Ryse: Son of Rome preview: Playing Crytek's vision of next-gen gaming
As an Xbox One exclusive and one of the headline launch titles for the new Microsoft console, there's a lot resting on Ryse: Son of Rome's armour-clad shoulders.
We sat down with Yannick Boucher, Project Manager at Crytek, to play through four levels of the forthcoming title and talk about Rome. Crytek, for those that don't know, is the producer behind games such as Far Cry and Crysis.
There is plenty we're not going to say for fear of spoiling the plot, but it is fair to say that this isn't just a button-mashing hack and slash, there's a story to be told alongside the admittedly-brilliant combat.
"The story is there to support your journey through gameplay," says Boucher at the Xbox One preview event we've come along to. "We have the same assets in the gameplay as the story, joining it together, so it feels like a more immersive experience when you're listening or playing."
We're used to the big game spectacle from franchises like Call of Duty, where the game gives way to a breathtaking cutscene, and Ryse delivers this with aplomb. From the opening of the game through the first three levels we played, the integration of gameplay and story elements is impressive.
The story is rich, but you don't spend too much time standing around listening to someone yakking on, waiting impatiently to get back to the action. Your journey brings in various characters of differing importance, with the early stages of the game telling some of Marius Titus, the protagonist's, back story.
Some of the plot might be a little predictable in the early stages - from what we've seen - but it's well executed and importantly, helps carry things along and give it all purpose beyond just mastering the combat techniques. It's also used as a mechanic to do just that: one of the early levels sees you return home to your father and practise some basic combat moves. It's essential learning on the job, an in-game tutorial that works pretty well.
Ryse is set in a world that's visually rich, if somewhat alien in terms of games. "We're big fans of Rome the TV series and Spartacus, and there seems to be this uprising, it's been getting more popular, and it felt like a great subject to tackle," said Boucher.
Peer into any high street bookstore, if it hasn't closed, and you'll find the same thing: ancient Rome is popular and Ryse could well make it even more so.
"We try to get that historical basis right, but at the same time we're working within the lore of Rome, the one that we all have in our minds from movies and previous stories. So we based it in history and then gave it a twist, especially with the art direction," confirmed Boucher.
This is next-gen gaming and with that you get breathtaking next-gen graphics. It's a sumptuous visual feast, with Crytek turning to a number of familiar in-game techniques to emphasise that details. The use of slow motion execution moves brings giddy excitement, but it's done without interrupting the flow of the combat.
This is one of the key points about Ryse: Son of Rome. The combat system has been designed to be fluid, so as you work the buttons - either deliberately or just slapping what you think might be appropriate in blind panic, the results look really impressive.
One of the most impressive elements is blocking. This is crucial to the game, but it isn't a jarring action that brings things to a halt. You can be in the middle of attacking one enemy, when you're attacked from the rear. You swing your shield around to take fend off the attack and then get back to what you're doing.
Dealing with multiple enemies is commonplace so you really do have to use the different combat moves, as well as dodge, to keep on your feet. Drop your guard and you'll soon be overwhelmed, forget to open your emeny's guard and your attacks won't get through. This is all about fighting hard and fighting smart.
The challenge for Crytek is making sure that the game doesn't just descend into eight levels of the same thing. There's a variety of weapons on offer, so there will be times when you'll switch to using the pilum (javelin), bringing variety to the combat.
"We have a really wide range of executions, some are available right at the beginning, some you unlock by purchasing with valour in the single player campaign and we have a proper combat mechanic with combos and you'll see more elaborate executions with those high combos," explained Boucher when we asked him how the combat would be kept fresh.
The executions are really dynamic and impressive, adding to the visual treat, both for the player and for spectators. That's one thing that Ryse really delivers: fun for the casual observer. It's a game where people will stop and watch because of those cinematic next-gen visuals, but also because there's plenty going on all the time.
There are eight levels in the Ryse single player campaign, along with multiplayer action that sees you taking to the Coliseum. The arena is dynamic, changing to give you different combat environments so it's not just a ring of sand. We didn't get the chance to play multiplayer, but it looks a blast.
If Ryse excites you as much as it does us, then multiplayer may be important, because the eight levels of Ryse are expected to take about 45 mins to 1 hour each, so there's the chance that you'll be through the rip-roaring campaign in a weekend.
"The single player campaign is really our meat and potatoes. We're really telling a solid story through it, we have you travelling through the different levels, but our multiplayer experience is really solid too, with the variety that comes with the Coliseum," says Boucher.
Meat and potatoes works for us and we're left feeling hungry for more. Ryse: Son of Rome is a stunning-looking launch title for Xbox One, with exhilarating combat to match. If it's that exciting for us, then what's it like for Crytek, lining up a launch title for the next-gen Xbox One?
"To quote our design director PJ [Estevez] it's a little bit like trying to land a 747, we're out of gas, they're building the runway, the fuselage is coming off, the engines are on fire and we're coming in really hot. Everything has to come together at the same time," says Boucher excitedly.
"It's not easy, but it's definitely an interesting challenge and the rewards are great: you're there day one, you're at the front line, you're saying: 'this is what we think the next-gen is'."
If this next-gen, we're happy to sign up to the XIV legion right away.
The Xbox One and Ryse: Son of Rome launch on 22 November.