Transformers: War for Cybertron was not only one of 2010's best shooters, but also one of its best licensed games. While hardware limitations might have kept the concept unrealized until that point, Cybertron's basic, “stick to what's cool” approach to its source material made for an intuitive and raucous playground of vehicles cum robots destruction. It was fun, engaging, and difficult, with nary a Bay-ism or hamfisted advertising wink in sight. Transformers was finally allowed to stand on its own merits, and the result was pretty impressive.
Two years on, High Moon Studios has returned to the playground they built and added a raft of new amusements. The campaign has now been merged between the two sides, swapping back and forth between Decepticon and Autobot protagonists, and the 3 player co-op of War has been dropped in favor of single-player missions that highlight unique abilities for each Transformer. It gives these formidable automatons a substantial amount of variety, changing up the gameplay between each level and cutting down on the complaints of repetition incurred by its predecessor.
The thing is, while there's no doubt that this definitely makes the playground better than it was before, especially for those who already loved it, it's doubtful that these structural improvements are enough to keep the cool kids around. Two years, after all, is a pretty long time on the schoolyard.
There is no substantial difference between Fall of Cybertron's mechanics and those of its immediate predecessor. The titular transforming is still handled by clicking the left stick (at almost any time the player wishes) and environments are designed to occupy both third-person shooting and vehicular combat. Unfortunately, that hectic mix can no longer be enjoyed with a pair of friends; Fall of Cybertron's campaign has gone totally solo.
Those who found themselves disappointed by War's lack of a cover system will find no changes here. The Cybertron series makes it clear with this installment that it's not interested in stop-and-pop style play. It puts transforming at the forefront of the action, compelling players to change back-and-forth between forms often and to use all the space available to them to defeat their enemies. In the early goings, even after making it through the first game, this play philosophy can be mercilessly difficult. Nevertheless, with practice and focus, the combat system proves to be very fair, rewarding players who stay on their tires as often as their toes, and daring them to think on the move instead of under cover.
Fall's big initiative is providing a more diverse roster of Transformers to choose from. While War wasn't lacking in characters, the differences between the way they played proved largely negligible- save for the jet fighters. This time around, every 'bot has their own unique ability that's mapped to the right bumper, and each level is designed to make the best of those talents. Optimus Prime can call down airstrikes from his city-sized enforcer, Metroplex; Jazz has a grappling hook that zips him to any ledge within range; Cliffjumper can cloak himself, and Vortex has a shockwave attack that sends his enemies flying. The specific design of the levels is effective enough to validate this approach to variety, and High Moon never misses an opportunity to crown each gameplay sequence with a suitably epic set-piece- even if they don't always feel particularly well-earned, but more on that in a moment.
Fall of Cybertron looks like it holds the visual line where War started quite easily. Everything on Cybertron is dipped in a shiny metallic texture that makes this version of Transformers look quite unlike all previous incarnations of the franchise, and the art design between the two fractions remains very strong. At a basic visual level, it looks quite nice, but not overwhelming.
However, the real strength in this installment comes from scale and animation. Every open environment seems to yawn before the player, displaying all the space in which to jet around and blast up foes, and really selling the idea of a planet-wide conflict. But not only is Cybertron huge; as a robotic planet, it never stops moving. Small mechanical details in the settings and the Transformers themselves are always in motion, always solidifying the illusion that this planet of machines is a living, breathing entity. The sequence in which Metroplex comes to life exemplifies this perfectly.
Fall of Cybertron boasts more than a few strong moments across it's campaign, however, this is without a doubt one of the new leading examples of how much a story can suffer from too much fanservice. Fans of the G1 cartoon (which this series canonically precedes) will find themselves in Cybertronian Valhalla, but outside of the dozens of references, easter-eggs, cameos, and fan-favorite characters, the story is clumsy, flighty, and profligate with the momentum that War had built up to its conclusion. It has all the grandest elements of a Transformers story, but little connective tissue or character development.
Aside from that, the only aspect in which the game suffers is its constant perspective shifting. Because each character is new from one level to the next, the game never stops pointing out how and when to use their special abilities. It makes the campaign feel as if it never leaves tutorial mode, which is more than a little irritating, considering that an option to remove the 'Help' messages could have mitigated it all. That might seem nitpicky, but it really sticks out over the 8-hour campaign.
Finally, there's the multiplayer, which is pretty nice when it all comes together. Maps are large, allowing for chaotic 6 v 6 matches across a number of familiar modes. The transforming aspect enriches the standard shooting gameplay, but connectivity issues and a small player base bring more guesswork into the system than it deserves. Hardcore Transformers fans may keep this going for the foreseeable future, but the high turnover rate in matches seems to indicate that the multiplayer won't find much of a community, which is a shame.
Fall of Cybertron is undoubtedly an improvement over an already impressive debut, yet it doesn't feel nearly as invigorating or daring as War for Cybertron did. Small gameplay changes and visual improvements are welcome additions to War's clever formula, but a clunky story that treads too much water and trades on too much nostalgia squanders the considerable potential that this fledgling series had accrued. Diehard G1 fans will love the fanservice and attention to detail, but the rest of the audience won't remember much after the credits roll.