Platforms: Xbox One
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
I was not kind to Ryse: Son of Rome the first time around.
In my carefully titled Ryse: Son of Rome Preview Impressions piece, I lambasted Crytek's coming game for its heavy reliance on button-mashing and QTEs. This was coming out of Gamescom, mind, where we'd been privy only to a frenzied hack-and-slash co-op demo that I played through once with Carl by my side and then returned to slice my way through a day or two later with a bunch of strangers. Though I have a soft spot for games in this genre, I was left rather unimpressed.
After spending an hour or so getting to grips with the singleplayer component of the game last week at Microsoft's Xbox One showcase, however, let's say that my position has softened somewhat. We are not automatons, and so we get excited for and pass scorn on games just like anyone else. It would be remiss of me to suggest that I'd wandered into my session with Ryse with high hopes, it's important to note that. You never hope that a game is going to be bad, but from everything I'd seen and played, I was readying myself for a hatchet job.
But, to my pleasant surprise, I had a great time.
Not that the systems to Ryse really surprised me much at all. The game begins with Rome under attack and the emperor Nero beset on all sides of his palace by barbarians and rebels. The opening scenes have you stepping into the sandals of the game's protagonist -- Marius Titus -- and pushing forwards through swathes of bearded goons, chopping off limbs and ramming your shield into some throats. The goal is simple: get to the Emperor and kill everyone who stands in your way.
The control system takes much from Rocksteady's Batman titles, and that's no bad thing. The action is incredibly robust, the handling weighty. You have a sword, a shield, and later on a pilium or two to chuck about, and there's a smooth simplicity to everything: light and heavy attacks, a thrust and parry flow to the action that is particularly pleasing on higher difficulty levels, and enemy AI that aren't afraid to gang up on you, adapting their behaviour systems depending on who you decide to slice up first. Indeed, this particular game taught me a valuable lesson regarding false modesty. I don't consider myself to be a particularly skilled gamer, but I do know my way around this sub-genre. What was a yawn-worthy, blood-soaked grind on one difficulty setting became a genuinely challenging, rewarding experience on the next.
There are still quick-time events, but as I noted in my previous impressions video, the button prompts have been replaced by colour-coded character highlights. Instead of a big fat button popping into view when you trigger the execution state after lowering a foe's health enough, now their outlines will glow a certain colour, denoting the button you should press. It's a little thing, but it doesn't shatter the immersion the way an enormous icon can. The executions are basically the icing on the cake: visual rewards for beating up foes enough.
There are quite a few visual rewards.
Crytek have always made games that look beautiful, even if they've been somewhat lacking in other areas in more recent times. There's been a fair bit of fuss around the game since we learned that it's running natively at 900p (unsurprising given that it seems everyone but Turn 10 and Rare are struggling with making the Xbox One behave at 1080p), but make no mistake: Ryse looks absolutely stunning. It's an absolute feast for the eyes. If you want a game in your collection that makes your eyes weep with joy at the razzle-dazzle power of your next-gen Xbox One, then Ryse is that game.
I've scoffed frequently at the mere whisper of the word "cinematic". There's critical frustration in that, to be sure -- why are we so insistent on trying to replicate the best of another medium when we have something utterly unique in terms of interaction that we can call our own? Being cinematic is, by itself, not worthy of praise. It's not something to aim for, it's a tool to deliver a message, or a story, or a feeling, nothing more. Being cinematic shouldn't be a goal, rather it's the tool to get you there. After speaking to design director Patrick Esteves and playing Ryse for a decent amount of time, I think the team behind this game really understand that. Ryse doesn't want to break new ground in terms of substance, Crytek have never done that. But they do want to drop jaws with style.
Whether or not you go in for that will depend on two things. The first is how much you buy into the spectacle and the sounds of the setting. I love swords and sandals stories in general, whether rooted in history or fabricated entirely, and Ryse is a game that take the setting of one of my favourite periods in history and channels the entertainment we've grown to love over the past decade or so from Gladiator to Rome, from Spartacus: Blood and Sand to Lord of the Rings. Though historically vague in terms of specific accuracy, the spectacle is astounding. The capture work that has gone into Marius is outstanding and, more excitingly, that level of motion capture and bespoke animation has been used to prepare a number of Titus' adversaries too, ensuring that each of the bosses and sub-bosses he faces will have their own combat idiosyncrasies. Does that extend to their AI? It's still too early to tell, but Esteves hinted towards some adversaries later on in the game who would not only test Titus from a combat standpoint, but who'd be given real narrative purpose as well. One in particular, he suggested, would become the Joker to Titus' Batman.
The camerawork in this game -- the manner in which Crytek have gone about framing the action -- is truly impressive indeed, but I can see it being divisive too, which brings us onto our second point: how much bloodletting can you handle? I mentioned Turn 10 a little earlier, and I thought of them again as time slowed down during one of Marius Titus' execution sequences and the camera swooped in and out and around the flying limbs and brutal slashes, but only because of Autovista mode really. The difference being, of course, that one casts a loving camera over super shiny cars, and the other seeks to illustrate in cinematic detail how effective the finishing move you've pulled off has just been; both use the same broad toolset, though, to provide audio-visual rewards. Some will be switched off by the uberviolence immediately, others will appreciate the brutal spectacle for what it is, and thank the gods that the DVR auto-recorded that last epic boss fight.
I'll be honest, I enjoyed my time with Ryse: Son of Rome, and I really didn't expect to. That's not to say it's a great or even a good game, I can't make that value judgement yet because I haven't seen enough of it and I'm still really worried that extended play will ultimately prove shallow and repetitive. There are progression systems to unlock more execution moves, combos, and finishers; there were little segments of objective-based gameplay that broke up the core action, such as defending the palace gates with a ballista; there are little perks (nicely accessed from the D-pad) that add a little tactical depth by giving meaning to the executions on a gameplay level (e.g. increased health or XP if you pull off a better execution). But all of these will mean very little without an interesting and diverse array of enemies to face.
Still, I couldn't stop coming back over to the Ryse area for another quick go in between interviews and appointments. I'm not going to do a full U-turn (though given the console in question, that might be apt) and proclaim Ryse to be a masterpiece. But I can say that I had fun playing it, that genre fans will get a kick out of it, and that I want to see it through from start to finish.