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.