Ryse: Son of Rome Hands-On Preview – When in Rome, Fight Like Batman
Ryse: Son of Rome has changed, thankfully, and isn’t the same game we saw at E3 2013. What at first seemed like QTE Rome: The Game has morphed in a few months into something more like Batman: Arkham Civitas. The combat system clearly takes a few pages from Rocksteady’s perfect mix of rhythm and improvisation to create something that’s easy to pick up, difficult to master–and it’s bloody, gritty, and takes place in a sort of “greatest” hits version of Roman history.
You play as Marius Titus, a Roman Centurion with a chip on his shoulder, seeking revenge for a loss we won’t spoil ahead of launch. Suffice to say, Rome is invaded by barbarians, and Marius is tasked with driving them back–first out of the city, then to shipwrecked beaches, and (at the conclusion of the demo I played) into dark forests full of bonfires and barbarians wearing bone helmets.
It’s a visually impressive game, which is to be expected from Crytek–mostly notable during combat, which plays out with the flair of choreographed battle scenes from films like Troy, or 300. Two key elements are borrowed from the Batman Arkham series: a sense of rhythm (or “heartbeat,” as Game Director P.J. Esteves put it), which rewards the player with more fluid sequences and higher combo counters; and the “block/parry” mechanic, which allows Marius to sort of shield-bash on a dime when attacked from any direction. You could probably button-mash your way to victory, but you’d be missing out. When you’re playing it right, being attacked from all sides leads to careful, considered combat scenes that look pretty awesome.
The game’s “perfect hit” system is its deepest layer. If you begin your second strike right as the first strike lands, you’ll achieve a perfect hit, and see a message on screen informing you of this. When you achieve upwards of 10 unbroken perfect hits, Marius will go into what’s called “Burning Eagle” mode. This greatly increases the power of each strike, and sends enemies into an executable state with a single hit. Playing the game’s “Normal” difficult setting, this was easier said than done. Trying my damnedest, I could only string together about four perfect hits in a row, before I was hit, which resets your combo counter. Once you understand the basic flow of combat, this is why you’ll charge into combat, for another chance to rack up perfect hits.
When enemies are hit enough times, an overhead icon appears indicating they’re ready to be executed. With a trigger-pull the combat transitions into slow motion, and enemies will glow in a series of successive colors, matching buttons. Blue for X, yellow for Y, of course. Successfully push the right buttons, and Marius will send the enemy to Hades in an extended, bloody and oftentimes dismembering takedown. There are apparently over 100 different mo-capped executions like this.
As you engage in battle, you’ll earn XP, which can be spent on a somewhat complicated upgrade system. You can purchase new executions, which fall into categories based on the benefits they provide. For instance, there’s an entire tree of health-upgrading executions, which replenish your health when used. Likewise, there are XP-gain executions, and “focus” executions–which earn you more focus energy. Focus energy can be expended to activate a sort of temporary bullet time, allowing you to fly around the battle field and slice dudes while they move at a fraction of the speed.
The upgrade system goes deeper, though, allowing you to unlock general stat perks, like being able to activate Burning Eagle after fewer and fewer perfect hits. It’s the kind of system you’ll need to spend some time with.
This is all quite a lot of power to give a Roman soldier, and a looming question I have is will Ryse: Son of Rome be too easy? It’s difficult to tell, as the builds we played were all but maxed out on upgrades, so I cut through barbarians like butter. Crytek didn’t help the game’s post-E3 reception when they described its combat system as “mashing to mastery,” either. Perhaps it was a mere poor choice of words, as you could easily describe the Arkham series, or even God of War, as being “mashable,” couldn’t you? Mashing doesn’t seem to be a deal breaker in and of itself, but the overall package is a difficult balance. The game needn’t be Ninja Gaiden, or Dark Souls, but it needs to pack a serious challenge, and you need to be gradually punished for sloppy play. If you suck, you should die, period. If the game treats the action game crowd like babies, Ryse very well may fall. Challenge and reward will be key to the game’s final success, methinks.
Another pilum in my side as I played was the complete lack of enemy variety. There were shockingly (and sometimes comically) few individual enemy models. I killed dozens of barbarian twins, sometimes what seemed like octuplets when attackings in groups. My favorite of these moments was executing a fat, long-haired barbarian, only to have to immediately parry his fat, long-haired twin brother from behind.
Lastly, I’m unsure how much variety there is here. This is a fun game. You storm around slicing dudes up, and the combat has depth. But what else is there? I didn’t play long enough to get an answer to that question, but it needs something else I wasn’t able to see–a rich, dramatic and involving story; insane set pieces, battles and objectives. An old music teacher of mine had a saying (that he used on a struggling jazz drummer): triplet drum fills are like cherries; delicious, until you have too many. What else Ryse has on the menu I’m not sure.
Lastly lastly, what about the story? Is it a mere revenge tale? Will Roman political intrigue play a role? What about the gods? Generally, how will Crytek appropriate the wealth of ancient Roman culture into the game to make it more interesting?
What’s here for sure is a great looking, fun action game set in ancient Rome, full of gore, and solid acting. That’s at least a good start, and more than I initially thought.