‘Ryse: Son of Rome’ is one “For Sparta!” yell short of being a ‘300’ game

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Remember that moment in 300 where Gerard Butler kicks that dude into a pit and everything slows down while the surprised Persian gracefully falls to his death? That’s, like, 90-percent of what we saw from Crytek’s behind-closed-doors demo of Ryse: Son of Rome for Xbox One at E3 2013. There are hints of deeper gameplay, as you’ll soon learn, but the initial reveal stuck entirely to a straightforward sales pitch: beat down ancient warrior ass with a Roman sword.

[Editors note: Technically a Roman sword was known as a “gladius.” Author’s note: Quiet, you.]

Story/Concept

Ryse-screen-3This is not Sparta. The hero of this story is Marius Titus, an ancient Roman tough guy who starts out as a front-line grunt and eventually works his way up to the rank of general over the course of the game. We don’t know much beyond that, but Titus’ story arc will be bloody. 

Storming the beach. Crytek’s E3 demo picked up roughly a quarter of the way into the story, with Titus having already risen to the rank of commander. He and his troops are landing with the rest of the legion on the coast of Britannia, near the cliffs of Dover. The tone and pacing of their initial landfall is immediately reminiscent of storming the beaches at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan (and many other games and films), especially when a flaming catapult shot knocks Titus on his back.

Time slows to a crawl and the sounds of the world are drowned out behind our protagonist’s heartbeat. Titus pulls himself to his feet and looks around in a daze as other injured soldiers stumble about nearby. One of them shuffles along like a zombie, his arm blown off. The nod to Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic is explicit, and unmistakable.

Gameplay

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Elegant brutality. Ryse is a brutal, brutal game, with more than 100 animations – some contextual – for executions alone. There’s a rhythm to the action, however, and a focus on rewarding players who are patient enough to master the various systems. The fluidity of your combo attacks is dependent upon timing; mashing attack buttons works well enough, but Titus slices through enemy flesh much more competently when each successive button press is timed with the end of the previous attack animation.

Blocking and parrying is also important; time it right, and you’ll leave your attacker temporarily vulnerable. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of melee-based action or beat ’em up games. Weaken an enemy enough and a flashing button prompt appears above his head. There’s no penalty for missing these, but successfully performing a finish carries with it a player-selected boost, ranging from bonus XP to light health restoration.

Ryse-screen-5To arms! One aspect of Ryse that was teased during both the demo and during the game’s appearance at Microsoft’s E3 press conference was Titus’ role on the battlefield as a general. You can see it in one moment during the demo when he commands a battalion of troops to erect a shield wall as they advance slowly across the battlefield beneath a barrage of enemy arrows. This sequence features a relatively simple one-button command interface, but Crytek hinted at there being more elaborate tactical play – complete with Kinect voice support – as well.

For the masses. Another feature hinted at but not explicitly demoed during the E3 showing was multiplayer. Online play in Ryse is built around bouts in the Colosseum. It seems that there’s thought being given to both co-op play and adversarial match-ups here. The team’s big focus is on ensuring that the Colosseum delivers a changing, dynamic environment. One possible scenario cited from real-life history could see the arena being flooded to simulate water battles.

Second screen legions. Like many of the other early Xbox One title (and probably all subsequent ones), Ryse takes advantage of the Xbox SmartGlass to bring second screen support to the game. This is realized in a couple of ways that we know of. An active timeline charts your progress through a mission on your SmartGlass device, with sequence-appropriate text or video hints from friends and from the wider Internet accessible from there.

Crytek also promises some sort of remote access support tying into Ryse‘s multiplayer mode. This indirectly confirms that the multiplayer portion of the game features some sort of progression system, though the details aren’t fully clear. You’ll be able to customize your character on the go, even when you’re not connected to Wi-Fi. The app will then later update the game accordingly when it reconnects.

Presentation

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Magnificence of the Roman Empire. Ryse isn’t the most eye-catching Xbox One game that we saw at E3 2013, but the appropriately epic scale and sharp visuals definitely eclipse what you might expect from a game that was originally set to be released as a hands-free Kinect game on Xbox 360. The big battlefields feature huge numbers of bodies, but the facial animations stand out the most. Whether its Titus himself emoting in close-ups as he rallies his men for battle, or ever-changing grimaces of pain that play across enemy faces as execution animations play out, the presentation doesn’t disappoint.

Takeaway

Ryse: Son of Rome feels in many ways like a rote third-person action game in its debut showing. There’s clearly more to come from Crytek based on the hints dropped during the game’s E3 demo, but it wouldn’t be a terrible crime if this turned out to be a relatively basic hack-and-slash-er. It would fill an important niche around the Xbox One’s launch, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with realizing Zack Snyder’s sweeping cinematic ambitions for 300 as an interactive experience.

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