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Review: Ryse - Son of Rome has epic ambitions but is no classic

By Nick Cowen on Thursday 21st Nov 2013 at 11:00 AM UTC

There is a scene in Ryse: Son Of Rome which must rank among the dumbest moments to occur in a video game this year.

The sequence in question takes place towards the end of the game; barbarians from Briton are sacking Rome (because, you know, they did that every other week). The invaders' battle cries echo through the marble streets of the eternal city. Roman troops try to rally as citizens weep over their dead relatives. Marius, a Roman Centurion, has realised that if he can stop the Britons' leader, Boudicca, then perhaps he can turn the tide of battle.

Boudicca has been spotted riding her elephant - because you know, elephants were everywhere in the British Isles back then - towards the palace. Marius knows that if he can only reach the Scorpio (read: Ballista, read: turret) on the other side of a bridge, he has a chance of stopping her.

So the player's task in this instance is simple. You have to guide Marius down a burning bridge avoiding both pools of fire and a never-ending stream of charging elephants. Because the Britons had elephants, you know. In abundance. Oh, and if one elephant touches him, he dies instantly. He doesn't get trampled into paste, mind. He falls to one knee like Tim Tebow after a particularly Herculean long bomb. And then the player is forced to watch a pre-action animation before they try again.

This, by the way, is not the scene I regard as the dumbest thing I've seen in gaming all year. That came seconds later when I'd managed to reach the other side of the bridge and turned Marius around to see if I'd managed to evade the elephant herd. I could see a wall of flames, which spawned an endless stream of angry pachyderms. I stared at it for about twenty seconds, wondering if the supply of elephants would ever be exhausted. Perhaps, I thought, this is what happened to all of Great Britain's indigenous population of elephants - they were sent to Rome to help in the invasion and all ended up burned alive on a flaming bridge.

And then the opening theme for Monty Python's Flying Circus started playing in my head.

In a way this scene encapsulates everything one needs to know about Ryse; this is a game in which every aspect attempts to be epic. Its story is preposterous, its visuals are lush and it burns through ideas at a furious rate.

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Not everything in it works, but it continually swings for the fences. If all this sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, then allow me to correct you - I have nothing but grudging admiration towards Ryse, even if that sentiment is tinged with a sense of disappointment.

Ryse is set in ancient Rome but it has no historical context or accuracy. Rather, its plot is a pastiche of sword-and-sandal elements disparately thrown together to move a narrative along. The story centres on Marius, a Roman soldier who joins the legion invading Briton after barbarians murder his family.

There are battles. There are gods. There's a bit where Marius changes his name to Damocles and fights the emperor's son in the coliseum. There is a Wicker Man. There are deer-antler-wearing psychos. And yes, there are elephants. The fact that there's any semblance of continuity between all of these aspects is something of a marvel. Ryse's plot can be enjoyed if you check your brain at the door, but if you're a student of the classics you'll likely laugh until you foam at the mouth.

So Ryse' plot is daft, but it's not the game's deal-breaker. Rather, Ryse's biggest problem is tied up in its mechanics. Crytek has attempted to implement a combat set-up similar to Batman: Arkham City, in which the player controls a bloke wielding a sword and shield. One button is a sword swipe. One button is a shield bash. The remaining two face buttons activate a counter and a dodge roll.

Ryse' plot is daft, but the game's biggest problem is tied up in its mechanics.

If the player manages to maintain a sustained attack on an enemy, a little sigil will appear above their head. At this point, the player can pull the right trigger and this activates a little mini-game in which QTE prompts allow the player to execute a series of moves that produce a brutal coup da gras.

What's missing from all of this is a crucial sense of rhythm. The player usually has to counter in the middle of a sustained attack and initially, it's hard to read the attack animations and time a counter properly. We say 'initially', because after the first couple of fights you realise that you can counter at any point you like - even if Marius is in mid-swing in an attack. There are certain enemies where you have to perfectly time your counter, but they'll flash red when they begin their attack and their final blow slows a little, so they're easier to read.

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The other issue is the fact that the controls aren't exactly deep. You can't spam the same attack - enemies will immediately dodge the third blow of whichever attack you're using if you don't mix things up - but there's nothing approaching the depth of hack 'n slash stalwarts like the God Of War or Devil May Cry games and Ryse is in competition with them whether it likes it or not.

It doesn't help that the player is pitted against a series of identikit enemies that are occasionally skinned differently, but basically have the same attacks. There's the axe-wielder, the sword-and-shield-wielder, the dual-sword soldier, the dual-club fighter and the massive bloke with the slow, lumbering attack. Ryse's idea of variation is to throw different combinations of these enemies at the player, but the AI's attack is usually the same - wait until the player's back is turned and then leap at them.

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The developers break up the battles with turret sections, attacks on ranged opponents and moments where Marius is called upon to lead troops in formations. Occasionally players will be given a choice between tactical deployments, which allow set-pieces to play out a little differently. Crytek occasionally commits the cardinal error of pre-facing a checkpoint with a swooping camera pan or animation. Oh, and then there's the infuriating game of dodge-the-elephant near the end of the game, but thankfully that only happens once.

The combat is just as hit-and-miss in the Multiplayer, but here, there's the added dynamic of shifting battlefield goals. Players - either in tandem with a mate or solo - have to fend off waves of enemies that increase in strength every wave, but they're thrown curveballs like having to dismantle catapults or take out archers on raised platforms or holding a square in the arena as enemies attack them. It doesn't improve the combat, but the shifting dynamics give the online mode a rough-and-tumble appeal.

There are in-game collectibles, such as vistas, scrolls and messages for the player to pick up, and every single enemy they kill earns them Valor (sic) Points, which they can use to unlock parts of Marius's talent trees. They can also, if they wish, pay real-world money to buy these abilities, along with cosmetic baubles for their gladiator in the online shop.

There is one area in which Ryse boasts undeniable appeal: its presentation. In fact, if we can take it as read that the game has issues in its plot and gameplay departments (and we can), then you can trust us when we tell you that visually, Ryse is something close to awe-inspiring.

The game's environments, such as the eerie woods of north Briton, the thundering Coliseum the marble-struck streets of Rome are at times captivating. The character models are of such a quality that you can watch actors disappear into their performances: the two blokes who play the emperor's hateful sons are delightfully vile.

"Visually, Ryse is something close to awe-inspiring"

And in keeping with the game's epic ambitions, some of the set-pieces are well thought out and suitably super-sized: a defence against an oncoming siege and an attack from ships onto the beaches of Dover are two highly memorable highlights.

So Ryse isn't a killer app and it's not an unmissable launch title. But it's possibly worth a look for its sheer ambition, its bonkers story and its utterly gorgeous production values. One day you may come across Ryse in a cut-out bin for under a tenner. On that day, if you can get over a couple of rather large hurdles, you might end up having some fun with it.

The verdict

Ryse knows how to look like a classic, but comes off as berserk and brainless

  • Beautiful, captivating visuals
  • Some impressive set-pieces
  • Bonkers storyline
  • Wonky mechanics
  • Poor checkpointing
5
Format
Xbox Kinect
Developer
Crytek
Publisher
Microsoft
Genre
Action

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