Transformers Universe: we get some prime time with the robo-MMO

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Transformers Universe

This preview originally appeared in issue 248 of PC Gamer UK. Written by Alex Wiltshire.

A new Transformers war is dawning. A new struggle between good and evil. And this time it’s a conflict that once started, can never end – or at least, not until the servers close.

Jagex Games Studio are no strangers to long-running epic battles, having run the online RPG RuneScape since way back in 2001. Now they’re set to launch their second large-scale MMO. Transformers Universe describes the face-off between altruistic Autobots and sneering, pantomime villain Decepticons. It might be based on a toy property, and it might be a free-to-play browser game, but it isn’t just for kids.

Look to its influences. The MMO tag conjures images of a great rambling world of grinding mob-slaughter, with Optimus Prime and Megatron sitting static in their capital Transformers cities doling out ‘collect 15 Zanussi washing machine engines’ quests. But Transformers Universe isn’t that. It’s much more along the lines of World of Tanks and League of Legends: a series of tightly designed competitive PvP scenarios, pitting Autobot and Decepticon players against each other.

Transformers Universe

This one has trouble making soufflé.

At Jagex’s Cambridge HQ, producer Nick Cooper shows me a level set among the pine trees of a valley beneath a towering dam. Here, the challenge is to mine Energon, the game’s main resource, and deposit 1,000 units of it in a special hopper before the other team can. To do this, chief creative officer Alex Horton drops probes into the valley floor. He has to remain within ten metres of them in order to absorb the energetic booty: the closer he is to a probe, the faster he’ll absorb the Energon, so the battle is all about jostling for position. And, just to complicate matters, there’s the little matter of Terrorcons, undead NPC Transformers that the action of mining can inadvertently raise. Once transformed, they’ll attack both sides. The battling, played during my session with and against Jagex QA staff, is briskly dynamic, players balancing their need to mine with their hunger to despatch the enemy. Universe is, above all, an action game that emphasises player skill over statistics.

It wasn’t always this way. When Jagex started working on Transformers Universe in early 2011, they were making the standard kind of MMO that you might have expected. But that changed when Horton came on board. His background is not in online games, but in singleplayer action games – specifically Grand Theft Auto. He was lead animator on GTA III and Vice City, and went on to work on art and presentation for every other Rockstar game up to and including GTA IV. The carjacking animation? That was him. So was the GTA logo, cutscene direction and many other things besides.

Horton’s varied experience has given him an alternative perspective on what might constitute a Transformers MMO, leading him to look at what the giant robots-in-disguise themselves might bring to a game. “Transformers are about this war, they’re about action,” he says. “At the same time, they don’t carry gold, bake bread, catch fish, cut down trees. But for everything they take away, they throw open so many more opportunities.”

Transformers Universe

Hitting versus running.

Think of Transformer Universe’s robot heroes as toys. You’ll collect them, upgrade them with new weapons and equipment, and you’ll need to repair them, too, as they get destroyed in action. They also serve as your ‘lives’ in battle: although you control them one at a time, you’ll pick a roster of five to take into action. Selecting the right types for the scenario will be key, whether light and fast, ideal for negotiating tight city environments, or heavy and powerful for holding ground. Their vehicle modes will play a part, too – enabling access to different areas of the maps, for example – but Jagex are close-lipped about this for now.

So the concept plays directly to Transformers’ core identity, but it would be moot if the action itself wasn’t smartly designed. I watch Vanquish, a large, heavy Autobot that transforms into a digger, rolling out into the field. Like all Universe’s other playable bots, which Jagex have designed themselves, he packs three weapons: a massive hammer for melee, a minigun for short range and artillery for long range. Each deals area-of-effect damage, but of differing types: melee tends to be most effective against health, while ranged weapons are particularly powerful against shields.

Vanquish’s minigun – which shoots a cone of damage out in front of the beefy bot – and hammer are fairly conventional armaments, but his artillery adds a more tactical approach to his offensive capabilities. In order to fire, he takes a moment to robo-squat into place, rendering him immobile and vulnerable, and therefore in need of support from his teammates. Much of Universe’s combat design emphasises teamplay. Consider, for example, equipment such as the chaff cloud, which prevents enemies from getting the lock-on that rocket launchers and sniper rifles require to fire. Deposit that cloud in front of Vanquish as he hunkers and he’s got enough cover to loose off a round in relative safety. Other equipment will provide the ability to avoid radar detection, and invisibility.