The War For Cybertron hit stores a week ago, landing on multiple platforms. The Nintendo DS actually got two versions. In the Autobots version, players control Optimus Prime and other familiar Autobots in a battle to save Cybertron from the Decepticons. Likewise in the Decepticons version, players control Megatron and Starscream and a host of other Decepticons to harness the power of Dark Energon and bring Cybertron to order, as Megatron would say.
I've spent several hours with both versions, playing both campaigns. Unlike their console counterparts, the DS versions are made by Vicarious Visions, who also made last year's Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. Additionally, the game is played from the third person perspective rather than from the first. Each game shares the same controls and mechanics, and players basically play a mirrored campaign -- the major draw to having each version is to unlock all thirty Transformers characters, which may appeal more to some than others.
Waging War, Transformers Style
An opening cinematic explains that an exuberant pride and lust for power by some has created a division amongst the Transformers. The Decepticons, led by Megatron, seek to take control of Cybertron. Meanwhile, Optimus Prime and the Autobots are determined to defend freedom. It's civil war.
The Autobot campaign, which I started with, opens up with a distorted call for help from Zeta Prime. All dialogue and tutorials in both games take place via text based conversations. Some of these conversations are voiced, with their appropriate voice talents, but many are just text, which is fine. The story and objectives are presented to the user in this way. Anyway, Zeta Prime has been captured by the Decepticons and it's up to the remaining Autobots to find him and ultimately stop the Decepticon onslaught. Players begin as a no-name Autobot but within a few minutes find themselves in control of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee.
The Decepticons campaign actually starts off with players controlling the same no-name Autobot for the first few minutes -- before an in game cutscene has him getting blown away by Megatron. Players then control Megatron and the list of playable characters soon expands from there.
Controlling the Transformers is accessible and convenient. Character movement is assigned to the d-pad (simple enough, right)? The face buttons are used as follows: A for switching back and forth between your two characters, B for jumping (hold for a higher jump), Y for a ranged attack, and X for a melee strike. The Left Button is for locking onto a target while the Right Button allows you to scroll throw the targets in the area. You can also do a quick 180 degree turn by double tapping down on the d-pad, something I found very useful against flying enemies.
The screens are split up such that the top screen is where the action is, including much of the HUD. The bottom screen is primarily a radar that marks where enemies and points of interest are. You can also get a quick view of your other character's health and energy level. Finally, the lower right corner of the bottom (touch) screen is where you can find the transform button. It's used to switch from biped form to vehicular form -- be that a light vehicle like Bumblebee, a heavy vehicle like Megatron or Optimus, or an aircraft like Jetfire and Starscream. Vehicle mode allows you to move faster, get to places you couldn't on foot, and well, look cool.
Missions & Combat
So at the start of each mission, players pick which Autobots or Decepticons they want to control (depends on which game you're playing of course). Each character has three stats to help you decide who to go with. Interestingly, not every character shares the same stat types. For example, some characters have upgradeable stats for Strength, Regeneration, and Firepower. Others may have Strength, Endurance, and Regeneration. Strength is how much melee damage a character can do, while Regeneration is how quickly the character regenerates health and energy. Endurance is a measure of how much damage the character can sustain, and Firepower measures the damage a ranged attack does to the enemy. At the end of each mission, players are given points to spend on which stats they want to upgrade. One point is awarded for completing the missions, other points must be earned.
When deciding which two characters to take on a mission, it's also important to look at their specific weapon stats. In the game, there are three types of attacks -- Solid, Plasma, and Laser. This is important because each playable character only has the ability to do two of these three attacks. Enemies are best defeated by matching their vulnerability with the same type of attack. You can discover what the vulnerability of an enemy is by targeting them with the Left Button. Doing so pops up a targeting reticule around them, shows their vulnerability icon, and their health meter. The vulnerability icon is the same icon used to inform the player which type of attack their melee and range attacks are.
Going from memory, Optimus Prime has both a Laser attack, represented by a yellow triangle, and a Plasma attack, represented by a red circle. Other characters have a Solid attack, whose icon is a blue square. To me, probably the best feature in the game is this combat system. As simply as it may sound, having to target and note the vulnerability of each enemy kept this game from being an all out button masher when it came to combat. And while you can (and should be able to) defeat any enemy with any type of attack, I like that Vicarious encouraged players to get more creative and active by offering increased rates of damage for matching attacks to vulnerabilities. Even cooler is that most enemies actually go through two or more phases of vulnerability -- so a Decepticon like Onslaught might start off with a Plasma (red circle) vulnerability, but after losing so much health his vulnerability changes to something else. Having to switch up between not only melee and ranged attacks, but also between both characters, was a wise design decision and it works very well.
I'm also a fan of the decision Vicarious made to give characters regenerating health and energy. If you're curious about the difference, energy is what allows players to use their ranged weapons. It depletes much faster when you're in vehicle mode than on foot, too. To keep players from just using ranged attacks all the time, the energy meter depletes with ever shot. It refills fairly quickly, and that's something that can be upgraded by assigning points to Regeneration in between missions. Character
health regenerates too; many times in battle, you'll find yourself switching out from one character to another as their health gets low. Just another reason why I like having two characters available to play as at once. As long as one of them lives, there's a chance to revive the fallen one.
Two parts of the gameplay that I didn't like included not being able to switch characters during the course of a mission and falling deaths. I can understand not being able to switch characters, but I truly wish there were a better system in place for those accidental falling deaths. Sometimes an enemy just sends my character flying off the edge, and that's understandable because I can do the same thing to them. However, quite a few parts in game require some average platforming that for whatever reason I
miss a little too often. Anyway, being that the game isn't exactly thrilling, it's a nuisance to accidentally incur a falling death and have to start at a checkpoint five or ten minutes back. That might not sound like a lot, but I don't care what game it is, replaying areas gets old quick -- perhaps especially on the graphically inferior DS. Instead, I wish whatever character took the fall just lost half of their health or something like that, rather than forcing the player back to the last checkpoint.
Additional Thoughts, Presentation
Each game takes place across eight missions. Each mission contains several collectibles and players are given a percentage score in the mission select screen to show them their overall progress. Collectibles include energon cubes that boost character XP (you can get up to level 20) and Data Discs. Data Discs are useful in that they give you the ability to boost character stats before a mission. In other words, different Data Discs give you different stats bonuses that you can equip before a mission, adding another bit of strategy to your decisions. If I'm not mistaken, I believe characters are sometimes unlocked by finding certain Data Discs.
Each game contains fifteen playable characters total, with plenty of familiar faces and several rarer ones like Cliffjumper. Characters are unlocked during the campaign as part of the story or from Data Discs. And while I haven't tried it, you can also play competitive wireless multiplayer and win your opponents' unlocked characters.
No matter which side you take, missions are typical third person action adventure-fare. This means plenty of melee and ranged combat, coupled with some light platforming and simple objectives. There really aren't any puzzles per se, but there are plenty of doors that require you to clear out certain areas before they will unlock. Objectives are always nice and clear, and a pointer on screen with a distance value will keep you going in the right direction at all times. Level design is pretty much linear, with some
short alternate paths that yield hidden items or sometimes, less resistance.
All in all, gameplay in the War For Cybertron on NDS isn't bad, but it's not really compelling either. It's the type of game I'm quick to quit for whatever reason, but then later in the day or even just an hour later, find myself wanting to play again just to get through the campaign.
In closing, for the presentation, expect an average looking third person title for the DS. We all know it's not a graphical powerhouse, so expect a low polygon count and simple textures. Color usage is good and the framerate is smooth, and it's easy enough to tell which character is which if you're at all familiar with them. I would go as far as to say I liked the sound package in these DS games better than the graphics, mainly because the voices were great and the ambient music was a nice fit. Soundwave still has one of the coolest voices in all of pop culture, by the way.
To the summary...