The face of the Xbox One launch was divided between McLaren's utterly modern P1 supercar in Forza Motorsport 5 and that of the Roman Empire, as found in Ryse: Son of Rome. As an Xbox One launch title lots hangs on Ryse to represent Microsoft's latest console.
Coming from Crytek - of Far Cry fame - expectations are high for this visceral romp through Ancient Rome. The first time we played Ryse we were impressed: great graphics, a story that moves along with some pace and a combat system that delivers plenty of rewards.
But following the launch of the Xbox One, and now that we've spent many hours in the game, is Ryse: Son of Rome a title you should be battling for, or should it be resigned to history?
Aspirat primo fortuna labori
Ryse: Son of Rome sees you play Marius Titus and, for the majority of the game, you're in the role of a Roman General. There's an early flashback to flesh out the story and give a little history on Marius, although it's mostly inconsequential. The story follows the typical vengeance path after the death of Marius' family at the hands of the barbarians.
The game then sets off through a number of campaign levels that see you heading over to Britannia and tackling various different types of terrain along the way. It's the environment that aims to bring variety to the gameplay and help pull the plot along, although there's little difference between fighting in the streets of Rome, assaulting a Dover beach or scaling an aqueduct.
The plot is strung together with a number of cutscenes and set pieces, but when it comes to the gameplay itself, it's very much linear. When you find yourself in the forest, there are few options for deviating from the path: this isn't an open-world game where you get to roam around.
For the most part that doesn't matter, as the level design often keeps you on a track, but it also means that once you've done it, you've pretty much done it - there isn't a huge driver to head back in and play it all again.
READ: Xbox One review
There are also some fairly lengthy load times as you're playing through the game. When starting a new level it isn't too bad: often you'll have some animation to get you started, but it's really noticeable if you are killed. Then you'll be waiting for things to get going for longer than you might expect, which slows things down a little more than you might be expecting in this large-hard-drive-install, next-gen gaming world.
Cowards die many times before their actual deaths
Much of the focus of Ryse has been on combat. This makes up the majority of the gameplay and there's a lot of fun to be had with the combat system. As with many fighting games, it uses a combination of attack and defence, strung together in combos for some dramatic final executions, portrayed in glorious slow motion so you catch every gory detail.
Our initial impression was that Ryse was trying its hardest not to be a button-mashing hack and slash, but having played it more, it's difficult to really detach yourself from that. In many cases, it's the timing of a block or the decision to dodge that makes the difference in combat, before you step back into delivering a mixture of sword and shield play.
There are different types of opponents and just raining down blows with your gladius on to a shield will make little difference. You're given enough clues, however, to be able to switch the type of attacks you're making and that will see you through most of the game without too much difficulty.
There are also pilium, the Roman javelins, which are handy, as well as some larger static weapons for pretty regular defence in parts of some levels. All combined, Marius and chums have plenty at their disposal when it comes to defeating enemies.
Stringing together combos gives you the chance to accrue valour/XP faster, which in return can be used to level up Marius. There are various aspects you can opt to add to, such as increasing the health, or the longevity of focus - that being the slow motion "bullet time"-esque option that's useful when you're surrounded.
It's fairly standard stuff, but there's a range of exciting executions that are worth spending your "valour" on. It's here that you'll get those entertaining finishing moves. For many players, it'll take most of the single-player campaign to unlock them, which is a bit of a shame, because they make the experience more enjoyable as you play through.
While much of the emphasis is on individual combat, it's the leadership aspects of Ryse that could have made it more unique, but they never really amount to much. There will be times when you're called to make a decision on troop placements, usually where you will place your archers in the next attack.
Then there's the chance to fight in a testudo, in formation with shields ready to protect your men. But all too often, again, it's just a case of shuffling forward, breaking out to throw your pilium, and that's about it: you may be in command, but it never seems that you really need any tactical nous.
Are you not entertained?
Despite some aspects of Ryse feeling as though they don't step far enough, we can't help but like it. It isn't cerebrally challenging and it's only really the ends of our fingers that are left battered after a long session slashing our way through barbarian hordes.
We like the fact that it's accessible, as a campaign game, so that pretty much anyone who picks it up will be able to string together the elements of swordplay that hold the game together. There are eight levels to the single player campaign and each will give you about an hour of play.
That makes Ryse comparable, at a surface level, to the sorts of single-player campaigns you'll find in many first person shooters. You'll get the disposable story line, you'll get some wonderfully graphic moments and there will be plenty of excitement before you bump into the end.
We love way that the camera sometimes comes to rest on Marius, standing proud like a good soldier should; and the historical setting is refreshing, following on from the popularity of TV shows like Spartacus or the novels of Simon Scarrow.
There are some stunning visuals, from the detail in those executions, through to the environment. There's also a lot happening around you and in some melee levels you're surrounded by individual battles which all looks fantastic. The sounds of battle are left ringing in your ears too.
But looking to breathe more life into Ryse: Son of Rome is the multiplayer gladiator levels, which see you enter the Colosseum to fight in the arena.
The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate…
The Colosseum gets the full multi-form treatment, with the floor able to shift to add changeable elements to the arena as you fight. There are a couple of multiplayer options, although the "solo" option, as the name suggests, is just you heading into the arena to fight alone.
The others are co-operative play modes, so can find a friend or a random punter to fight with and entertain the crowd, or team up with a friend. There are fun changes along the way during rounds, at the end of which you'll see the scores and discover how poorly you fought alongside your partner.
It's fun and frenetic, as these things should be, so you can dive in hack your way through all manner of enemies. It is enjoyable and, just like many multiplayer games, does away with the distraction of story. It's just fight, fight, fight.
We've mentioned upgrades for the single player campaign and once you're in multiplayer, there are options to buy upgrades for your gladiator. You'll be able to change your armour, weapon or complete dress, but you'll have to buy tokens with real cash, or win them in the arena, which is a long process.
If you find that the combat in Ryse is too good to pass up, then the co-op multiplayer provides plenty of fun, extending the game beyond the story of the campaign.
Ryse: Son of Rome is a sumptuous hackathon through Ancient Rome in truly next-gen style. The visuals are impressive, as is the smoothness of the animation, especially once you get into those big fights and executions. It's a great game to be a spectator on, even if gameplay itself gets repetitive, the levels are a little linear and loading can be on the slow side.
Having played at a preview day and, subsequently at home for an extended period, it's clear that there's little difference in play throughout the gaming experience. So while we loved our preview session, the full game doesn't keep the excitement up - and we doubt many will replay it once completed. Saying that the battles in the Colosseum will give Ryse some endurance, as it still looks great and there's plenty of variety to the co-op action.
So to answer our opening question: worth battling for, or one to resign to the history books? We've found Ryse to be fun for our tastes and think casual gamers will agree. But it's not quite the epic and varied a battle game that we'd hoped for.
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