seek out the best spots on the battlefield, but there is always a foe close at hand if your trigger finger gets itchy. There is a selfish aspect, too, which makes it more exciting to gun for your own points rather than sacrifice for the good of the team. Jumping late into a firefight to finish off a weakened foe is par for the course, which means you often have to keep your eyes on your greedy teammates as much as on your enemies.
There is one other reason to play the competitive mode other than the rewards. There are four different classes to choose from, and each provides a very different way to approach conflict resolution. The scientists are the weakest class, but they have two helpful abilities--they are the only ones who can transform into a go-anywhere jet, and they can heal wounded teammates. If killing is more to your liking, soldiers are equipped with the most powerful guns and can toss out additional ammunition to tapped-out teammates. Leaders are incredibly useful to have around. They can bellow war cries that buffer allies, quickly swinging the fight in your favor. Finally, nimble scouts can cloak themselves when the going gets tough and then cruise away. These classes level up individually, which makes it fun to tinker with their different abilities and see what unique strategies you can come up with. The rewards and classes that have become prevalent in many shooters, combined with the ability to transform into a jet and cruise around the battlefield, makes blasting friends and foes in Transformers' competitive mode a good time.
Even towering robots have difficulty hiding the many problems present in Transformers: War for Cybertron. The campaign is an arduous affair that is poorly paced and lacks variety. The only noteworthy element is being able to transform at a moment's notice, but even that seems tacked on to the stale shooting mechanics. But there is still fun buried within this game if you look hard enough. Beyond the campaign are enticing cooperative and competitive modes that are easy to lose hours to. Leveling up your Transformer to become a robot master is an addictive experience, and though you'll experience many of the annoyances from the campaign, it's much easier to ignore these issues when you're surrounded by nine other players. If the core gameplay could have matched the well-used license, War for Cybertron would have been something special. But there's still fun to be had for people eager to scratch their nostalgic itch.