To demonstrate, producer Nick Cooper chooses a large, heavy bot called Vanquish. His three weapon slots are filled by a hammer for melee combat, a minigun for midrange attacks and an artillery attack for long range use. Each of these will be upgradable and have alternates available, all managed via this selection screen. Cooper hits the Deploy button, which sends him to a jerry-rigged Autobot base called High Grand. This old military installation on a rocky American mountain is bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, and overlooks a valley dotted with pines. Members of the QA department gather and Vanquish transforms into a bulldozer to drive out along a path into the large level below.
Once among the trees, the fact you’re controlling a huge Transformer becomes clear as Vanquish transforms back into a bot. Here we find mobs of Terrorcons, the common enemy of both the Autobots and Decepticons in Universe. Killing them awards your whole team what’s currently called XP, but will be eventually named something more embedded in Transformers lore. Cooper engages, Vanquish’s hammer dealing area-of-effect damage, his minigun firing a cone of bullets in front of it. Melee weapons tend to be more effective against bots’ health, while ranged weapons are better at taking out shields.
Rather than use a traditional MMOG-style tabbed-targeting control system, which involves the player manually selecting targets, Universe adopts a more action game approach, locking onto the nearest enemy in the middle third of the screen. The aim is to keep the game fluid, while affording control over what you’re hitting, with aiming reticles and subtle zoom-ins creating what Horton calls a “Top Gun-ny vibe”. Feedback on firing itself is satisfyingly meaty and powerful, while a weapon-specific power bar lends an active element to combat. Some ranged weapons require time to acquire a lock; some have cooldowns; others, like Vanquish’s hammer, charge up and only deal top damage when the bar’s maxed out.
“Mixing and matching these combinations provides variety,” says Horton, indicating their role in your tinkering with your bots as they level up and you buy new abilities. “We want them to be as tactile and responsive as possible. We have to keep a large element of skill in here; it’s imperative – good games have skill, but that balance between decision-making, reaction time and strategy of bot deployment.”
Key to the combat design is that it emphasises teamwork. To fire his artillery, Vanquish needs a moment to hunker into place, rendering him immobile and vulnerable; to be effective, he’ll need some support. Secondary equipment supports the concept: Chaff Cloud prevents lock-ons from rockets and sniper rifles, so it’d be a good idea for Vanquish to position himself behind a cloud so he can’t be targeted. Other items remove players from the radar, allowing them to sneak up on enemies, while invisibility is useful for capturing points.
“No one character has the ability to take on multiple players, heal themselves and support others,” says Cooper. “If I’ve died in the game, what does it make sense to take out of the toy box next?” In other words, the five bots you choose to bring into the game are a tactical resource. When your bot goes down, you’ll have the choice of spending Energon, the game’s main currency, on resurrecting it or to switch to another, which will spawn nearby.
We move on to a contested area, Cooper switching to a smaller bot, which transforms into a red sports car. Situated under a huge dam is an Energon field, ripe for the mining. The aim for both the Decepticons and Autobots is to drop Energon probes into the ground and then remain within 10 metres of them to absorb the Energon they extract. The closer you are to them, the faster they deal it out, so the game’s about keeping position as both teams race to collect 1,000 units first. Complicating matters is the fact that the process can wake Terrorcons, which attack both sides, and that greedy players can simply keep the Energon they earn for themselves.
It’s a fast-paced brawl with a clear objective, one that earns the winning team the opening of a new portal for a short period that leads to the next battleground, a broken, burning city. As such, as each faction wins battlegrounds, they get to move on to the next in a progression that’s managed by two storylines, one for the Decepticons and one for the Autobots. It’s another product of Horton’s background with GTA: “We can’t do this game without telling a story,” he says. But it’s not simply the result of a mandate from Hasbro’s legacy with expressing Transformers through narrative-driven cartoons and film, and nor is it Horton falling back to home comforts. “Obviously, all the stuff I did with Sam and Dan Houser was about that, but what we’re aspiring to make is a suite of different battlefields that we need to give context to. I’m not knocking a Quake level, but we don’t know why they’re there. I think story’s very important for that.”