Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fall of Cyberton Review Thing

I liked War for Cybertron, but even I was not immune to a lot of its problems. The gunmetal grey scenery for 90% of the game. The endless corridor gunplay ad nauseum. The lack of a compulsive story. No Grimlock. I liked it at the time, but I even acknowledged it was fueled by nostalgia for a favorite franchise of mine, a nostalgia constantly tickled by references. The fixes done in Fall of Cybertron go above and beyond clouding mistakes and frustrating segments with in-jokes – it's great. Actually, legitimately, great.

I think the best example of the improvement is in the first level, where (and I didn't like this initially) you are treated to a Bumblebee-centric tutorial, midway through the Nemesis' jacking and boarding of the Ark. Right off the bat it's obvious that High Moon has gotten a better idea for dynamic action sequences. Bumblebee gains control of his functions one by one in the tutorial, and wades through the war-torn battlezone, stopped by bad guys, and forcing you get to Optimus in time.

It's explosive. It's completely insane. It's perfect. High Moon has learned – or maybe just had the time and money to make – that the best way to convey war is to make things happen that are far bigger than you. Transformers named and nameless will die through the course of the game, because Cybertron is becoming a big mess of despair, death, and pain.

Let me apply context and say that no, Transformers has not jumped the shark and tried to convey war-is-hell drama through embarrassingly awful plot deaths. Nor has it tried to convey a serious story through characterization and development. Which seems like an odd departure since the trailers were setting up to do exactly that, but we can ignore the advertising for the moment, even if it was kind of awesome. It is, on the whole, still a cartoon about big robots.

But the story and presentation has grown up significantly – the characters are better fleshed out, all of their backstories and personalities make sense, and best of all, everyone has their own actions happening simultaneously while the story takes place. It's like a well put-together movie, worth a trillion more than Michael Bay's obnoxious military hardware wank-fest with teenagers running around acting relevant.

It's not like War for Cybertron, where you take control of one unit doing a thing while everyone else does fuck all. The intro chapter establishes that the Ark is under constant Decepticon assault, and it was put at risk by Grimlock's mysterious abandonment of his defense post. With Prime occupied, Jazz and Cliffjumper take off to investigate. Then, later, when Grimlock shows up, it explains everything, including how he got his dinosaur form on a planet with no dinosaurs, where he's been all that time, and the like.

The plot is incredibly cohesive in how it swaps between factions and characters, but you're never left wondering what the hell they're doing. It's established firmly why this new character is in control, and after some snappy dialogue, you get a strong sense of understanding of Cliffjumper and Jazz's relationship and personalities. And that's just what I can give you that doesn't spoil lategame events.

It's a testament to this that I say High Moon has really understood changes of pace. From the explosive tutorial, you control Prime as he rushes to keep the Ark safe from Decepticon assaults, and awakens Metroxplex, a transformer the size of a city. After one of the most satisfying sequences of melee attacks in action game history, the game downshifts, and you play as the duo investigating a Decepticon outpost. Cliffjumper cloaks and is small enough to fit into hidey-hole shafts, creating a new stealth sequence.

It's hard to put into words just how great it feels to go from an explosive action sequence, with Optimus Prime barreling through Decepticons by the truckloads, only to later quietly creep from baddie to baddie, executing City of Rust guards with a tap of the button, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins style. Once they start including rocket-launcher armed 'Cons with stealth-tracking scanners, it actually gets hard, too.

And just after that, Cliffjumper gets himself into a pickle and you swap off to Jazz, who is a mechanical Spider-Man with his wrist-mounted tether. After a few action sequences, the game opens up into a multi-tiered shootout platformer sequence and lets you zip from ledge to ledge, unloading sniper rifle rounds into enemies. And that's just the first few levels – Fall of Cybertron keeps shifting gears, giving you new people to play with and building towards something bigger. And by the time the ending comes, they've trained you how to do everything in the game thus far, which makes it all the more satisfying as it hops from objective to objective.

The presentation and music is what sets it the most apart – swelling orchestral pieces with bombastic drums, a reverbing bass, and intense latin chorus sets you up for exactly what you are in for.

The big issue with War for Cybertron's vehicle modes was, aside from the occasional moment, that there was no real reason to transform other than to move faster. Ordinarily, the inclusion of a sprint mode would kill any reason to change your mode, aside from having a different gun to fire. But Fall of Cybertron surprised me again by, instead of changing the game mechanics, just put you into different environments.

Cliffjumper, as mentioned, can go to car mode to slip into small tunnels. But when it's a Decepticon mission to sabotage a large carrier, you take control of first Vortex, who's working to destroy the bridge ahead of the carrier, and Swindle, who assaults the ground forces to destroy the tank's wheels. Vortex has to zip around from the air then to the ground and destroy defensive outposts. Then, Swindle fights Autobots, while constantly swapping between vehicle and robot mode to keep pace with the huge moving vehicle.

I'm not a fan of forgiving games just for having a good sequel, but it's really amazing that the developers learned so well how to present and deliver a game. Not just a generic shooter, but one that capitalizes on the strengths it has and stands apart due to the experience it delivers.

That's not even to mention how they managed to make the game look great. Cybertron, war ravaged and torn apart, shines and glows like a city with its dingy parts sticking out terribly. Cliffjumper and Jazz's exploration into the Sea of Rust evokes memories of the desert level from every shooter before it, but is mercifully short. And, after that, an organic squishy level takes place when they stumble on some of Shockwave's organic experiments in underground caves. Each level – and multiplayer map – is colorful and varied, with all sorts of red, blue, green, and purple. Even from the few screens I've collected here you can see how bright everything is.

There's a lot of good here, and even stuff I never touched on – there's more ammo, each gun feels more distinct and useful, and all the upgrades make the guns feel stronger in their attributes rather than just +10 damage. I've found the SMG and Megatron's cannon are some of the more destructive guns in the game, and limiting you to one conventional gun and one heavy means you need to be more careful on the shots you take with bigger guns. Sure, Megatron can one-shot half the baddies in the game, and the unique upgrade for it is amazing, but if you're a terrible shot, what gun are you going to switch to, your RPG? Your chaingun?

Further, the online is actually great. Multiplayer suffered from lack of balance, lack of customization, and the crummy health system. Most of those have been fixed, and the maps expanded, meaning everyone has a place. A Scientist jet has the advantage of a heal, air control, sentry turrets, pseudo-radar, and homing rockets, but their health is extremely low, and they only start with a few crummy guns. Infiltrators are basically spies, with absurd speeds, cloaking, and sniper rifles. Destroyers are Prime and Megatron wreckers with a hover ability and a ground slam, a force field, and big guns. Titans, as the name implies, are big, slow brutalizers with the whirlwind spin attack. Each class is exploitable. And, best yet, you can redeco any of them to be your favorite Transformer, or mod them to be weird Frankenstein versions of them combined with others. That's not even touching on Escalation.

It's not a perfect game. As I mentioned, there's not a lot of character development, which is unfortunate as I was hoping for a political fallout from the new Prime's controversial decision to leave their home. Further, some of the nicer touches from WfC are gone. The hard, mechanical way the Bots and Cons transformed into the turrets is sorely missed. The game also has an annoying habit of sticking you with a fragile Scientist character like Starscream or Vortex and send three shotgun-bearing Bulkhead-lookalike Autobots your way, sending you back to the loading screen once more.

But as far as video games? I can recommend it not just to fans of the franchise, not just to fans of shooters, but even to those who disliked War for Cybertron. It's not breaking any ground with story, but it's competently told and masterfully directed, and that's all I really needed from a robot shooter.