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Transformers: Fall of Cybertron 360 is even better than its predecessor, War for Cybertron: a bigger, brighter, funnier epic adventure.
As excellent as it was, 2010's War for Cybertron (360) protested a bit too much in its efforts to impress upon the world that developer High Moon were taking this licensed toy property about giant robots seriously: the setting often felt a bit too dark, the mood of endless third-person combat a bit too grim and grinding.
Having proven that they could deliver an excellent game based on a franchise that has spawned many shovelware clunkers in the past (and indeed continues to), Fall of Cybertron sees High Moon relaxing and having a bit more nostalgic fun with a series that, for most of us fans, we first grew attached to as children playing with toy robots.
The game drops its narrative into a very specific moment in the series' history, shortly after the events of War for Cybertron and just before most versions of the franchise begin, recounting the last days before Optimus Prime and the Autobots fled Cybertron in the Ark.
We know the next stage of the story - that the Autobots and pursuing Decepticons end up bringing their war to Earth - but nonetheless Fall of Cybertron manages to avoid the prequel curse of feeling like redundant backstory, loading its narrative with urgency, spectacle and neat little tweaks to existing Transformers lore.
Variety seems to be a watchword this time around: not only does the campaign skip between different playable characters on both sides of the conflict, but those characters have notably different abilities and gameplay challenges to face.
I'm generally dubious about switching protagonists in a game, especially when they're on different sides of a conflict - it can break any connection between the player and their character, and dilute motivation.
The game drops its narrative into a very specific moment in the series' history.
Here it's less of a problem, partially because the fight-for-survival plot means both sides have relatable motivations, but mainly because I can't begrudge the variety and outright fannish joy that comes from getting to play as old favourites like Jazz and Soundwave, with their differing agendas and abilities.
Those differences add true variety to the gameplay. While the core of the game is still third person shooting, the shootouts are broken up with sections that make other demands of the player - escape sequences in vehicle mode, turret sections, stealth sequences and even some light platforming using a grapple.
Back when I reviewed War for Cybertron I compared it to how Rocksteady's Arkham Asylum used the shovelware-beleagured Batman franchise as the basis for a great game that also served the series' fanbase very well, and the comparisons between the Arkham and Cybertron games becomes even stronger with Fall of Cybertron.
Not only do the grappling and stealth sections seem directly inspired by the Arkham games - especially when the grapple serves a double use of pulling down walls and obstacles - but there are storytelling similarities too.
Various Decepticons take on the tricksterish, taunting villain role that the Riddler and Joker have in the Arkham games, especially when an exploration of Shockwave's lair reveals computer records that fill in fannish bits of backstory.
Really, its a matter of ethos that makes these comparisons inevitable: just as the Arkham titles lovingly piece bits of Batman arcana into their narrative, nestling obscure references into the environment as easter eggs, so Fall of Cybertron shows a deep love of its source material.
For long term fans, there's a tremendous amount to enjoy here.
Sometimes these references are subtle - Megatron recalling his origin, as recounted in a comic book from a few years ago - and sometimes they're not, as entire scenes from the 1985 Transformers movie are lovingly re-enacted , right down to identical dialogue exchanges.
For long term fans, there's a tremendous amount to enjoy here. War for Cybertron already had a great central transforming mechanic and combat engine that gave a real feel of controlling a powerful, fluid machine battling other such creatures, but Fall of Cybertron piles on a thicker layer of Transformers fan wish fulfillment where you get to play lots of favourite characters, and playing them is just as fun as you'd expect it to be.
So, playing as Grimlock is a matter of chunky, chaotic melee combat, stomping through ranks of puny, smaller robots who can be batted aside or flamethrowered to death with ease. Playing as Megatron, on the other hand, gives you a real feel for being a wily, ruthless space murderer, armed with a precise and potent weapon that, if used correctly, smashes through ranks of well-prepared opponents.
Everything feels as it should in these sequences, it's all really fun, and interestingly the differences in play style seem to flow from a real understanding of the characters.
For example Optimus Prime is powerful but constantly under pressure, trying to save others and getting to direct powerful forces in support of his efforts, and this translates into a series of skirmishes and use of directed strikes.
For more brutal and selfish characters like the aforementioned Megatron and Grimlock, there's less of a sense of urgency and more glee to the violence.
Lower down the Transformers food chain, the less powerful forces on both the Autobot and Decepticon side are more concerned with their own survival, and the playstyle shifts accordingly.
There's a persistent sense that High Moon have thought about this stuff a lot. I'm not sure whether the tweaks to the origins of the Dinobots and Insecticons presented here are the studio's idea, or drawn from some recent comic I haven't read, but they fit the plot of the game perfectly while also making sense within the wider Transformers franchise.
As well as getting the general gameplay feel and story details right, Fall of Cybertron also delivers plenty of spectacle.
There's a great sense of scale to the environments, and some grin-inducingly big moments.
Along with a lighter, more cartoonish feel to the game as a whole, Cybertron feels like a brighter and more varied location than in the previous title. As well as neon lit corridors, this Cybertron also has dusty catacombs, toxic sewers and other secrets waiting to be uncovered - or uncover themselves. There's a great sense of scale to the environments, and some grin-inducingly big moments... which I won't spoil.
Nothing comes without a price, of course, and in providing such nuanced gameplay for each character, and delivering those big set-piece moments, Fall of Cybertron is by necessity fairly linear - you couldn't have Optimus be able to wander through one of the areas Starscream plays through, for instance, the environments are too tailored to each character.
For all the easter eggs and little nooks and crannies along the way, this is ultimately a blast-your-way-to-the-waypoint game, a matter of violently chasing an on-screen objective marker.
There are also moments where the game has to reign in its own ambitions to fit technical limitations - for instance, lunge towards an Insecticon's leg with Grimlock's chomping jaws and the characters will flick into a different position to show a pre-canned execution animation of Grimlock biting into the Insecticon's torso instead. It's a minor thing, but jarring nonetheless.
Fall of Cybertron is a bit of an orchestrated thrill ride.
Fall of Cybertron is a bit of an orchestrated thrill ride, then, offering limited gameplay freedom and strategic opportunity, but it is certainly a properly thrilling thrill ride. As a long time Transformers fan, there were bits of the game that had me grinning widely, and others that sent a fannish shiver up my spine.
For a game about giant machines hacking each other to bits its full of a nostalgic love for these characters and their world, a love that seeps through the game right down to peripheral details like the charming end credits sequence.
If you love Transformers - and you should, dammit - you'll love Fall of Cybertron.
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