The release of Shadow of Rome comes a few years late, you might think, in the wake of Ridley Scott’s epic film ‘Gladiator’. Now there’s been time for Gladiator fever to subside, get ready to wield your own gladius. Shadow of Rome is set in the ancient pre-Christian Roman Empire, and follows the series of events after Julius Caesar’s death. Although not historically accurate, the storyline is engaging and believable, carefully weaving information gathered from the two main characters as the game develops.
Those two character paths see two styles of gameplay. You simultaneously play Agrippa, a ruthless centurion who is forced to become a Gladiator when his father is accused wrongly of murdering Caesar, and Octavianus, Caesar’s nephew, who suspects that Agrippa’s father has been framed. Agrippa provides the enthralling and gory battles, while Octavious gives stealth sequences.
The battle scenes are extremely graphic, gory and entertaining - by far the more compelling half of the game. There is a wide range of weapons - from axes, maces and swords to a bow and arrow. Each weapon has a variety of moves, and almost all can be thrown.
Unfortunately all weapons and armour break after some use and force you to search around for alternative tools. Although this sounds tedious, it adds another dimension to the battle, breaking up the continuous fighting. No two battles are ever the same because of many different styles (mêlée, one-on-one, fighting in chariots), opponents (wild animals, barbarians, other gladiators) and fighting methods (various weapon moves and wrestling moves). A variety of realistic sound effects and apt music add to the overall realism of the game.
In between Agrippa’s bloody combat sequences, Octavianus, a weedy, skinny character creeps around Rome, eavesdropping, spying and generally fishing out information on who really killed Caesar. These stealth whodunnit sections bring the pace of the game to a grinding halt. Octavianus spends a great deal of time hiding round corners and waiting for people to look the other way. If caught, it takes just one blow to kill Octavianus, and so the level has to be restarted. This results in a repetitive, dull and tedious gameplay. In between the original and exciting fight sequences, Octavianus’s sections seem just like time fillers. But they do provide a welcome break to the mentally exhausting battles and have some comic value, as one of Octavianus’ only weapons is a banana skin. Overall, though, Octavianus’ sections let the game down, turning what would have been a great game into an ‘OK’ one.
The overall problem is a lack of depth in both sections - neither Agrippa’s nor Octavianus’ sequences are strong enough either on their own or fused together. The battles are by far the more interesting element of game play - but compared with other games they are relatively simplistic. The AI is easily conquered and the main challenge is simply staying alive. In the stealth sequences, too, the actions of the player are limited and therefore easily mastered, so there is little challenge here.
Shadow of Rome nonetheless has some fantastic battle sequences and entertaining gameplay. But by attempting to fuse an action game with an adventure game, Capcom has fallen just short of the mark with both. And it was, of course, over-expansion that brought down the Roman Empire.