Review: Transformers: War for Cybertron

It's practically become a cliché at this point: If you want to make a good licensed game, don't base it on anything -- not a specific movie, TV show or ringtone. By being engineered from the ground up to work as games, releases like Spider-Man: Web of Shadows and Batman: Arkham Asylum managed to each be the best in their respective breed, unhindered by timed releases and narratives fluffed up to match a two-hour cinematic story.

Transformers: War for Cybertron not only proves this new paradigm, it surpasses it, serving up the best use of the license since Beast Wars went off the air more than a decade ago.
%Gallery-92293% Finally, we're given a game that taps in to the true potential of the Transformers. It's not about hiding from Shia LeBeouf's mom, it's not about singing Pointer Sisters songs, it's about big robots beating the everloving crap out of each other -- big robots that sometimes are cars.

These are Transformers in the early days of the war between Decepticons and Autobots, back when Optimus Prime was just Optimus, and when Megatron was first trying to harness Dark Energon for his very own purposes. It's a mature take on the franchise, but still not a particularly serious one, which is probably the closest developer High Moon Studios could come to delivering a world not as it is, but as you remember it being when you were nine. The dialog is rife with cheese, but what do you want them to talk about, their feelings? Their blood is made of oil.

You'll fight on both sides of the conflict, first wreaking havoc as the Decepticons, then putting the pieces back together as the Autobots. It's an odd feeling, playing both back to back, but by the end of the first campaign, I was more than ready to avenge myself against ... umm, myself -- so I guess it's working.

Okay, everything aesthetically and narratively is in place, but that's never the hard part with a licensed property, is it? Have a red and blue robot that turns into a truck while making that sound, and you're halfway there. The real challenge, and the real achievement of War for Cybertron, is in the feel of it. The allure of the Transformers is right there in the name, and High Moon nails it, providing environments and challenges that hint they might be more fun if you were a car/plane/truck, but with enough subtlety that you still get a thrill from thinking of it.

The dialog is rife with cheese, but what do you want them to talk about, their feelings?


Got a long series of tunnels to traverse? Why slog through them when you can fly? Got to get to the bottom of a collapsing roadway before it all comes down? Well then change into a car! For once, the Transformers haven't been crammed into our ill-fitting world, but rather have been been given free reign in one designed especially for them.

Even in their dude-shaped forms, you still get a great sense of power from the bots. The most basic weapon feels like a massive, late-game pick-up in your standard action game (even the "pistol" is the size of a broom) and each of the robots has melee attacks that provide not only (typically) a one-shot kill, but a thunderous and satisfying "clang." It just feels right.

As any child of the '80s knows, you didn't just want one Transformer, you needed a team -- another facet of the core appeal represented perfectly here. At the beginning of every stage, you choose a character, each assigned to a class (soldier, leader, etc.) and equipped with unique special abilities. Optimus, for example, can inspire his troops with a "Warcry" that increases their offensive and defensive power.

These special moves are great in the single-player, but really come into their own when you take the war for Cybertron online. All the standard modes like capture the robot flag and king of the robot hill are here, but the real attraction (and the real chance to collaboratively use those abilities) is Escalation. Similar to Call of Duty: World at War's Nazi Zombie mode, Escalation has you defend a territory from ever-strengthening waves of enemy bots, using points you earn from kills on better weapons and more ammo. It's not crazy inventive, but it, like the single-player, is really elevated by the fact that matches oscillate on the fly between third-person action and car or flight combat.

The additional modes feel like frosting after the campaign's 15 or so hours of robot-on-robot action, a length War for Cybertron maintains surprisingly well. It could use a little more variety in the closing hours and the dark, industrial environments can get kind of samey, but I played a majority of the game during a 12-hour block, and it was shockingly adept at maintaining my attention.

Transformers: War for Cybertron is a crystal clear, easy-to-follow example of how to do a licensed game. High Moon didn't think of the Tranformers' abilities as a liability, as something to be shoehorned into a standard game, but rather embraced them and came away with something really special. Here's hoping the developers of the next big licensed title have the guts and creativity to follow in these Buick-sized footsteps.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of the game provided by Activision.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.