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.
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.”
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.
Crucially, no one bot will be able to take on every role. Although the bots aren't specifically class-based, some will be inherently better at support roles, while others will be better at taking on multiple enemies. That means you'll need to think carefully about the capabilities of the bots you choose to take into battle, switching between them as occasion demands (though you'll respawn at specific locations, rather than on the fly), and it means you'll need to work with the team.
But, as I've said, Universe is principally an action game. The interface abstains from World of Warcraft-style tabbed targeting in favour of a more vigorous, FPS-inflected aiming system that locks onto any enemies in the central third of the screen. As it targets, it'll zoom in slightly with reticle animations to provide what Horton calls a “Top Gunny vibe.”
Underneath it all, the combat is still run on RPG stats that you'll raise over time through levelling and better weapons and equipment, but it leaves the overall impression of something more fluid and fast-paced.
Two extra weapon-specific gauges help. One is essentially a combo meter, which fills as you deal damage and unleashes bonuses such as additional damage and the ability to hit more targets. The other gauge charges up like a power bar in a golf game: Vanquish's hammer only deals maximum damage if you let go at its apex, while some ranged weapons require time to lock on.
Transformers Universe has a fair amount in common with the new breed of hugely popular, competitive, short-duration online games: action-RTSes and the like. Where it diverges from them is in its reliance on story. “We can't do this game without telling a story,” Horton says. His aim is to give a context to the game's large suite of battlefields in a way that Quake and Call of Duty never try. When Vanquish helps to collect enough Energon for the Autobots to win the mining match, it briefly opens a portal for his side to proceed to the next level, set in a destroyed city. The battlefields, therefore, aren't discrete player-versus-player maps, but part of a large set of interlocking scenarios that provide different challenges. You'll also have access to faction-specific social hub areas where you'll find familiar – although sadly not playable – bots like Megatron and Optimus Prime, who'll help tell a story of conflict between
the two factions.
Transformers Universe is going to be produced in seasons, in the manner of US TV shows: Horton's highfalutin example is The Wire. This is the war that never ends. In the future, Universe might go into space, introduce rafts of new vehicle modes and characters, and whatever else fits the audience and game as it evolves. They hope the story, which lies in the continuity universe of the animated CG series Transformers: Prime, will tie it all together. Quite what nasty Megatron's up to will only come out closer to launch. Bet it's something nefarious.
Transformers Universe is not the cheap tie-in that you might have feared it to be. And it's backed up by some great new technology, which Jagex claim will ensure that their game looks good in years to come, even given its browser-based provenance. Certainly Universe is far beyond the usual level of 3D gaming in browsers, with flashing weapon effects and smooth animations as bots transform into their vehicle modes. Jagex are still in the process of locking down the minimum specifications for their game, but in its current form Transformers Universe's look and feel suits a fast-paced multiplayer action-RPG. It's not Crysis, sure, but the visuals are light years ahead of RuneScape, and they pretty much meet the intention of being 'best in class' in the field of browser games. And, less glamorous but probably more important, the networking systems that run under the hood benefit from Jagex's considerable experience in making online games. Although they're more used to coding the kind of technology required to run an RPG, the Jagex team have designed Transformers Universe's engine and infrastructure to run FPS-fast. It will also run almost entirely on its servers, rather than via peer-to-peer networking, to make it more stable and secure.
Transformers Universe has one eye smartly fixed on the latest online gaming trends, and the other on ensuring the game lives up to the essential nature of its licence.
Will it manage to make good on those ambitions? It'll certainly be worth trying out the beta, which is due to start in the next few months – you can already sign up. Jagex are adamant too that, as with World of Tanks, it'll be possible to play at its highest levels without paying a penny – if you've got the time.
Transformers Universe is rolling out with ambitions that suit the scale of its robots, to transform your expectations of what a browser-based MMO can be. It looks to be on the right road.