Transformers Universe Preview

The transforming tactical action game ditches the old "more than meets the eye."

I missed the morning session to see Transformers Universe, the new free-to-play multiplayer tactical action game from Jagex, the developers of Runescape, but they were kind of enough to squeeze me in afterward. There was some comedic irony to the proceedings, as they went through their full media pitch and I was the only attendee for the session. With room for interruptions and digressions, it did provide for some great one-on-one time with the developers, though.

The game's concept has come a long way from Jagex' original Hasbro pitch of "Runescape with Robots"; Transformers Universe isn't like other MMOs. It's a bizarre hybrid of the tactical gameplay of a MOBA or MMORPG in an action wrapper. The sessions play out more like watching a first-person shooter in terms of speed, like Team Fortress 2's, but the action is intensely tactical and the selectable bot-types conjure up terms, like DPS, tank, healer, and so on, that are normally reserved for slower paced MMOs. Creative Director Alex Horton said that they were having difficulty defining its genre due to its fast gameplay with tactical roots.

Part of it is the nature of the bots themselves, rather than having one dedicated unit; players can unlock or purchase multiple bots with a variety of abilities. Additionally, each of these bots has a series of skills that can be unlocked to give them enhancements. Choosing the right bot for the right situation against the right enemies is crucial, and this can be done at any respawn after a unit goes down. And they go down quick.

Universe's bots have abilities and attacks similar to those of standard MMOs but the damage dealt is much higher and the action more kinetic, making combat a furious affair, where a half-second in timing one's special attack (with that particular bot) can make all the difference. Take too much damage, and your best bet may be to transform and run, hoping that your attackers don't pursue and harry you with their vehicle-mode weapons.

The Jagex crew told me that Tranformers Universe is a part of Hasbro's Generations line of Transformers, connecting to the War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron game titles, and linking back to the original TV show continuity and IDW's Generations 1 comic. So it fits into a specific time and place in one of the Transformers continuities. This doesn't entirely keep it separate from the influence of the feature films, which appear to affect the themes of the existing lines.

I asked Horton about how closely Hasbro guarded the property and he said they were remarkably hands-off. There was some resistance initially to creating bots designed on older car or truck designs, but they quickly softened on this. More surprising was an early meeting where the team showed off the game only to discover the Hasbro executives answering with enigmatic smiles, making Horton really nervous. A year later, after they'd gotten the right clearances, the same execs showed Jagex design documents for the upcoming movie, Age of Extinction, which revealed that Jagex had unknowingly been developing along the same lines, hence the smiles.

The biggest delay in Universe's development has been tech-related. The browser-based game had originally been running off Java, but this ultimately became too limiting for the team's ambitions and everything had to be rewritten using Unity. This set the team back but allowed them greater freedom to push forward with the title.

One of the most exciting aspects of the game, outside of the fast, faction-based action MMO engagements, is how Jagex is developing its story. Rather than create one fixed faction-based story that would remain stagnant, its development process has been generative and player-reactive. They're talking about the game as having "seasons" that will determine how the story develops in the future.

"We could add flight, or space," Horton tells me, depending on how players react to the game and which faction emerges more victorious in the overall game. They have several scenarios already set up, but how those scenarios will play out in future seasons is up to the players, their style of play, and how the game evolves from player involvement.

Horton tells me they can change pretty much everything except the combat itself, meaning they've really got to nail it. The demo they showed me is a dazzling display of quick-witted tactical action, making me wonder how a more casual player would fare, but Horton is quick to put me at ease. He says he's hardly at the level of the playtesters, yet he can get in and kick around and have a great time himself.

While the bots everyone has to play with are the same, giving the game a CCG feel to selecting your Transformer tactically, Horton assures me that there will be chances to play with your favorite Autobots or Decepticons. It's not something they've revealed yet, but each of those licensed characters is a discreet, unique character, so you'll never see more than one on the battlefield when you do get to play with them.

Transformers Universe is currently browser-based, in closed beta on PC, with plans to expand to OSX before the free-to-play game launches this summer.