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February 7, 2014

5

Xbox One Review – Ryse: Son of Rome (2013)

by Master Pillow

Ryse: Son of Rome has had an incredibly rough time with the diehard gamer crowd after its less than spectacular unveiling at E3 2013 where viewers basically eviscerated it based on its quick-time-event (QTE) laden gameplay which, made the title seem as if it were a shallow experience that was all pomp and flash with no substance.  In hindsight, developer Crytek might have avoided such a messy PR debacle if they instead showcased just the combat mechanics as opposed to the QTE executions but in the end it probably would not have saved them from the rather mediocre launch scores given by gaming websites.  However, is Ryse really a short and completely superfluous experience as many deemed it or rather does it have a few hidden secrets up its sleeve?

Ryse: Son of Rome casts players as young Marius Tidus who arrives triumphantly home after becoming a centurion only to watch as his family is murdered before his eyes by Celtic barbarians who have somehow breached the sanctity of the capital.  Enraged at this turn of events Marius vows revenge and accompanies Commander Vitallion to Britain to subdue the uprising led by King Oswald and his daughter Boudica.

The game itself is your standard third person hack-and-slash action title where players control Marius through the single-player campaign that has him fighting through throngs of barbarian Britons in order to satiate his bloodlust for revenge.  Obviously, there’s a lot more going on in the story besides this but suffice it to say, the narrative does at least try to add a few twists and turns that attempt to take the story in a different direction that initially presented.  Still, if you are a staunch lover of Roman history it has to be said that you are probably going to go climb a wall in frustration as the developers have truly played loose with the facts.

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Controlling Marius will seem like second nature to most gamers with player movement mapped to the analog sticks.   The game only really uses two buttons “X” for attack and “Y” for defense although Marius can evade/roll away with a quick flick of the analog stick.  For the most part, Ryse: Son of Rome funnels Marius down a pre-set linear path from one area to the next where the only goal is to kill every opponent in order to proceed.  Every now and then the game allows Marius to command other nearby troops but this feature isn’t particularly fleshed out as these sequences last mere minutes and usually have the player moving forward with his troops while under intense archery fire.  There are a few basic puzzles included but these are nothing more than hitting the right objects, although there is a bit more variety in end-of-stage bosses which require some critical thinking in order to learn their attack patterns.

Let’s be completely upfront here and state bluntly that Ryse: Son of Rome is a game that should have shipped with its default difficulty set to Centurion or Legendary as the experience is completely different than the vanilla button masher it seems to be.  On the lowest settings the game is a completely boorish experience where players need only mash two buttons over and over again for about 6-8 hours to complete.  Gamers who play Ryse this way are sure to be disappointed as the AI’s completely inebriated personality and total lack of strategy are completely off-putting to behold.  Played in this fashion the game has to rely solely on its astonishingly brilliant visuals to carry the entire load to enthrall players and unfortunately, no amount of eye candy can sustain the entire single player campaign.

However, setting the difficulty to Centurion turns the game into something completely different as the AI suddenly becomes smart enough to present a challenge for most players and the combat system of precision blocks, strikes and executions begins to shine.  Button mashing or blindly flailing away at opponents will get players killed in a flash and it really forces gamers to quickly adapt to the ebb and flow of combat where enemies need to be prioritized and dealt with in a certain order.  By learning how to timely block, evade and counter-attack the game quickly becomes a test of skill as players attempt to chain a series of actions together to get a bigger combo and thus, a higher score.

Not only is this wholly refreshing to pull off but there is the added benefit of a higher score as it usually translates into more experience gain.  The game has a decent RPG-inspired leveling system where the player is judged on everything he/she does and in the process gains needed points to increase skills.  Players can create customized characters that focus more on defense or offense or to give boosts and bonuses to characters around them.  Sure, it isn’t as deep a system as a traditional RPG but it manages to add flavor to the single-player campaign and allows gamers to customize to their play style.

One positive side-effect of mastering the combat system is watching how Marius effortlessly chains moves together in a fluid motion as there is something viscerally entertaining watching him take on a gang of 5-6 enemies all at once blocking, parrying, evading and countering each one with skill, until he can finish two of them in succession with gloriously bloody executions.

While some might lean towards the opinion that Ryse’s executions are the bane of its existence there is also no doubt that there is innate visceral pleasure in dispatching enemies with some seriously  blood-curdling moves that often chop off multiple limbs or send the pointy end of Marius’ sword straight through someone’s throat.  Many executions are environmentally enabled as well so dispatching enemies next to a wall will result in Marius bashing them into the bricks multiple times before finishing them off with a sword thrust.  Other areas showcase multiple spiky wooden barriers that Marius can use to skewer opponents like human shish-kebobs or the ever traditional fights on top of walls where enemies can be kicked off screaming to their deaths.

There is no doubting the executions look great but after a while they do get extremely repetitive and it doesn’t help that these are all pulled off by QTEs.  Yes, developer Crytek might call them something else but they are quick time events nonetheless where all players need to do is press the appropriately coloured button in sequence to successfully pull them off.  Then again, all these execution moves are not mandatory and it is quite possible to finish the entire game without resorting to using one, yet this is not the way to go since executions are an easy way in which to gain experience points.

While the gameplay shows surprising depth at high difficulty levels the one area in which Ryse has no peer on the Xbox One is in its graphics which should come as no surprise considering this is developer Crytek’s forte.  If you are looking for a game to demo to friends and family to show off the Xbox One’s power this is definitely it as it is a serious crowd-pleaser.  While diehard historians might guffaw at the stylized Roman architecture and uniforms the fact remains that the amount of detail present is simply awe-inspiring as are the many environments from Rome itself to the ghostly confines of a dense fog-infested forest at night.

Ryse is consistently beautiful in each and every level and it will take multiple playthroughs to see everything the game has to offer.   Indeed, many players will probably just stop Marius every now and then just to scroll around the scenery to see Crytek’s visual prowess at work. The scenery is so elaborately detailed that it really makes one wish that Microsoft quickly adds the ability to take screenshots much like the one implemented on Sony’s PS4.

At the same time, Ryse has a strong aural component from appropriately emotional stirring music to decent voice over work although, one can’t help but smile that once again a developer or movie maker has decided to employ actors with English accents for all the Roman roles.  It has indeed become a cliché itself and one day hopefully someone will have the fortitude to break from tradition and employ a different accent for those playing Romans.

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Narratively, Ryse is not going to win any awards whatsoever with a central plot that seems like a patchwork construct culled from other famous entertainment properties based on this time period.  Granted, this period of history is rather undermined no matter the medium but this makes the plot all the more lamentable that Crytek had to essentially model it on other famous titles such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  At one point in the game you almost expect the Emperor Nero to mimic Joaquin Phoenix’s famous thumbs up/down from the Gladiator film.  Indeed, Ryse also manages to take inspiration from films that have nothing to do with Rome, namely an amphibious assault beach landing that seems ripped straight from Saving Private Ryan.  Crytek certainly don’t try to hide the comparison as the achievement earned from completing this level is actually named, “Saving Private Marius.”

Ryse: Son of Rome also has a multiplayer component where players create their own gladiator and guide him through a series of increasingly difficult arenas to earn points.  These points can then be exchanged for gear or other accessories.  I have to admit that I have not put nearly as much time into this mode as the single-player campaign but what I experienced was indeed solid, albeit incredibly grinding.  The time needed to reach high-levels seems to be prohibitive and the only way in which to relieve boredom would be to play co-operatively over Xbox Live with a friend to tackle the various challenges.

In the end Ryse: Son of Rome really is nothing more than the modern spiritual successor of a game like Sega’s Golden Axe or even Streets of Rage where the name of the game is simple repetition and the goal is merely to keep replaying the single-player campaign over and over again in order to gain a higher score.  However, the same can be said of other recent hack-and-slash titles such as the considerably better reviewed Dragon’s Crown on the PS3/Vita as eventually players will realize that all that they are doing is grinding experience over and over on the same exact levels.

Although it might sound trite, if you are a fan of these sorts of games then there is actually much meat underneath Ryse’s visual splendor to discover as there are plenty of ways in which to chain moves or to perfect one’s killing spree.  The visuals alone will keep many entertained but more so than that, they are a strong indicator that the Xbox One is actually more powerful than many have theorized.  Ryse is to the Xbox One as Killzone Shadow Fall is to the PS4 – games in which their primary goal is to basically give gamers a glimpse into the potential future of the console.  Gamers can debate for years to come which one of these launch titles is more graphically impressive but it certainly bodes well that talented developers have been able to coax some striking visuals for launch.

With Ryse: Son of Rome developer Crytek has crafted a game with a strong decent core gameplay in which to build upon.  If they can add a ton of different enemies with varying degrees of competency and difficulty, as well as expand upon the combo system so that it feels much deeper like the Batman series of games (aka Arkham City & Arkham Asylum) then Ryse 2 might be something that takes the gaming press by surprise.  As it stands, Ryse is the sort of launch title that will please gamers who demand the prettiest visuals but take my advice and do yourself a favor by starting the game on the highest difficulty setting possible and I guarantee that you’ll come away with a much better appreciation of what Crytek was trying to accomplish.

**1/2 out of ****

Developed by Crytek
Published by Microsoft Game Studios
Released US: 11/22/2013
Released EU: 11/22/2013

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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