Thursday, September 20, 2012

The BlandFormers- A "Fall of Cybertron" Follow-Up

I should preface this by saying that every single site that has given this title glowing reviews is exactly the reason gamers should be pissed at how hollow "Fall of Cybertron" really is. Not awful, not unplayable; just hollow.

Look at all the FIRE! We mean business, motherfraggers!

I raged on it for a good seven minutes, but the truth is that the game isn't really all bad. What it is is functional. Technically sound. Merely serviceable.

The thing that cripples the title and launched me into fits of unadulterated hatred is that it lacks any sort of identity. It's everything that everyone has ever played, ever and it's pretty pathetic when you realize that this is a game that has literally licensed an identity well-ingrained into popular culture for the last thirty years.

From a gameplay standpoint, it has the frantic pacing and the overly restricting linearity of "Call of Duty", with the controls and mechanics of cover-based third-person-shooters like "Gears of War".

In "War for Cybertron" there was some effort to include the vehicle modes into the game, even via scripted driving/flying sequences. They weren't very well-done and they felt a bit tacked on, but instead of working on those and trying to improve upon them for the next game, High Moon Studios instead opted to remove them altogether.

Special Agent Solid Jumper. Stealthy cannons there, Cliff.
It's a testament to the developers' "not give a fuck about the license, just the recognition" attitude, when instead of including Blaster and using his cassettes to disable cameras and enemies in the stealth levels, they included a crouching "sneak" pose. For metal robots. Walking on metal floors!

The tragedy is that there is a level with Starscream that breaks the formula a little and organically includes the vehicle mode, by taking place in the skies with platforms to fly between and disable generators. It's what the entire game should be; something that other shooters couldn't be (as easily, anyway).

That's where the problem lies. Simply put, this game is wholly interchangeable with any other shooter about space marines and there is nothing to make it distinct as a "Transformers" game. Big part of this comes from the fact that there isn't the slightest effort put into inserting a little bit of "fun" in it.

I'm a very big "Transformers" fan. I've distanced somewhat myself from the community since the Michael Bay movies came out, because they overtook the whole franchise and I hate everything they brought to the table (including the mute Bumblebee, who is now included in this game series as well). Still, I know my Transformers pretty damn well and I love the license as much as the next nerd.

All fans go through several phases. A very popular phase when you're a fan of a child-oriented property is the "serious" phase. We've all been through that phase; your toy-based fairytale needs to stop being so "kiddy" and do the "gritty" stuff, the blood, the sex, the drama. When I was younger and well into that phase, I spent hours reading and writing this type of fanfiction and arguing in its favour in forums.

It differs from franchise to franchise. For, say, "Power Rangers", it's about blood, sex and killing. For "Transformers", it's the ethics of war and politics. Yes, politics.

Ironically, the current comics run a completely straight-faced series that's pretty heavy on politics and social justice-- and it's really good! However, books have things like a coherent plot, well-staged drama and, most important of all, characterization. They can get away with this subject material, because they take time to flesh out their characters and get the reader invested in their vast universe.

I don't care how much you liked High Moon's entries into the series, but you cannot tell me with a straight face that they can get one unfamiliar with the story invested in anything that happens in these games.

When "Fall of Cybertron" starts, you enter a sick-bay as Optimus Prime and see a few nameless, random Autobots barely standing. You even help one, as I recall. This was supposed to show the tragedy of war, I guess, but in the end of the day all I saw was random talking buckets that I couldn't tell apart from the hundreds of other similar, palette-swapped buckets I'd shoot through during the campaign.

What I'm getting at is that the games should feel more like cartoons, because of the way they are played, instead of the "serious" war drama they delusionally pretend they are.

There is nothing wrong with being well into your adulthood and liking light-hearted versions of subject material that, lest we forget, originated in a toy-line for children. Structure can take you a long way, regardless of tone and in a frantic shooter about robots that lasts a mere eight hours, your tone should be light and fun.

Remember fun? That thing we used to have when Duke Nukem was blasting the living shit out of alien pigs dressed like cops? The entire shooter genre suffers from the homogeny of shit like Halo and Call of Duty and in the odd chance we get to do something different, something more light-hearted based on a kids property, we do the exact same shit again. I'm sorry, but I cannot see how anyone -and especially a "hardcore gamer" (if you'll pardon the expression for reasons of convenience)- wouldn't be furious over this!

Mainstream gaming is dying (creatively) because of shit like that.

Ask ten Transformers fans what the best cartoon is and you'll get several different answers. Some of them will be leaning toward the Generation 1 classic cartoon from the '80s, though most of them will choose the pseudo-"grim-fest" that was Beast Wars; a show so ridiculously '90s it cannot be viewed today without some tongue-in-cheek attitude in mind.

Do you know what's my favourite TF cartoon? Fuckin' Animated. Yes, the quasi-anime-style low-budget cartoon that got axed far too early, had to cram its storyline in the latter part of the third season and had the Autobots fight over-the-top human super-villains for most of its first.

But the thing was well-structured and balanced. The small team of heroes were well-rounded, as were the villains and there was a fair amount of good humour; humour accessible to both kids and adults, to give it flavour and facilitate the characterization.

Thing is, a video game and especially a shooter with a simplistic story can't afford to pull the grim tone of the comics. Comics are a medium that supports heavy narrative and the lack of any sort of battle for entire batches of issues is perfectly acceptable.

A game, much like a cartoon, doesn't. It's all about the action. "Transformers: Animated" had to be accessible to youngsters and have lots of pretty lights in order to sell toys. It found a way to balance itself out, because it didn't shy away from the concept of "juvenile fun".

It's why, in the review, I mentioned Sludge's scene from "Transformers: The Movie". Do you have any idea what that fraction of a silly second would do to lighten up the fucking mood, even for just a little?

That's what all this "seriousness" is about.
All I saw in the roughly eight hours I spent with "Fall of Cybertron" was a near-deliberate (and I mean DELIBERATE) attempt to make the whole thing, license included, as bland as possible. The story is the same half-assed "we vs. them" drama that every war game has, the visuals were taken from both those war games and the Bay movies (at least in tone and palette brightness) and even the music is so sombre and sad and bombastic and all that shit.

"Fall of Cybertron" did its damnedest to make call-backs to the 1986 animated movie, but it missed its point entirely. It's true that most of us remember that movie for all the child-scarring murdering in the first act.

But even that movie knew its material. The soundtrack that included cheesy rock and hair-metal gave it a balls-to-the-walls awesome spin. Seriously, can you think of anything that wouldn't look awesome with "Dare" playing in the background?

Its score was a mesh of electronic, adrenaline-pumping tracks well-suited to the material. The movie's biggest battle (the one in Autobot City, in the first act) didn't need an overly loud, overly serious, Hollywood-blockbuster track to work. It just needed something to pull you into the right mood for robots and explosions.

I will remind you that Optimus Prime's signature theme to this day, the one with which he saves Autobot City and sacrifices his life during, is Stan Bush's The Touch. In no dimension that has any taste in music would The Touch be considered important, or serious, or emotional or, indeed, any good. Well, perhaps in Pylea.

What it is is memorable. Unique. It stands out.

Can anyone who ever had the slightest fragment of love for the franchise claim they could imagine that scene with different music? Can anyone claim the scene would've been nearly as memorable with Hans Zimmer-like music?

"Fall of Cybertron" suffers from its lack of identity and that lack comes from the fact that there is no colour or flavour. High Moon Studio made a perfectly functional shooter, but a very bland game that nobody will remember in five years (assuming they don't milk the shit out of the series).

In the inevitable third instalment, dear High Moon, remember what you're dealing with: toys. Remember what trade you're in: fun. And remember that your so very important loyal market that won't go away with the next shiny shooter, the fans you try to cater to with overplayed references, still watch the ridiculously bad Generation 1 cartoon and love every horrible, vacuous moment of it.

Just lighten the fuck up, will ya?

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