High Moon Studios' 2010 release Transformers: War for Cybertron was a game that was damned with faint praise. While a handful of reviewers loved it, and a similar handful hated it, most fell in between, calling it a game with interesting ideas and great potential that fell short of greatness in its execution.
Last month, High Moon released its follow-up, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, not a sequel, but a "spiritual successor", according to Game Director Matt Tieger. "By design, it is not called War for Cybertron 2," he told me at Gamescom. "I think of War for Cybertron as a flawed gem. War for Cybertron was a good game, but this is a great one."
The studio took the criticisms from the gaming press and general audience very seriously, according to Tieger. "When we looked at the criticisms of War for Cybertron, many of them were that the game got repetitive after a while, the AI wasn't what people expected out of a Transformers game, and the visuals got repetitive after a while," he said, then shrugged and added, "Frankly we agreed with those three main points."
The AI was the simplest problem to fix, requiring that they simply write a smarter system. Tieger explained why AI was so poor in the first game, citing the difficulties of programming for robots and vehicles at the same time. "The way an AI system works is that it looks at the world, looks at you, plans what it's going to do, and then deals with it, but because you can transform into a jet and fly to the other side of the map before it's finished computing what it's going to do with you in your old position, they looked dumb."
To illustrate what was wrong with War for Cybertron's level design, Tieger gave the example of Halo."It's one of my favourite games, and when I get into a Warthog I always have great driving experiences. Those levels are awesome, but if I ever get out of the Warthog and start to walk around on those levels, they're not nearly as much fun," he explained. "Transforming into a vehicle at any time is different from getting into a vehicle. It's just fundamentally different."
This problem was solved by making two decisions that fans may have objected to: turning the original game's fully co-operative campaign into a strictly single-player experience, and merging the two completely separate campaigns, one for Autobots and another for Decepticons, into a single story that has the player frequently switching sides.
Justifying the single merged campaign, Tieger said, "With two separate campaigns you could play in any order, what that meant was that you'd have two first levels, two second levels, two third levels, and two fourth levels, and so on and so forth. So, when you'd played 50% of the game, you'd actually played 100% of the game. That led to this feeling of repetition, because it was true."
It was the removal of a co-operative campaign that really enraged some fans, though, and Tieger sympathised. "It was a really difficult decision, but I think it was the right one," he told me. "I know the initial reaction from a lot of fans was 'Woah, hold on!' but when you think about it for just a second, what happens when you're designing a campaign co-op level is that inevitably you have to design for the least fun character, not to most fun character. You end up ratcheting everything down, as opposed to ratcheting it up."
"Our level is now, you're playing in control of Optimus, and you play through his experience, then the story moves on to Jazz or on to Bruticus, whoever happens to be next. What that allowed us to do was really elevate the experience for any one character. So now when you play as Optimus, you are Optimus. The music is geared, the dialogue is geared, the level physical design is all geared for that truck and making sure it's stellar. Then when you play as Vortex, every piece of that level is holistically geared for him, and every piece when you play Bruticus, or Grimlock."
Having completed the single-player campaign and played a few hours of multiplayer, I have to agree that this is a vastly improved experience. You never play as any one character for more than an hour or so, and the story will always switch you to a very different character for the next section, often switching sides in the process.
The best levels have obviously been designed to exploit the design of the feature character in the best possible way. Levels with flying characters, such as Starscream and Vortex, are wide open with lots of vertical space to really swoop around, but also have indoor sections that require you to switch into robot mode. The sequence with Jazz was one of my favourites, switching between wide-open multi-level spaces that made great use of his grappling hook, and big flat arenas that allowed him to transform into a car and make use of his speed.
I was also very pleased by the character design, and will go out on a limb and say that this is probably the best that the Transformers have looked in any medium. I was never a fan of the Michael Bay movie incarnations, which always seemed too fiddly and lacking personality, and while the original toy designs as used in the cartoon are classic, they also fell victim to cheap animation. The robot characters in this game look fantastic, reminiscent of their classic looks and easily recognisable, but very high tech, beautifully textured, and just plain cool. The vehicles are less successful, with a few of the trucks and cars in particular looking like dull minivans rather than science fiction war machines, but most look good, and the aircraft in particular are excellent.
Tieger explained how the characters were designed. "some of the characters got a full re-design and re-build, others just got a re-build, because they were kinda working. Jazz for example was really well-received, so we re-built him to be higher resolution, better graphics." Regarding fully re-designed characters, he said, "Optimus gets a new form. We wanted to re-design him to reflect the changes that have happened to him. He's been forced to get much more combat-oriented, to be tougher, bigger than he ever was in the previous game, and so we liked doing that."
"Then of course there's new characters, too, like the Dinobots," he added. "Those we designed from scratch. I think we really have been able to deliver an experience for each character than feels different, and Grimlock couldn't be any more different then the other characters. A giant fire-breathing robot dinosaur. It's awesome!"
High Moon's character designed have been so well received, in fact, that Hasbro has announced that many of them will be released as toys later this year, and a second group early next year.
Overall, this is still far from a perfect game. The difficulty level is far too uneven, and epic characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron often feel like they die far too easily. The controls never quite felt comfortable, either, with transforming being triggered by a left-stick click being particularly troublesome, though that is changeable in the options. The cheesy script and simple story are standard Tranformers fare that won't bother fans, though those less used to the Transformers universe may find both grating. That said, the voice acting is generally good, and the voice cast is packed with familiar performers, especially Peter Cullen in his iconic role as Optimus Prime.
This is a fun game, not particularly deep, and occasionally frustrating, but at other times genuinely excellent. I hope that Hasbro and Activision will continue allowing High Moon to work on the franchise, as I suspect the results will be better every time. Perhaps the third time really will be the charm, but for now Fall of Cybertron is certainly a must-buy for fans and a solid choice for everyone else.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez