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Under the Shadow of Rome

Full hands-on with the goriest gladiator game this side of the Tiber

We know everything there is to know about the history of ancient Rome. We've watched Gladiator, ooh, at least seven times. What else do you need to know? Romans kicked barbarian arse with tough-as-nails armies, liked watching slaves chop each other's arms off, betrayed each other quite a bit, and quite often fancied their own sisters. What's not to like?

Our knowledge of Rome has been strengthened by getting fully hands-on with Capcom's epic PS2 slasher Shadow of Rome. Hailing from the development team headed up by Onimusha emperor Keiji Inafune, this historical bloodbath lets you get your hands dirty with everything we love about Roman history.

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This is the first time we've been let loose on full Shadow of Rome code so we've been able to play through a good portion of the game's opening act. We're not disappointed.

The glory of Rome

The immediate thing that hits like a scimitar to the face is just how much Shadow has been influenced not only by Gladiator, but by Hollywood. Many of the camera shots and compositions in the opening movie and cutscenes are straight out of Ridley Scott's epic.

Similarly, many of the characters bear striking resemblances to real-life actors (which is purely coincidental, Capcom's legal department would (probably) like us to add). Again, the Gladiator references are obvious: main man Agrippa's got a bit of the Russell Crowe about him, and new Emperor and all round nasty piece of work Antonius is a spitter for Joaquin Phoenix. Then there's Cicero, who we could've sworn is Anthony Hopkins' twin, and wise old man Pansa who's doing a cracking Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars flick) impression.

It might sound a bit cheesy, but it works brilliantly. The atmosphere and environments are far stronger as a result of this referencing. It almost feels like an official Gladiator game - something that we would've messed our togas for when the movie came out.

Luckily the action doesn't disappoint. You're instantly slung into the depths of the Coliseum as Agrippa, a disgraced Roman centurion forced to fight for the entertainment of the mob. The doors to the killing grounds swing open and four gladiators rush you at once. Learn the controls quick.

Shadow uses an upgraded version of the Onimusha game engine, but you wouldn't know it. The most obvious difference is that you're now free to manipulate the camera around your character rather than being stuck with static viewpoints. It makes the action much more frantic as you swing your view around to track enemies and dodge incoming attacks. The disadvantage of this is that Shadow's environments are far less impressive from a visual point of view than Onimusha's lushly drawn backdrops.

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But who cares about the scenery when you've someone's trying to fillet your steak? Combat's simple: holding R1 locks onto the enemy in your line of sight, L1 blocks, and attacks are initiated with bashes of the Square and Circle button. It sounds like it would become quickly repetitive, but Capcom have implemented so many different context-sensitive moves that the button-thumping stays a little bit fresher for a little bit longer.

When in Rome...

Shadow of Rome is brutal. We've told you before, but we mean it. It's brutal. Even the basic blows feel satisfyingly meaty in a way few other games manage, but when you bust out a vicious finishing move that lops off both your hapless victims limbs in one quick swipe it feels... great. And it's not just the brilliantly bloody combat that encourages this vicious streak - there's a very dark undercurrent trailing under the surface of Shadow. Clear the first few gladiators and you move to an execution chamber, where several unarmed prisoners are kneeling before you, urine staining the sand beneath them. There's nothing for it but to draw your sword (or mace, or ruddy great axe) and put them out of their misery. See? Brutal.

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