Version tested: PSP
The real Spartans were some of the Ancient World's most brutally effective soldiers; a fiercely disciplined and heavily armoured military force. In Zack Snyder's movie of Frank Miller's graphic novel, 300, they wear swimming trunks and sandals and have CGI six-packs tracked on to their abdomens as they swan around spilling gallons of Persian blood with balletic grace and slow-motion abandon. The game of the film of the comic book is an attempt to distil that Hollywoodized historical violence into a handheld battlefield brawler with a similar sense of style.
Like the film and the graphic novel before it, the game features its fair share of mealy mouthed, gruff-voiced, buff-bodied males, along with slo-mo violence and visceral blood-spilling. And like the film and the graphic novel before it, the game depicts the heroic stand taken by a small band of Spartans against the encroaching might of the Persian empire at the Battle of Thermopylae. In the game, you control King Leonidas of Sparta, the chap who stayed behind with just 300 of his countrymen and 700 Thespians in order to delay a much greater force commanded by Xerxes I.
After the game kicks off with a montage of comic book images, the action commences in the middle of battle, revealing itself to be a fairly standard, uninspired brawler: hit enemies with a heavy attack, light attack, or a shield attack, and string attacks together to unleash death-dealing combos. There's lots of blood, and as you'd expect from a game in which 300 Spartans dismember and maim millions of enemies, not much subtlety (indeed the stats pages record the number of decapitations and dismemberments you inflict on enemies).
As you wade through the Persian forces, hacking and slashing as you go, you build up Wrath by hitting enemies. This can then be used to unleash enhanced attacks (to deal more damage than usual or knock over heavily armoured opponents), or, when a gauge is filled, to perform special Battle Skills. There are four of these to acquire over the course of the game, and they're implemented using the d-pad to recover health, increase damage, or to make 'time itself appear to slow down'. Indeed they're the only way to recover health, so the only way to survive is to kill and maim - which, of course, perfectly captures the essence of the film and the comic.
You also acquire something called 'Kleos' as you chop and slay your way across the battlefield, which allows you to upgrade Leonidas, granting him better skills or equipment. Indeed choosing the right equipment is crucial to the game. As you come across different types of enemy you'll need to switch from your sword and shield (good against unarmoured enemies) to your spear and shield (good against armoured or shield-wielding enemies). Later in the game you'll even be able to eschew defence and opt for the more attacking option of dual swords.
One neat touch in the game is the darkening sky that presages an incoming volley of Persian arrows (reflecting the real-life wisecrack made by Dienekes and reported by Herodotus: "he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we will fight in the shade.'"). Such volleys punctuate the action throughout the game, requiring you to hit L and R in order to duck under your shield to dodge the lethal hail of fire.
But that's it for the neat touches. In practice, the Wrath meter and Battle Skills, and swapping between weapons, simply hamper the fluidity of the combat, as do the sections where Leonidas lines up with his troops to form a phalanx. Fighting in this densely-packed formation, which formed the basis of ancient Greek warfare, simply requires you to keep your Command bar filled by pushing forward and killing things in your path before they inflict damage on the phalanx. It's neither fun nor challenging.
And that, in a nutshell, is 300: March to Glory. Solid, but uninspiring. The narrative is sustained by a flashback structure, and there are plenty of unlockables, including movie trailers, film stills and concept art (and various interviews with Frank Miller in which he butchers classical history with all the savagery of one of his six-packed Spartans and betrays a frighteningly superficial understanding of historical haircuts). But the combat feels slow and unresponsive, particularly when Leonidas is wielding a spear, or when he's required to build up his Wrath meter to damage bosses. And as with so many PSP titles, the lack of that second Analog stick results in an occasionally wayward camera. So while it sort of captures the essence of Miller's stylish Spartan blood-letting, it never really does it justice.
4 / 10