"Till death do us part." Aw. Rarely, though, has the aforementioned parting arrived as quickly as it does in the marriage of King Jason to his Queen, Alceme. Her hand in his, the lovers lean in for a kiss that will mark the start their life together. But the consummation is over before it begins: Alceme sinks to the ground, all vacant eyes and bluing lips, an arrow shaft quivering from her bosom. Jason spins on his heel to see a group of Ionian archers fleeing across the palace ramparts, then turns back to see his wife dead and his heart broken.
It's far from a subtle Greek tragic opening, but Liquid Entertainment's take on the mythical premise is certainly a swift and efficient one. In less than 30 seconds we've established a hero, a villain, a motive and a revenge theme that will draw nations and heroes to arms. Still, as you sprint towards an enemy soldier, dodging his flaming arrows before thrusting your spear through his neck in a single, swift and fluid motion, one thing is clear: Euripides, this is not.
The Jason of this action-RPG, much like the character depicted in the 1960s Don Chaffey film of the myth, is an alpha male pin-up with an improbably large shield and a six-pack that ripples all the way up to his neck. The first twenty minutes of the game take the form of a pursuit, where you steamroller through enemy ranks, slicing torsos from limbs with enraged ease, switching between your sword, spear and mace with a single tap of a button in a big, dumb, gruesome action sequence.
The mechanics are straightforward: you have a light attack, a heavy attack, and a shield barge that can be used to shove enemies away from you. You can combo attacks together, switch weapons mid-string, and apply modifiers to your attacks for special moves. The range of offensive interactions is adequate to start with, if not generous, and while the combat is fast and fluid and the gore designed to shock, there's really nothing here we haven't seen before. So far, so Conan.
When you finally reach Alceme's killer, and either pause to let him utter his final words or break his face and let the life drain through the wound (your choice), there's a clue that this is an action-RPG with a slight difference. Text, subtle text, flashes up on screen: 'You drove the Ionians from your palace in Ioclus', and then 'You avenged Alceme's death by killing Ephoros'. The proclamation of these deeds is more than mere narrative underscoring. In Rise of the Argonauts, deeds are the currency by which you grow stronger, not only in terms of the plot but also in terms of your power as an interactive entity.
It's clear that in making Rise of the Argonauts the Liquid Entertainment team decided to tear up the Diablo/Dungeons & Dragons rule book in search of a third way. Every feat you achieve in the game, every fetch mission completed, every 'convey this message to my dying parents' errand, every titan toppled, diplomacy struck and moment of justice meted is rewarded with a deed point (our term). This deed can then be attributed to one of the four Greek gods who preside over the game: Ares, Hermes, Athena and Apollo.
Each of the gods embodies a different set of traits: Ares strength, power and warfare, Athena wisdom and judgment, Hermes cunning and manipulation, and Apollo grace and mercy. In reward for attributing a deed to a god they, in turn, bestow a gift on you: upgraded resilience to enemy attacks, proficiency in a certain weapon type, a magical healing move and so on.
Conversations in the game follow the template laid out by Mass Effect with a ring of possible responses to choose from, and your choices are marked with a symbol showing which god they favor. They can range from angry and rude to supplicating and merciful, and your manner also comes to define your character - Jason soon becoming the sum of your choices.
It's an interesting system but, as this is a game built on fighting fundamentals, one which perhaps doesn't provide the range of reward types and nuance one might hope for. The vast majority of rewards from the gods you serve have a combat theme, upgrading different aspects of your power, always working towards making you a stronger and better fighter. Indeed, the 25 god powers, which are mapped to the d-pad, almost all result in impressive-looking death and destruction, revealing the keynote of violence that runs throughout.
That's not to say that Rise of the Argonauts is wholly red in tooth and claw. For the first hour or two, as Jason decides that he will not part with Alceme at death, that he will instead travel to Delphi to speak with the oracle and find a way to bring her back to life (namely, the golden fleece), most of your time is spent carrying out errands and mini-missions for your loyal subjects. These NPCs speak at great length of the world they inhabit, of the bravest and best of their nation, lending the game an almost educational undercurrent even if it is a quintessentially Hollywood approach to Greek mythology.
Brought to life with Unreal Engine 3, the game matches the graphical quality of rival titles that have enjoyed budgets ten times its own. That said, the build we played did stutter from time to time, suffered from sticky scenery that Jason snagged on and every 40-50 feet the screen would momentarily black out, presumably to load in new assets from the disc. If these issues are resolved by time of release the game will impress technically, its bright colour palettes, shimmering seas and lush greenery a happy antidote to the forthcoming long winter nights.
Rise of the Argonauts has enjoyed some creative game design in its foundations which appear to have led to a solid and interesting world now that it's nearing completion. Whether the overarching mechanics can lift the game from a mere action brawler, and whether the world of Greek gods and heroes can inspire players to stick around long enough to find out, remains to be seen, but if God of War's success is anything to go by, there's still a thirst for ancient blood among the ranks of its target audience, which may answer both points. We'll find out in just over a month.
Rise of the Argonauts is due out for PS3, 360 and PC in November.