Sunday, 15 December 2013

'Ryse: Son of Rome' is a Trojan horse with no surprises inside

‘Wait, why are we fighting?’ ‘Just shut up and keep swinging, it looks great!’ (Crytek)

Why is Ryse: Son of Rome spelled with a “y” and not an “i?” Playing through the game we learn there is no functional reason for the odd spelling. I guess the “y” just looks so much cooler, which actually tells us a lot about this game: It looks cool, but it’s bereft of any reason – or fun, for that matter. (The reason for the “y” is probably less fun too, developer Crytek used similar mispellings in its other game series, “Crysis.”)

This Xbox One launch game is intended to be an epic action-adventure saga set in – where else? – ancient Rome. For lack of a better description, it’s Microsoft’s attempt at a more realistic version of rival Sony’s highly successful mythological God of War series. But where the PlayStation’s brawler games have been inventive and varied in the action and scenarios they’ve thrown at players, Ryse is a monotonous drone that keeps pounding the same one note over its 10-hour-or-so campaign.

It might not be so bad if there were other, interesting trappings surrounding the repetitive gameplay, but that’s not the case. The beautifully rendered Roman landmarks – the Coliseum, the aqueducts – are just there to look at, not explore, because Ryse is one of the most linear and tightly scripted games in recent memory. And that’s too bad, because I would have really liked to spend more time in such a gorgeously rendered world – the Xbox One’s graphics really shine in this game. Yet Ryse’s sole reason for existence is to funnel players into swordfight after swordfight, which gets pretty dull around hour five.

The tale begins with a barbarian attack on Rome, governed by the Emperor Nero. Marius, a gravel-voice centurion with a troubled past, must defend the city and his emperor. Cue the framed narrative as the two first interact and we’re taken into the protagonist’s past, where we learn of his family’s fate and how he came to be a centurion.

At the risk of hinting at spoilers, if you know anything about Roman history, you know that Nero was among the dodgiest of emperors. So yeah, the story is going to take some predictable turns.

Speaking of which, the awful dialogue is cribbed from pretty much every equally awful action movie in the sword-and-sandals genre. When Marius grunts clichéd inspirational speeches to his troops, it’s very reminiscent of the movie 300 except there’s a lot of “Romans!” yelled instead of “Spartans!”

For reasons never fully explained, some of the Romans come to believe that Marius is Damocles himself, a character from Greek myth who served to illustrate the immense pressure that rulers must often live with. Even with this twist, Marius never becomes a character we want to care about. The relationship between Nero and Marius is instead all about simplistic vengeance.

The story veers into nonsensicality as mythology comes to life later in the game. Some gods get involved, although I have to admit to not understanding who they were or their motivations. All I know is that at several points in the game, a glowing goddess of some sort appears to help Marius onward by speaking the sage words, “Rise, son of Rome!” (Or is it “Ryse, son of Rome?”)

Just about all of the playable action is based on the sort of timing-based fights made most famous by the Batman Arkham games, where the key to taking on large numbers of opponents lies in countering their attacks just right. The basic twist on the formula here is that, after a few hits, the player can launch into colourful executions, which frequently involve disembowelment and severed limbs. It is indeed really cool the first few times, but by number 4,000… not so much.

The executions are accomplished through well-disguised quick-time events. The fight goes into slow-motion for a second or two, during which you have to hit the correct button to continue. Each execution is usually comprised of three or four such chained moves. If you miss the QTEs, the enemy still dies but you don’t get as much of a bonus.

In that vein (no pun intended), you get four bonuses to choose from in between executions, which can be quickly selected with the D-pad. Marius can opt to refill his health, get more experience points, fill his focus meter or cause extra damage. Experience points are spent on upgrading skills and execution moves, while the focus meter lets him unleash a ground-pound attack that stuns enemies.

I fully upgraded every possible execution move, but boredom still creeps in thanks to the sheer number of murderous takedowns you perform over the course of the game. Even worse are the disappointing dual executions, where you can take out two enemies at once. Expecting something really cool, I went through the trouble of whittling down a pair of opponents and then manoeuvring myself in between them. When I hit the execute button, I was shocked to see that Marius simply took one down with a simple thrust, then went ahead with a plain, old regular execution on the other. Talk about your letdowns.

The action does get spiced up a bit with a few sequences in which you man a ballista or lead a line of troops under a shield wall. Both had promise, but both settle into monotony. On the ballista, you simply keep blasting enemies with giant bolts until the time limit expires, while in the shield column you just keep crawling forward until you get close enough to ranks of enemy archers, whereupon you have your troops skewer them with spears.

Ryse also features a multiplayer mode, although it’s more of the same stuff found in the single-player campaign. Two players can team up to fight waves of enemies in an arena. But by the time I was done the solo story, I’d had more than enough of this sort of thing.

Ryse: Son of Rome is perhaps the best example of the worst kind of next-generation game: one that tries to get by solely on its gorgeous good looks. It’s not a bad game, per se, and it’s certainly a nice showcase for the Xbox One’s eye candy, but there just isn’t anything interesting going on underneath the shiny veneer of the Eternal City of Rome.


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