So, as everyone and their mum knows by now, Transformers Universe has reached the end of its life-cycle, and is closing down for good on the 31st of January this year. When I first heard about TFU, I was quite excited – it was being marketed as an MMORPG set in the Transformers Prime universe, so I eagerly signed up for the beta.
R and I played the beta extensively together, and had all the usual beta experiences – finding bugs and balance issues, taking screen-caps from impossible viewpoints, and laughing, sometimes out loud, at graphical clangers before diligently filing bug reports.
However, TFU had a few problems beyond the usual beta issues, and I’m going to get all my griping out of the way before I tell you about what made me so happy with TFU that I put up with these issues.
The game had evolved over its early history from a MMORPG to a “MOTA”, which seems to mean a browsed-based team-based arena shooter. It had a change of engines from some in-house engine to Unity, presumably to run better in-browser. I found that it was very unstable running in Firefox, and used the TFU client instead. The focus of the open beta was on testing the PvP content, rather than the PvE “Crisis” missions. The PvP suffered from a lot of balance problems – which is inevitable for a game in beta – but the biggest problem wasn’t so much game balance as player balance. The small server population, which may have been due to a lack of promotion of the game by the developer Jagex, lead to issues with matchmaking. Ideally, if you are an inexperienced low-level player, you want to play against fellow n00bs, whereas l33t veterans should ideally play against own more-experienced ilk. If level 50 veterans end up playing against a team of first-match level 1s, it is likely that one team is going to completely steam-roll the other. This is fun for no-one (unless the veteran is a real jerk), and really doesn’t help player retention, since no-one is going to play through a long patch of getting digitally beaten down just for the privilege of inflicting the same on someone else.. During my time in TFU, I consistently saw problems with matchmaking where one team would be much more powerful than the other.
My other gripe with TFU was thematic: as anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock since 1984 knows, the Transformers are divided into two factions, the Autobots and Decepticons.
Typically, the Autobots are heroic, noble, etc. stereotypical “good guys” who care for each other, and follow their leader Optimus Prime out of respect; whilst the Decepticons are typically the “bad guys” being characterized as a group of selfish, untrustworthy, temper-prone and cruel, following their leader Megatron either because they’re afraid of him, or because he gives them a regular supply of victims.
Since G1, the Decepticon military ideal is always one of constant attack and aggression in contrast to the Autobots’ focus on stalwart defence. In the G1 cartoon, the Autobot’s starship Ark was shield-shaped whilst the ‘cons Nemesis was pretty-much spearhead-shaped.
Interestingly, nobody at Jagex seemed to have got the memo, because the best healer in the game (Conduit) and the best damage absorber (Mismatch) were both Decepticons, with the ‘Cons having more team-focused abilities in general: almost every Decepticon had an ability that would aid nearby team-mates. There were of course, a couple of team-focussed Autobots. Meltdown (my favourite ‘bot) was a defensively-focussed healer, and Macro could deploy a device which cloaked nearby team-mates. Macro had some unfortunate balance issues, which meant some PvP teams consisted of 4 Macros and nothing else. However the TFU Autobots were at their strongest when on the attack.
My final gripe is about vehicle modes. Very few of the robots vehicle modes could do anything special, you couldn’t ram enemies (vehicles bounced off enemies and obstacles like rubber balls) and in general transforming into an SUV (there were a lot of SUVs) was basically a glorified sprint button. It would’ve been nice for vehicle modes to be a bit more relevant – the only time most players transformed was when their enemies were fat away and they needed to cross the map. This was disappointing to me because Transformers must transform, else why the name.
Thematic inappropriateness and balance issues aside, there was a good game at the heart of TFU. There was a PvE “Crisis” mode, which allowed teams of players to explore environments filled with computer-controlled enemies to search for “treasure”. These missions, of which there were two, were immensely fun – they were analogous to “Raids” in other MMOs.
The point of these was supposedly to get consumables, items and Energon to spend on tuning up your character for PvP missions, but I actually found much more enjoyment in playing the Crisis missions repeatedly, running through with different team-mates and/or as different characters. The Decepticon Shellshock, who I could never get the hang of in PvP, was a titan in PvE, gunning down hordes of wild Terrorcons with ease. I suspect that Crisis mode was a relic of TFU’s MMORPG origin that had stayed active in its MOTA re-envisioning.
The other place that TFU excelled was in character design. At first, I questioned Jagex’s decision to have established Transformers characters relegated to “mentors” to the players, giving advice and orders via little pop-up messages in one corner of the screen.However, I soon realised that this was a great decision: if (for example) Bumblebee was playable, then I’m sure that teams of 4 mute, yellow Megatron-slayers (oops, spoilers!) would soon be running around. Also, established characters would carry a lot of expectations. It was a better choice to create new characters who could be designed at least partially around their in-game role.
TFU introduced some fantastic characters – Autobots such as sober & serious field-medic Meltdown, happy-go-lucky pyromaniac Sparkscape and ocean-obsessed hippy Monsoon, and Decepticons like the cannibalistic monster Mismatch (my favourite!), the omnicidal Unicron-cultist Flatline, and cynical murderess Duststorm. The characters all looked fantastic and had glorious voice acting. Each of them dripped with character, whether they were grumpy old gits, mafiosi or simply douchebags. Perhaps the strong characters may have been a weakness in PvP, because I know that a lot of players became attached to a particular character and wished to play as that ‘bot all the time, rather than changing to suit their teams needs or to counter their opponents. This effect would have been even worse with
mute, yellow Megatron-slayers popular TFP bots.
Fundamentally, even though there was a lot wrong with TFU, it was pretty fun while it lasted, and I’m sad that it died before finishing its beta cycle. To be honest, though, what I’d really have liked is a co-operative PvE game similar to the Crisis mode, but with more content; or, perhaps, a true MMORPG, with exploration, quests, and everything else that entails. Anyway, TFU is gone (all servers will switch of at 10am on the 31st of January.) But its characters aren’t forgotten. Watch this space for a toy customisation that pays homage to my favourite monstrous cannibal robot, Mismatch.