Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Future Is Now

I'm a big fan of the TED talks, and I've been catching up on my podcast this week when I saw this talk yesterday:

John Underkoffer is the guy who invented the data glove technology used in Minority Report and in this video he demonstrates the history of his company's work and research and talks about the future of this tech.

Make sure and watch until the end when Chris Anderson comes on and asks a pointed question on behalf of someone we all know very well.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review: Transformers: War For Cybertron

T:WFC is a 'prequel' of sorts. An homage to all us 30-somethings that grew up with the cartoon series in the 80's, this game chronicles the millennia-old war between the Autobots and Decepticons on their homeworld of Cybertron. You get a chance to play as each faction culminating in the decision by the Autobots to leave Cybertron to search for aid in their struggle against the forces of Megatron.

T:WFC plays like a solid over-the-shoulder 3rd person shooter. In fact, it handles very similarly to Gears of War with one major exception: instead of a cover mechanic you get a transform mechanic. This gameplay element is extremely satisfying and is executed perfectly. I never tired of switching to truck mode, zipping along a roadway, changing back into robot form and sliding across the floor to melee the shit out of some poor Deceptin00b.

The campaign is great fun alone, but to really enjoy it you should invite 2 of your friends to join you and help you out. You have the option to play as one of three different characters on each chapter, and the great thing in this is that T:WFC is a class based game. This means that you will have slightly different weapon loadouts and special abilities depending on who you choose. For example, Bumblebee is a scout, so he has a cloaking ability, whereas Optimus Prime is a leader so he has an ally buffing ability. This class system goes fairly deep too, as each class has multiple special abilities available to them, and different abilities in robot form versus vehicle form. But there's a catch: every character only has 1 or 2 of each of these abilities. So an Autobot scout will play differently than a Decepticon scout, and even the same class within one of the factions will have different loadouts. This makes for great variety, not only in choosing your favorite Transformer to play, but in choosing how you can approach different scenarios in the game.

This class system extends into the multiplayer as well. You start out with a basic loadout for each class, and as you level them up in gameplay, you unlock more special abilities, weapons and enhancements so you can customize your 'former depending on your mood or mode of gameplay. You can also customize up to 3 different loadouts for each class, giving you a total of 12 personalized characters to choose from. The customization options also extend to appearance - male/female (just where do little Transformers come from anyways?), armor type and color.

Since we're on the topic of the multiplayer, let's talk about it. It's really freaking good. I'd say it's a mix between the more tactical pace of Gears of War and the frenetic, level-up-and-unlock style of Call of Duty. When in robot form, you tend to move a bit more slowly, which feels right because you really get a sense of being a weighty ginormous robot. But you can transform into vehicle mode at the hit of a button and ZOOM! you're in the heat of battle in a few moments. This was great for me because I tend to be a less cautious player, so I die alot. The convenience of being able to zip right back to the action after respawning is great fun, and also good when you're team mates need backup.

The modes are your standard fare: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Control Points, Capture the Flag and their own Horde/Firefight mode called Escalation.

The design aesthetic for T:WFC is spot on for what you would imagine a world populated by sentient transforming machines would look like: lots of shiny surfaces in dark tones. At first I found it difficult to discern objects in such a monochromatic environment, but after the first couple of chapters, I adjusted to the look and was able to proceed with little difficulty.

The character design is fantastic. It's mix of Generation 1 and Michael Bay, so you get that classic 80's cartoon vibe with the heavy machinery of the recent craptacular films. (Confession: I have a secret man-crush on Shia LaBeouf, except for his turn in the recent craptacular Indiana Jones film.) You get all the classic characters with a modern twist. When playing as Optimus Prime, I noticed all kinds of gears and panels constantly moving, rotating and shifting while in robot mode. It gives the game a very alive feel that adds a lot to the presentation.

The level and weapon design is also great. When interacting with switches and buttons you don't just push them, your hand transforms and interlocks with an interface. Same thing with the weapons, you don't hold them like a traditional gun, instead they become part of your arm. This really adds to the notion that the entire planet of Cybertron is one giant mechanical organism. As for the weapons themselves, there are your typical assault rifle, shotgun, sniper weapons and you can pick up a variety of others throughout the game from fallen enemies. It's a nice touch enabling you to try out all the weapons and experiment with different combinations of guns to best suit the situation or your playstyle. The feel of the weapons is very satisfying as well; you can really feel the kickback and the impact of projectiles. While you only get a maximum of 2 guns and 1 type of grenade, some characters have weapons that are unique to them and they are not swappable. Megatron, for instance, has his signature energy bazooka.

There are also melee weapons. Every character has a melee attack, and they all seem to dole out the same amount of damage. Where they differentiate is in the form of melee weapon. They are all 'energy' forms of classic melee combat weapons: Optimus has a battle axe, Bumblebee has a sword and so on. While not very useful in a fire fight, they are extremely deadly when paired with rushing up on a foe in vehicle form, transforming at the last instant and sliding into them and bashing them into shiny little de-rez cubes.

There are two campaigns that make up the entire storyline of the game, one for the Decepticons and one for the Autobots. You can start with either one, but if you want to do it chronologically you will start with the Decepticons. What's great is that developers High Moon Studio didn't just make the same campaign from different sides, they actually crafted two separate unique-but-intertwined campaigns. Essentially, during the Decepticon campaign, you are running around Cybertron fucking shit up and taking control of key targets on the planet. In the Autobot campaign, you are trying to undo all the havok the Decepticons wrecked in the first campaign. You get this feel that the Autobots are just one step behind Megatron struggling to keep Cybertron from falling under his control.

The campaign itself is a pretty straightforward corridor/monster closet affair. Drive down walk/roadway, transform, destroy all enemies to clear way to next path, rinse repeat. This pattern is broken up with mini-set pieces like racing across a crumbling bridge or dodging oncoming subway trains (why would a race of robot-vehicles need public transportation?) Each level ends with a boss battle, and each campaign ends with a BIG BOSS battle. The boss battles are against fan favorite characters from the series (Soundwave, Starscream, etc) while the BIG BOSS battles are against some familiar guys who's toy versions my parents would never in their right mind buy me when I was a kid.

There are also plenty of references and nods to the original G1 Transformers throughout. Peter Cullen returns yet again to lend his gravelly baritone to Optimus, Soundwave has his totally rad vocoder monotone (and even changes into a boombox in one scene), and the ending credits are an obvious love letter to all us man-boys who grew up on the 80s cartoon and animated movie adaptation.

Transformers: War For Cybertron finally gives us what we have been craving for all these years - a GOOD licensed game based on our beloved Transformers franchise. The combat is visceral and satisfying, the storyline (while simplistic) is engaging, the multiplayer is fun and deep and the references to Generation 1 make this a complete and solid package. While the campaign can be a bit repetitive, the unique transforming mechanic and obvious care taken in crafting this game more than make up for it. You can really tell that High Moon have a lot of love for Transformers, and hopefully this is a great start to some even greater future installments.

Score: 8.5/10