Maybe you didn’t grow up with the Transformers in particular, but most kids at least had something like them: that one special set of toys perfect for those imaginative days spent alone in your room. You’d hold the good guy in one hand, his arch-nemesis in the other, and stage a conflict so epic that by the time you were done, you’d transformed tissue boxes into fortresses, tied up the villain’s minions with a shoelace, and maybe, if things had gotten really serious, even pulled the arm from one of your favorite figures just to reinforce how close he’d come to certain doom. Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is exactly that afternoon: every story your action figures ever lived, visualized and packaged within a videogame.

Countless other games have grown from beloved toys and popular franchises, but few have tackled their subject matter with the sense of import that Fall of Cybertron seems to achieve with nearly each minute of play. Political dissention has stricken both sides of a brutal civil war, giant robots of both factions are dying in the streets, and somehow, as if by magic, we actually care about all of it. That sense of involvement is all the more impressive considering the story’s twelve protagonists, all of whom players control during different parts of the campaign.

At first, the game’s insistence at moving you among warriors on opposing sides of a major conflict (sometimes during a single battle) feels odd; watching the same bright red Autobots you risked your life to save just minutes prior suddenly become ash against your rocket launcher feels like a betrayal. Yet, the more times it happens, the more you realize that the game is about more than any one hero or villain’s journey, and instead concerns a story larger than any of them alone. And much like that kid with his toys, it’s your responsibility to play out both sides of the fight if you want it told.

Most characters you’ll control are similar – third-person gunners able to draw from the same armory of unique weapons you’ve accumulated throughout the game – but stand apart in both the vehicle they’re able to transform into at will, and a single distinctive skill, such as the ability to cloak or command an artillery strike. Some Transformers, such as Grimlock, the fire-breathing, sword-and-shield-swinging T-Rex, break that mold entirely, forgoing ranged combat for sections of simplistic, yet welcome melee-focused fighting.

While the roster is large, for the most part, you won’t be able to select which character you’d like to play, as each level is individually designed to work with a specific Transformer’s special talents. But what you trade for that choice, the environments make up for with a density of lore and detail only available to a carefully-constructed linear experience. Each chapter is wonderfully different, taking you from the depths of an underground research facility to the edge of space itself, with each map focused on a slightly new twist of the game’s basic shooting formula. As locations and characters change, so does the tone. When you’re Optimus, you’ll risk your life to save your comrades, lead the troops, and hear other Autobots regain hope as you run past them on the battlefield. When you’re Megatron, you’ll encourage torture, punish mercy, and hear those same Autobots lamenting your arrival and their own imminent demise.

Still, amidst all the variance, fundamental constants bind the gameplay into a cohesive experience. Every stage is filled with sources of Energon, the in-game currency. Energon upgrades your shared weapon supply, or purchases additional perks, some permanent, others consumable. Many of the weapon upgrades offer more than mere damage bonuses; there are still a few instances of the expected – recoil reduction and reload speed improvements show up more than once – but for each of those there’s something more exciting, like a supercharged round randomly added somewhere into each clip you load into your rifle.

You can choose your equipped gear each time you visit one of the stores spread across the maps, but each level is littered with a random assortment of guns you can grab from the ground if you later come to regret earlier decisions. You can find consumable gear this way too – small, temporary effects such as a portable shield or attack drone – but most feel like unnecessary add-ons that can be difficult to manage when you’re already focused on swapping between two forms and two weapons with a torrent of rockets, grenades, bullets, and angry robots all headed in your direction.

Each mission is a guided experience, but the game does a good job of providing workable options for the different combat situations you’ll face. For the most part, the experience steps back from forcing you to experiment with different methods until you “find the right one,” instead making most tactics you can think of actually viable – provided you have the skill to pull them off. This works well for allowing each player to set his or her own difficulty and pace by fiddling with different guns and positioning while finding a comfortable balance somewhere between aggressive and defensive. It feels just as valid to choose a hovercraft-rocket-charge over a defensive ambush because you’re getting bored as it does because you think it would be the more strategic option.

From that entertaining gunplay to its engaging story threads, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron covers a lot of ground, carefully and faithfully translating a venerated franchise into videogame form while never making series newcomers feel anything less than involved. The love High Moon Studios has for Transformers shines through at every available moment, and no one who’s ever held a beloved action figure or toy in their hands will be able to miss it.

Bottom Line: Whether you know all five Combaticons that form Bruticus by name, or have never seen a robot change into a car outside of a Shia LaBeouf movie, it’s hard not to love this fun action shooter from High Moon Studios.

Recommendation: Unless you have fundamental problems with the third-person shooter genre, you’d be remiss not to give this passion project a playthrough.

[rating=4.5]

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Transformers: Fall of Cybertron
Genre: Shooter
Developer: High Moon Studios
Publisher: Activision
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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