When Crytek - the people behind the likes of Far Cry and Crysis - announce a new action-adventure title set in the Roman Empire, you think you'd pay attention. However, that isn’t exactly what happened when Codename Kingdoms was unveiled at E3 2010. Announced with a simple teaser, the reveal was almost totally devoid of information and didn't exactly spark up a lot of hype. In 2011, the game was renamed Ryse and the known details about it were expanded to include the fact that it was to be an Xbox 360 Kinect game; after that, it more or less disappeared from the public eye.
That all changed when Microsoft announced the Xbox One console in May this year, and revealed that the game (now titled Ryse: Son of Rome) would be an exclusive, fully-fledged Xbox One launch title, with Kinect features relegated to controlling your squad. At the prospect of a next-gen, CryEngine fuelled, Roman-themed hack and slash game, heads were finally starting to turn.
Ryse puts you in the sandals of Marius Titus, a Roman footsoldier who, following the brutal murder of his family, rises through the ranks to become a General and save the Roman Empire from a barbarian invasion. It’s your standard revenge narrative - if you’ve played God of War or seen a Quentin Tarantino film, nothing about this story will be new to you. The plot won’t be winning any awards for originality, and frankly does little to engage you in an otherwise beautiful world, but it’s functional and serves its purpose. That purpose, of course, is giving you a reason to wade through thousands of hairy barbarians in gratuitously violent fashion.
And boy, is it violent. Combat is largely built around setting up opportunities to use visceral executions, with a standard array of offensive and defensive maneuvers letting you whittle down enemies’ health until a little skull appears over their head prompting you to finish them off. The combat itself is a simple case of blocking, counterattacking, and using a shield bash move to open defensive foes, but tight, responsive controls mean that this is a lot of fun - at first.
“At first,” you ask? Well, as tight as the combat is, a lack in enemy variety means it gets very stagnant very quickly. Making matters worse, it doesn’t take long before you learn that repeatedly pressing X-X-Y ad infinitum is pretty much your go-to combo for almost every enemy in the game. The idea of having to use a shield bash (Y) to open up a defensive enemy to sword attacks (X) is neat, but any sense of excitement is lost when you learn that the vast majority of the enemies will reliably block your third sword swing in a row, every time.
Boss battles are - surprisingly - even worse, and are frankly some of the most boring boss fights I’ve ever encountered. For the first three quarters of the game, bosses are simply bulkier versions of standard enemies, and fall to the same basic combo. It’s not until the second to last chapter of the game that the first real boss appears, but he offers little respite from tedium. This boss, and every other one thereafter, is simply a case of waiting for their attack, parrying it, and counterattacking with your three-hit combo, over and over again until they fall.
But, as I said, the combat is largely about setting you up to execute foes, which can be incredibly satisfying. The game boasts just under 100 unique execution animations, which are a real pleasure to watch, in a "that guy got his arm chopped off and then got stabbed in the throat" kind of way. That said, some animations are much more common than others, and there’s only so many times you can watch someone stomp on a downed enemy’s face before diminishing returns start to kick in.
Proving that Quick Time Events are now more or less ubiquitous in gaming, they show up during these cinematics to try and give you a sense of control over the brutality. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) you can’t fail them - pressing the wrong buttons, or even pressing nothing at all, simply results in less bonus experience or health gained.
Which brings me to one Ryse’s most ingenious, if minor, gameplay elements. At any point in the game, you can switch between four “perks”, which determine what rewards you get for an execution. Running low on health? Switch to the health regeneration perk, and your finishers will help you recover; a few experience points short of that upgrade you’ve been eyeing? The experience perk and a brutal murder or two will give you what you need.
You'll occasionally have to undertake other tasks as the leader of a Roman battalion, like issuing orders to your troops or marching a phalanx across enemy lines, but these are throwaway moments that are few and far between, and offer little to spice up the experience.
Like many games today, Ryse has a multiplayer mode, though it’s not much to write home about. It’s co-op only, pitting you and a friend against wave after wave of enemies in the Colosseum and tasking you to undertake certain objectives, such as securing and defending a post. I can see it being fun with friends in short bursts, but it’s probably not something you’ll want to invest a lot of time in. Especially considering that earning gold to buy new gear for your gladiator takes a long, long time - unless you’re willing to shell out for microtransactions, that is.
Where Ryse really does excel is in the visual department, which is unsurprising, with it being a Crytek game. Of all the Xbox One launch titles I’ve played, this is one of only two that really looks to me like a next-gen game (the other being Forza 5).
The sheer level of detail in the texturing is mindblowing. Whether it’s the back of Marius’ armour, which you’re looking at for 90% of the game, or a dusty urn hidden down a back alley of Rome that you might never see through the course of the game, Crytek have spared no expense in making sure that everything looks as lifelike as possible.
Character models, while still identifiably computer generated (console technology hasn’t advanced that much), are the most detailed and authentic I’ve ever seen, with every wrinkle, freckle, and blemish there for the world to see.
Environments are realistic to the point that they’re more or less indiscernible from photos. Not only are they absolutely stunning to look at, the locations you’ll visit are impressively varied - considering the entirety of the game could just as likely take place on the streets of Rome.
As well as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, which you’d expect to see in a game like this, you’ll travel to the far corners of the Roman Empire, waging war in the dense forests and foreboding swamplands of Britannia. And somehow, no small detail is lost, despite the demands of recreating a natural landscape in an authentic manner.
Still, beautiful visuals can only do so much to redeem a game, and as beautiful as Ryse is to look at, it’s still more than a bit underwhelming to play. Which is sad, because, with a bit more thought put into the game design side of things, this could have been the Xbox One’s standout launch title.