Ryse: Son of Rome - Review
One of the biggest problems with console launch titles is the fact that developers are forced to do two different, and in most cases, contradictory, things. On the one hand, they're tasked with making an entertaining game, on the other, they're usually forced to show off a new consoles applications. In a sense, they're less games in many cases and more sales pitches: "Buy this machine, look what it can do.". Ryse: Son of Rome is just that kind of game.
Set against the backdrop of Ancient Rome, and thrust into the boots of Roman solider Marius Titus, the comparisons to Sony's God of War are immediately apparent. Microsoft never really had a direct answer for the blood-thirsty adventures of Kratos and it's clear that, amongst other things, Ryse attempts to rectify that problem. Much like Kratos, Marius is on a gore-filled quest to avenge the death of his family, cue lots and lots of violent executions.
After an impressive opening cutscene, the game effortlessly swoops into real-time combat with not a single loading screen, pause, or drop in graphical quality. It's a bold opening, and the ensuing first chapter makes for an entertaining chunk of hack-and-slash gameplay. Having cast out the initial (and let's face it, awful) Kinect controls that were presented in the E3 demo, Ryse now plays much more like a typical third-person action title.
Attacks are handled with X and Y, whilst parrying is carried out with a jab of the A button. It's a simple combat system, which perhaps suggests that developers Crytek didn't have much time to implement it after the Kinect controls were scrapped. However, for the first hour or so it's pretty fun. Again, perhaps thanks to the original motion controls, there's a good sense of weight and heft to Marius' movements, even with a sprightly roll, moving around manages to feel solid and (somewhat) realistic.
It's then down to the executions to sell the whole thing. As with just about any modern action game, finishing off an enemy involves carrying out a quick-time event, as Marius despatches his enemy in the most brutal manner possible. The first five, ten, or even twenty times this happens it's mildly entertaining...then the canned animations start repeating themselves. What's more, the QTEs cannot be failed, that's right, fail to press the correct button will result in less experience points but the enemy will die all the same.
Speaking of experience points, the game also comes with a rudimentary upgrade system, allowing you to improve your health or power up your focus ability, which allows time to temporarily be slowed down, as well as other things. However, it all seems a waste, as you're likely to have unlocked all of the upgrades by the second chapter, bar a few that only become available towards the end of the game.
What this means is that, throughout the game's five to six hour runtime, combat changes very little. Before even the halfway mark, repetition has kicked in and the few activities designed to change the game's pace, such as defending a position or marching with a phalanx of soldiers, seem like holdovers from the earlier Kinect controls. What's funny is, despite the relatively short runtime, Ryse feels like a long game and that's because it quickly becomes dull. Once the admittedly gorgeous graphics have lost their appeal, the constant shouting and moving from one war-torn area to another, only to carry out the same dull attack sequences, becomes boring.
Even the enemies themselves are unexciting, coming in only two different versions for the most part. There's a fat guy with a shield, and a thin guy with an axe. Get used to them, because they'll be the only thing you'll be hitting for the first three hours. Crytek do attempt to inject a little more variety later on, with some different enemy designs and even a few new opponents with tougher attack patterns, but it doesn't get away from the fact that you're repeating the same thing ad nauseam.
All of this repetition leaves the story to attempt to carry things along to the game's conclusion. The tale itself is a pretty unoriginal one, with Marius' revenge quest being done a thousand times before. Not only that but the episodic story-telling, which cribs set-pieces from the likes of 300, Saving Private Ryan and The Lord of the Rings to name but a few, seems more like it was done to show off a variety of environments than to tell an entertaining story. What's more, Marius seems to have a unusual knack of getting knocked out, only to awaken with all his equipment right beside him, even when he's been thrown off a cliff!
What is impressive though is the voice acting, not only is it good, in some cases it's really good. Jamie Ballard in particular, puts in an especially good performance as Basillius, the cruel and cowardly son of Emperor Nero. It's just a shame that the actors never got a chance to sink their teeth into some great dialogue. Likewise, the game seems to throw away the Ancient Rome setting whenever it gets in the way of some gameplay contrivance, and instead opts for some silly fantasy nonsense. The worst offender being a Roman coliseum that can transform itself into different environments. Rather than simply have a battle in an ordinary arena, which would have been much more impressive, you're forced into a silly chapter that's just an excuse to re-use a bunch of the game's earlier art assets.
Tacked on, almost as an afterthought, is a collection of online modes. Tacked on is the right term to use too, since the multiplayer gameplay is a carbon copy of the single player experience. Similar to God of War: Ascension's multiplayer, you pledge your allegiance to one of four gods, which simply means choosing between one of the four abilities Marius had in the main game (health gain, damage boost etc.). Other than that it plays out the same as the story; you hack up a bunch of enemies and then plough through some execution animations, except now you have to contend with the most annoying commentator voice screaming at you after each kill.
There's a very loose RPG element where you purchase upgrades through gold earned by winning online matches. It's dull, shallow and comes with a constant option to purchase extra gold with real money (in other words, pay to win faster) which also creeps into the single player upgrades too. This usually means that, if you happen to access your upgrades in the heat of battle, it's not uncommon to hit the "Buy Gold" button and be thrown into the store while you angrily jab the B button to jump back out. It gives the impression that all of the online modes were simply there to grab a few extra quid from some players' pockets.
Beyond some admittedly gorgeous looking graphics and locations, Ryse: Son of Rome is an incredibly shallow game. Many of its gameplay elements feel like afterthoughts rather than carefully considered mechanics. It's understandable that Crytek were designing a game specifically to highlight the Xbox One's capabilities but when that typically means foisting half-baked ideas onto the player, it doesn't inspire much confidence. With a little bit of love and attention, especially towards the story, Ryse could have been a short but sweet game that told an epic tale of revenge set against the backdrop of Ancient Rome. As it stands what we have is a clunky action title set in some bizarre fantasy-Rome.
Come on, Xbox, you can do better.
Ryse: Son of Rome was released on November 22nd as a launch title for the Xbox One.
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